Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train is a masterful 1951 adventure in film noir, with all the morbid fun that Alfred Hitchcock perennially mustered. 

The theme of psychopathy was explored more than once by Alfred Hitchcock, and was one of the more interesting developments in the film noir style.

The idea of the psychopath, who may murder for reasons which are extra-normative to the great American dream, is traced through film noir. Psychological shock explanations are often used, and other psychopaths in noir, who were the first batch of psychopaths in cinema, like Robert Walker's character Bruno in Strangers on a Train, are either aberrations, or the product of environments that are sick.

In this case, Robert Walker's psychopathic Bruno appears to be spoiled by his family's money, and his father's determined disapproval.

The story follows two men who meet on a train, one of whom is a psychopath who suggests that they "exchange" murders so that neither will be caught. The film initially received mixed reviews but has since been regarded much more favourably, especially as it showcased many techniques which Alfred Hitchcock had already perfected and would further perfect, as a master cinematic storyteller.

Wickedness and weakness are film noir flaws, most especially in the men, and the two men in Strangers on a Train seem to embody these failings.

Robert Walker and Farley Granger are
Strangers on a Train (1951)

The film includes a number of visual metaphors that demonstrate a running motif of crisscross, double-crossing, and crossing one's double. It kicks off with shoes, which make up the measure of the men as we first meet them.

The two characters, Guy and Bruno, can be viewed as attracted to each other and it is a motif that is only gently pulled at.  They can also however be viewed as doppelgängers, and as with Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train is one of many Hitchcock films to explore the doppelgänger theme. 

Farley Granger and Kasey Rogers in
Strangers on a Train (1951)

In murderous terms, the pair of Bruno and Guy have a certain symbiosis, simply because Bruno embodies Guy's dark desire to kill his wife Miriam, making of the psychopath a real-life incarnation of Guy's deadly wish-fulfilment fantasy. 

The script isn't kind to Miriam, played by Kasey Rogers. First of all she is made to look somewhat unattractive, a device which in the manners and moods of Hollywood indicates that if she is not pretty, then she is not a good woman either. She is certainly not portrayed as good, as first of all having fallen pregnant by another man, and then attempted to blackmail her fiancée. 

With great American candour Guy's mistake is to perhaps to articulate what his on his mind, in wishing harm upon his wife. The audience however is primed to accept this unfair fate, due to Miriam's own moral failings, and of course her lack of good looks.

Robert Walker and Kasey Rogers. From the murder sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's
Strangers on a Train (1951)

Harm does certainly fall upon Miriam, and it is every bit as brutal and inventively shown as all of Hitchcock's other great murders, constructed with a theatrical and intimate artistic sensibility. The idea of articulating such crime is a new sign for the 1950s in America. Although we don't see far into the suburban life, this is still what is being disrupted here. Normality is the life at home in the American domestic sphere, interrupted here by psychopathy.

In regards this too, Bruno's life is anything but suburban, and is an aristocratic mess. It's this mess that works its way into the already failing marriage, and breaks into what were supposed to be normal lives.

Above and below. Robert Walker and Farley Granger in
Strangers on a Train (1951)

Although existing somewhat in a style all of his own, Alfred Hitchcock was not afraid, especially in black and white, to employ the unusual and dramatic camera angles for which classic film noir became well known.

Alfred Hitchcock and a symbolic double bass in
Strangers on a Train (1951)

The theme of doubles is an important element in the film's structure, and Hitchcock starts right off in his title sequence making this point -- there are two taxicabs, and two redcaps, and two pairs of feet, and two sets of train rails that cross twice. Once on the train, Bruno orders a pair of double drinks — "The only kind of doubles I play", he says charmingly. Plus if you need more solid proof of this constant and playful effect, note that in Alfred Hitchcock's cameo in Strangers on a Train, he carries a double bass.

