Strangers on a Train (1951): Still Rollin’ 65-Years Later – By Baron Craze

 

In 1951, Alfred Hitchcock began an incredible ride of creativity in Hollywood earning without any equal the true title (still held by him) ‘the master of suspense’ that started truly with this psychological thriller. All trickery and manipulation from a simple idle conservation to suggestive reasoning, working to lull the audience into a trance, all as the train rumbles down the tracks, and shakes slowly back and forth as a baby in a cradle. Hitchcock’s stellar film even 65-years later still a teaching tool for understanding characters and those seeking the simplicity of creating genuine powerful tension with a company of fluid camera positioning and movement. Basing his film off a novel by Patricia Highsmith, purchasing the rights for $7500 anonymously reducing the cost, a concept he later used and fine-tuned for his film Psycho (1960). Then writer Whitfield Cook worked the book into an adaption for writing the script, at which point an unknown writer Czenzi Ormonde and crime writer Raymond Chandler constructed a beautiful screenplay. Although initially upon the release of Strangers on a Train which had a budget of then $1.2million (approximately the cost in today’s market of $10.9million) the film had mixed reviews and but slowly the movie garnished and earned a nice profit margin, and since has become a classic piece of cinema. Since, 1951 Highsmith’s well-layered novel and rich characters earned a radio play, and theater performance, as Hitchcock’s film remade in 1996 as television movie called Once You Meet a Stranger.

The first encounter between the leading men starts very innocently almost a jovial manner, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) recognizes a local tennis playing celebrity, Guy Haines (Farley Granger, who starred in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948)), on an East Coast train, and he seems to know everything about him, particularly thanks to the nasty tabloids. Bruno fully aware that Guy trapped in a marriage to the cold-hearted, known adulterer Miriam (Laura Elliott) and in a relationship with Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), who comes from a respected rich political connected family which could help in Guy’s future prospects. Bruno suggests to Guy, hypothetically, they do “crisscross murders” since they don’t know each other, they would never be suspects.  This line of thought amoral clearly and yet opens dark humor, another Hitchcock trademark. Guy patronizingly agrees with Bruno who acts on signal to proceed with the plan, as he excuses himself, from the oddly turning conversation, unknown the deadly puzzle pieces already aligning themselves. Guy never agreed to Bruno’s maniacal proposal, he also never said no to it in a way that Bruno could not mistake his intentions, a solution to all his problems entered willing and unwelcome, instilling the silence in the golden rule. Bruno locates and begins to track down Miriam carefully stalking from a distance, on the prowl to an amusement park, eventually strangling her in a Tunnel of Love ride. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how easy it is for this stranger easy attaches himself to his victim, a version of the Venus flytrap but why not as far as she knows there is no reason for him to kill her. This type of silent violence proves more shocking, it all has the very real possibility of happening in reality and that is truly real and alarming. After the death, Guy has no alibi, and a slow noose begins to tighten, with Bruno tugging the rope, and threatening to leave evidence, begins to stalk Guy, demanding that he owes him to kill his father. Guy becomes more and more cornered all it also pressuring problems for Anne’s father Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll, who starred in two Hitchcock’s films Spellbound (1945) and North By Northwest (1959)).  From here the tensions spin for both men and the audience cannot leave the train, during the film, emotions carryover for both men to succeed in different manners. Hitchcock and his writer also built in a bit of poking fun to the characters’ names, Guy, exact image of the upstanding American male for the 1950s clean-cut, properly mannered and plain as a mannequin. While Bruno, named after Bruno, Richard Hauptmann, killer of the Lindbergh Baby. As the film continues well pace as always, the suspense grows, as Guy, an ordinary man must match wits against an evildoer to clear his name and spare those he loves. This all leads to perhaps one of the top five and clearly top stunt scenes in Hitchcock’s career, the out-of-control carousel scene. The operator is shot, the ride keeps going as frantic parents scream, the children hold onto the horses, crying and whining and close-ups of a man crawling under the actual merry-go-around (no trick visuals) to disable the ride before spinning off the axels. A must see stunt!

An innocent man wrongly accused is generally a reliable starting point for a thriller, and no director returned to that idea as often as Alfred Hitchcock only later in life learned it reflected from his childhood. This theme served him well for his films, and created an essential starting point for the suspense to generate itself and cause turmoil to the audience every time. Sadly, shortly after the movie ended, Robert Walker died, at the age of 32, from an apparent fatal combination of alcohol and prescription drugs. Also, throughout Hitchcock’s career he encounter numerous battles with the rigid censors, more than even today’s with him and his actors creating actions to slide by them. Such as Bruno’s tightly controlled sexuality, attributed to an air of homosexuality from the gestures and mannerisms, glazing glances. Perhaps some read a tad too far in to it, especially the censors of then, the references of taking risks for personal satisfaction a definite no-no hinting to disturbing sexual natures, today conceived as extreme sport adventures. Shameful practice of the censors, but the adversary The Master, thwarted them at every turn, as a maestro his work could never change once finished.

For anyone ever watching a Hitchcock movie, they must do it at least twice, the first time for the entertainment values, and then after that for repeated lessons in suggestive tones, and hints to characters nature, reflecting on society, and vice versa. He used shadows and tricks of light to the yin and yang effects and with references to the word ‘pairs’ a pair of crimes, Guy’s tennis matches, two women in Guy’s life, always lightly mentioned by someone.  The influence still echoes from this film recently the comedy Horrible Bosses (2011) and the Danny DeVito’s dark morbid comedy Throw Momma from the Train (1987) a remake of this film in many facets. The plot concept reference in the television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Season 3, Episode 19 “A Night at the Movies”, all show the influence of his work transcending through the years with filmmakers harkening back to the this creation.

Another wonderful entertaining film, with incredible suspense, and symbolism, everything laid out for creating a thriller, though the perfect, lies in the hands of The Master, knowing how long to show the scene, too much ruining and too little, frowns of disappointment. The film reflects on everyone hidden desire to remove that one person, the littlest annoying perceived roadblock in one’s life, and the guilt over it. Purely a side note, with the death of Farley Granger in 2011, Patricia Hitchcock remains the last living member of the cast, the time of this publication. This movie definitely is a must watch for cinema fans, and especially for the filmmakers, essentially the aspiring and current screenwriters regardless of your genre.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044079