‘Strangers On A Train’ (1951) typifies why Alfred Hitchcock’s movies are still lauded today. The movie is based on the Patricia Highsmith novel (who also wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley) and the screenplay was partly written by legendary hardboiled crime novelist par excellence Raymond Chandler. With writing talent like this behind it, Hitchcock already had a very strong foundation on which to construct his iconic movie vision.
The movie starts with a scenario that I am sure most of us have experienced – the protagonist Guy Haines (Farley Grainger) is travelling on a train minding his own business when a fellow passenger decides to have a conversation with him whether he wants to or not. As the conversation develops it would appear that this is far from being just any old “stranger on a train” as suggested by the title. The disturber of the peace – Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) – seems to know too much about tennis ace Guy for this to be a total coincidence. If this is not creepy enough Bruno starts to talk about murder and when he finally reveals his dastarly proposal to Guy the dashing young sportsman does his best to extricate himself from the plot and this very sinister individual.
Guy is a classic Hitchcock hero. He gets caught up in a claustrophobic situation, entirely beyond his control and we see him fighting to escape it. Bruno is also a classic Hitchcock villain, creepy and unbalanced, and his unhealthy attachment to his mother makes him somewhat a precursor to Norman Bates in ‘Psycho.’
Another very clever element of this movie is Hitchcock’s use of objects. The way he zooms in on Miriam’s glasses as they break and then returns to the theme of glasses shows how our director was a master psychologist. Also his use of Guy’s lighter is a classic Hitchcock McGuffin, a plot device to keep us interested. All this is intensified with Ray Heindorf’s score perfectly designed to interact with the plot.
The movie comes to a climactic ending with a hugely dramatic scene on a merry-go-round – a scene so dangerous that Hitchcock said he would never do anything like it again. This movie still stands up over half a century later because it not only captivates us with the suspense driven plot but because we empathise with Guy’s sense of powerlessness at what are truly dire circumstances. It also poses very searching ethical questions about the nature of our own moral character. We all know that murder is wrong but none of us can deny that like Guy we may have felt like doing it at one time or another. How we deal with those feelings is very important. I think Hitchcock also shows us that although Bruno is unbalanced that he is still human and that when we see his end it is ultimately tragic and we do feel for him.
If you have never seen any Hitchcock this is definitely a good place to start but let’s hope that if you do have a regular commute that it doesn’t make you unnecessarily paranoid!
By Andy McKinney