People come into contact with strangers everyday, and seldom think anything of it. If your life was Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, you definitely would pay attention to these people. Beware, nothing says “stranger danger” quite like murdering someone’s wife and then pinning it on them.
Such is the story of Strangers on a Train. On the train ride home for divorce negotiations with his wife, Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). Bruno is very interested in Guy, and seems to know everything about his personal life. This isn’t as weird as it sounds because he’s a reasonably well known tennis player, but it’s still unsettling to Guy, mainly because Bruno is so clingy. He insists on talking Guy back to his compartment for lunch, even though Guy doesn’t want to. He can’t get out of it however, and Bruno starts telling him all of his problems with his father. Then he comes up with a dangerous plan.
Bruno thinks they should trade murders. Guy can kill Bruno’s father, and Bruno can kill Guy’s wife Miriam. As Bruno explains, this plan is so good because each person has no motive to kill they person they would be murdering. All they would have to do is kill the opposite person’s victim, and make sure they have an alibi when the opposite person kills their victim. That way, as long as they can’t connect the two strangers, each one is in the clear and eventually the case just goes dead. Guy just thinks he’s talking; things get worse when he finds out that Bruno is dead serious. Guy has already put Bruno and his crazy plan out of his mind by the time Bruno actually kills Miriam, and he is shocked to find that what he thought was merely a casual conversation on the train was a fully formed plan to Bruno.
Forget the shower scene from Psycho, in my opinion Miriam’s murder is the best murder scene in all of Hitchcock (unless there’s a better one I haven’t seen yet). Hitchcock shows why he is The Master of Suspense with this scene, big time. Leading up to the murder itself, Bruno follows Miriam around for awhile. Bruno follows her into this tunnel and she screams; you think she’s dead then. However, she comes out unharmed on the other side. Then he corners her alone and strangles her. Granted, it’s not very violent or graphic, no blood, and Miriam doesn’t even scream. The reason why this scene is so cool is the way Hitchcock shows it through Miriam’s glasses. As Bruno starts to strangle her, her glasses fall to the ground and we see the rest of the murder happening through her glasses on the ground. Their figures are weirdly distorted and the carnival music is playing in the background, making for a very creepy and subdued murder. After that, Bruno picks up her glasses and just walks away like nothing happened.
He then goes to tell Guy the good news. One murder down, one to go! Only Guy isn’t so thrilled. Not that he’s too sad about Miriam dying, she was giving him all sorts of issues anyway. He’s just worried he’s going to get blamed for it, which of course he is. The police have reason to suspect him, it is well known that he and his wife didn’t get along and also that he is having an affair with Anne Morton (Ruth Roman) a senator’s daughter. And Bruno still has his cigarette lighter that he left on the train. He explains to Guy in a totally nice but terrifying way that he thought enough of Guy to pick it up this time, but can easily go back and leave some evidence later if he doesn’t go along with the plan and murder his father in exchange.
What follows, actually, is a lot of following. The police and Bruno are both following Guy. He is trying to get his alibi for that night, which “doesn’t stand up” because the only guy that saw him was drunk out of his mind. Bruno really wants Guy to do the murder as soon as possible, because his father is going out of town. Guy absolutely refuses to murder his father, and then things get ugly. Bruno tries to pin Miriam’s murder on Guy, which seems like a pretty good plan since he was the one with the motive in the first place.
These leaves our classic Hitchcock hero in a bit of a trap. Strangers on a Train is one of the types of films that Hitchcock does best, the innocent man wrongly accused. There is a lot of suspense and dramatic irony in this film, as Bruno is following Guy, Guy has to get away from the cops. Anne eventually finds out about the plan, and tries to help as well. This all leads up to a splendid climax that I will not give away.
This film works so well largely thanks to Robert Walker as Bruno Antony. He manages to rope us in perfectly, the way he is so friendly to Guy at first but still a little odd. Then he starts going on about murder, and we can see better than Guy can just how serious Bruno is. However, we still can’t tell a hundred percent until it actually happens. He’s one of those villains that you actually like, even though you know he’s evil. He served up all of Guy’s reactions to him perfectly, and took the focus off himself well enough that you would want to see how Guy would react to his crazy schemes. Farley Granger as Guy was not quite as memorable, but since his character is so much more normal that’s probably to be expected. He doesn’t have much more personality than a man in a trap, but Hitchcock’s suspense and Robert Walker more than make up for it.
Hitchcock’s directorial presence in this film is astounding. I’ve already mentioned how he uses the glasses to frame the murder scene, and the glasses come back on the face of Anne’s sister Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock). “She looks something like Miriam” and when Bruno sees her, he goes into full out crazy mode. In the same scene, Hitchcock focuses on the gazes of various people at the party. One person comes in, another looks at them. As soon as that person turns their head, we see another person looking at them changing their viewpoint. He uses a similar technique at Guy’s tennis match. Everyone is following the ball back and forth, but Bruno is the only one staring straight ahead at Guy. Very creepy.
In terms of Hitchcock classics, especially the innocent man wrongly accused subset, Strangers on a Train is a must see. It boasts wonderful direction, an intense climax, and a great antagonist. The premise is interesting, and also keeps the film moving along well. And it’ll make you think twice before talking to any strangers.
“You’d be afraid to kill her, you know why? You’d get caught. And what would trip you up? The motive. Ahh…”