Dark and light places in Alfred Hitchcock's
Strangers on a Train (1951)

Once the double is revealed as underpinning the structure, the filmmaking seems almost effortless. There are the opposing fields of dark and light, and yet both the open and closed spaces provide a threat from Robert Walker's stalking psychopathic character Bruno, best exposed on the steps of The Capitol building. You can also add to this the fact that Hitchcock was comfortable with sexually ambiguous characters, and to find Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train, is a sign that a further message is being delivered.

Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train (1951)

High and low; dominant and submissive in
Strangers on a Train (1951)

There is easily a suggestion in Strangers on a Train (1951) that along with the communist hysteria that was mounting in the industry and thus across the country, a further line of attack focused on homosexuality, seen as a brand of moral pertinacity, which of course could in turn could be said to be undermining national security.

Farley Granger's character Guy is of course given a love interest, but Ruth Roman's character Anne is more than that. In fact, she is more sleuth than she is lover, and she is also the daughter of a US Senator, making the initial match between Guy and Miriam seem rather lower class, and offering another uncomfortable reason why Guy wants it to end.

Ruth Roman and Farley Granger in
Strangers on a Train (1951)

Guy and Bruno are in some ways doubles, but in many more ways, they are opposites. The two sets of feet in the title sequence match each other in motion and in cutting, but they immediately establish the contrast between the two men: the first shoes are showy and perhaps even vulgar brogues, while the second shoes are plain, and unadorned. For most of the film, Bruno is the actor, and Guy the reactor, and Hitchcock always shows Bruno's feet first, then Guy's. And best of all, it is Guy's foot that taps Bruno's under the table, and so we know Bruno has not engineered the meeting.

Patricia Hitchcock in
Strangers on a Train (1951)

Patricia Hitchcock's appearance, made to look something like the earlier victim, Miriam, is great, especially when director Alfred Hitchcock is able to employ that direct to camera acting which he did so well, and which nobody else in the industry seemed to master at the time.

Almar Haflidason was effusive about Strangers on a Train in 2001 at the BBC website: 

"Hitchcock's favourite device of an ordinary man caught in an ever-tightening web of fear plunges Guy into one of the director's most fiendishly effective movies. Ordinary Washington locations become sinister hunting grounds that mirror perfectly the creeping terror that slowly consumes Guy, as the lethally smooth Bruno relentlessly pursues him to a frenzied climax. Fast, exciting, and woven with wicked style, this is one of Hitchcock's most efficient and ruthlessly delicious thrillers."

Robert Walker brings true noir credentials to the production, by inhabiting the character of the psychopath to an epic degree, creating a villain for all time from the great novel by Patricia Highsmith.

This being Alfred Hitchcock, the director himself is something of a star, and as ever produces marvellous audio-visual incidence and scenes, most memorable here the fantasy of the merry-go-round being destroyed at the conclusion, a work of wonder in itself.

Brilliant merry-go-round conclusion to
Strangers on a Train (1951)

Farley Granger too, does what he does the best, and plays the innocent man catapulted into chaos by a chance encounter. The persona was ideal for noir, for there is something in that sweet and boyish expression that we believe in as he goes deeper. The deeper the better usually, especially thinking of his memorable and super-sympathetic role in Side Street (1951).

Although Alfred Hitchcock's films seem to transcend the style and values of film noir, and although he does not enjoy many of the hard-boiled and more common film noir tropes, such as the femme fatale, it is quite impossible to fail to discuss films like Strangers on a Train in light of film noir. What is important is that Alfred Hitchcock was working to his own beat, and his own vision of storytelling, and the film noir mood of violence and fatalism may apply in part, but it is only a little part of his well-composed story-telling techniques.

Psychology and strangulation in close up
Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951)

What Hitchcock does that is less familiar to the regular film noir style, is an extremely close up and well constructed psychological effect. Generally this is not done with dialogue, and yet still has a huge impact; perhaps a greater impact. Where the camera goes, the viewer of course follows, and Alfred Hitchcock seemed to work by this, and take the camera as close in as it could possibly go at times.

Strangers on a Train (1951) on Wikipedia

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