Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Strangers on a Train (1951), Hitchcock Friday #11

Strangers on a Train is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular and admired movies. And it lives up to its reputation.

By 1950 Hitchcock’s career was looking just a bit shaky. The move to Hollywood in the 40s had produced mixed fortunes - some major hits and some flops, some critically acclaimed movies and others that left critics a little unconvinced. After having a major success with Spellbound he made The Paradine Case, the one Hitchcock movie almost everybody hates. He followed it up with a couple of out-and-out failures, Rope and Under Capricorn. In 1950 he returned to Britain and made Stage Fright, a movie that arouses strong negative emotions among many fans because it includes a blatant cheat (although it's actually quite fun).

By 1951 he really needed a major popular and critical success. He responded by returning to Hollywood and putting his penchant for experimentation on hold and making a classic Hitchcock-style suspense thriller. Strangers on a Train put him back on top in a big way.

Tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) has a problem. He wants to marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll) but his wife Miriam refuses to give him a divorce.

Guy meets Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) on a train. Bruno seems harmless, if a bit over-friendly and a bit odd. Bruno tells Guy about his plan for the perfect murder. It involves exchanging murders. Bruno will murder Guy’s wife. It will be safe because Bruno has no possible motive for the murder. Guy will then murder Bruno’s father. Guy will be safe because he has no motive for that murder. Guy assumes that Bruno is joking and thinks no more about it.

But Bruno was serious. And he does murder Guy’s wife. Which is awkward for Guy - Bruno has no motive for murdering Guy’s wife but Guy has a very strong motive, and he has no alibi.

Things get worse when Bruno insists that Guy murder his father. If Guy refuses then Bruno will make sure Guy gets convicted as an accessory in his wife’s murder.

It’s the sort of nasty twisted plot that makes for a great Hitchcock movie. Raymond Chandler received a screen writing credit although there is some doubt as to how much he contributed to the final draft. The script was based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name.

Farley Granger is very good as Guy. Ruth Roman is adequate if rather bland but it’s Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia who gets the plum female rôle as Anne’s kooky likeable murder-obsessed kid sister Barbara. A Hitchcock movie should ideally include some characteristic Hitchcock black humour. In this case that is mostly provided by Patricia Hitchcock and she’s an absolute hoot.

The most interesting character is of course Bruno. He’s disturbing right from the start. He’s obviously unstable and obsessive. He’s also perhaps sexually ambiguous. This is merely suggested in a subtle way and that works in the film’s favour. Too much emphasis on that element would have been a distraction since the real key to Bruno’s character is that he is so self-centred that he’s become delusional. He sees himself as the centre of the universe. He has never grown up. Robert Walker’s performance is wonderfully unsettling.

I like rewatching movies because once I’ve seen the movie and I know what’s going to happen I can concentrate not on the story, but on how the story is being told. That way you pick up little details you’ll probably miss the first time. In this case there’s the scene where Bruno and Guy first meet on the train. The venetian blinds on the window cast barred horizontal shadows on Bruno, but not on Guy sitting next to him. We’re immediately given a subtle hint (which we’re probably only going to notice subconsciously) that maybe Bruno is a tiny bit sinister.

There are countless marvellous Hitchcock touches - the stuff with eyeglasses, the visually distorted murder scene, the carnival scenes and the wild carousel scene at the end. This is Hitchcock at the top of his game as far as visual mastery is concerned. Compared to Lifeboat and Rope this is a more conventional suspense thriller, but executed with breathtaking skill.

Of course there is one extra disturbing element which elevates this film to true greatness - the ambiguity of Guy as a character. He plays the innocent throughout the movie but subconsciously at least he really did want his wife dead, he really did benefit enormously from her death and he wastes no time on regrets about her death. So one level Bruno was quite right in thinking that Guy wanted his wife murdered. Guy just didn’t want to take the risk or shoulder the guilt. Perhaps Bruno really did understand Guy. By killing Miriam Bruno lets Guy off the hook. The fact that Guy could be seen as being partially complicit in Bruno’s plan adds a nice touch of cynical nastiness to the movie.

In fact there’s even more moral ambiguity in this movie. Senator Morton, Anne, Barbara, Guy - not one of these people expresses even the slightest regret about Miriam’s murder. In fact they’re obviously delighted by it. Their only concern is that Guy might have to take the rap, and there might be a scandal. And Anne certainly suspects that Guy did kill Miriam. The fact that Hitchcock has manoeuvred us into seeing Guy as the innocent victim even though he really did want his wife dead make us complicit in Guy’s morally dubious outlook. 

One of Hitchcock’s best movies. Very highly recommended.


  1. Dee, good write-up of the Classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller STRANGERS ON A TRAIN(filmed 1950, released 1951). I first recall viewing this movie on Memphis, Tennessee's WHBQ Channel 13 DIALING FOR DOLLARS MOVIE in 1976. I liked this twisted morality tale
    then and more so, today.

    Here's a coincidence for you. Currently I'm finally getting around to reading Patricia Highsmith's novel STRANGERS ON A TRAIN(1950), which is her first novel. I've been meaning to read it for years. Believe you me, the novel and Hitchcock's movie are two different entities, to say the least. I haven't finished the novel yet, but I'm almost sure it won't have the same ending. About the only things the novel and movie have in common are the name and someone is murdered.

    1. I read Patricia Highsmith's novel recently as well. It's interesting, but I definitely prefer the movie. And yes, there are hugely significant differences.

    2. Dee, I finished Highsmith's novel and I prefer Hitchcock's visual presentation. The novel is okay for some other readers, but just not for me. There just wasn't anyone to root for and the long-winded philosophical head game passages just seem to slow down the pacing and decreased the tension. I thought the ending was a letdown.

      For me, the STRANGERS ON A TRAIN novel was somewhat of a disappointment considering its exalted reputation.

      Currently, I'm reading Peter Stone's novel CHARADE(1963) and I think it's really good. The movie CHARADE(filmed 1962-63, released 1963) is a favorite of mine.

    3. Walter, I agree completely on Highsmith's novel. I was disappointed by it. It's the only novel of hers that I've read.

      Hitchcock's movie is definitely superior to the novel.

  2. This the film that kickstarted Hitchcock's hugely successful run, both critically and commercially, in the 1950s.
    I concur with your point about being able to focus on other aspects of a movie once the need to keep track of an unfamiliar plot is no longer an issue, it's one of the great pleasures of revisiting films.

    1. There are several Hitchcock movies that I've watched half a dozen times (Rebecca, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Birds, Marnie, Strangers On a Train) and they still manage to fascinate me. I keep finding new things to admire.

      And Hitchcock's best movies all have at least some degree of ambiguity.