Year Released: 1951
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman, Leo G. Carroll, Patricia Hitchcock
(Not Rated, 103 min.)
"If the desire to kill and the opportunity to kill came always together, who would escape hanging?" Mark Twain
His proposition is as outrageous as his charm, so it’s easy to dismiss him with a light-hearted nod, this pushy stranger on a train. But when he reads your darkest thoughts and puts them into action, he expects payback.
It seems like an accidental meeting on a train between Guy Haines (Farley Granger), the young and handsome tennis player, and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), the unstable fan who seems to know all the sordid details about him as garnered from the social gossip pages. He knows, for instance, that Haines wants a divorce from his wife so he can marry the daughter of a U.S. Senator. Bruno suggests something quicker than legal proceedings.
It seems he wants to rid of someone, as well, his loathsome father. Why not murder the two of them, Bruno suggests, but in a way that couldn’t be traced to motive or benefit. They’d simply “crisscross,” with each doing the other’s dark deed. Of course, Bruno also suggests driving at 100 miles per hour wearing a blindfold as well as mentioning something about being able to smell a flower on Mars, so Guy has his tongue firmly in cheek when he tells Bruno his ideas are just terrific.
Except someone like Bruno doesn’t seem to be into irony, and the next thing Guy knows, Bruno turns up at his doorstep with news that his wife is no longer a problem. Now Guy must do his part and murder loathsome Papa.
The rest of the suspense involves Guy’s largely ineffectual resistance to the persistent Bruno, which reaches a breathtaking climax at a carnival, the scene of Miriam’s murder.
The film, which marks the beginning of Hitchcock’s golden era as a director, includes many of what later became standard themes. Guy Haines is the innocent man sucked into a vortex of evil with no easy way out. Bruno is correct in cautioning Guy against reporting him to the police, as is his first instinct, because it would take just a few words from Bruno to convince them the two were in on it together. In a sense, however, Guy is not completely innocent, and thus in true film noir fashion, Hitchcock introduces some real moral ambiguity.
After all, Guy does benefit from his wife Miriam’s (Laura Elliott) death, particularly since she has suddenly lost her desire for a divorce. Even though she is pregnant with her lover’s child, Miriam tells Guy she plans to accompany him to Washington, where she certainly will derail his plans for political office. He even admits to Anne (Ruth Roman), the Senator’s daughter, that he is so angry with Miriam that he could strangle her. His malicious intent, even if not carried out, is often considered sinful in itself.
And like so many Hitchcock films, this one is marinated in Freudian repressed passions. Bruno is tied to his mother’s apron strings – in the form of the silly tie she has given him with his name emblazoned on it. She files his nails for him, dismisses his dangerous delusions as “silly pranks,” but when we see the painting she regards as therapeutic, we realize the acorn hasn’t fallen far from the oak. Bruno is in fact somewhere in between the murderously Oedipal Norman from Psycho and thrice-divorced Roger Thornhill from North by Northwest who seems content to escort his mother to the theater.
Here too begin the daring visual innovations that mark Hitchcock’s work. The opening shows two men walking to the same train, showing only their lower trousers and shoes, Guy Haines’ dark pants and shoes contrasting with the natty striped trousers and two tone shoes worn by Bruno Anthony. Another iconic scene shows a lone Bruno staring fixedly at Guy during a tennis match, surrounded by the audience who turn right to left to follow the ball. Then there is the murder of Miriam as reflected through the broken lens of her glasses, which have tumbled to the ground, not to mention the scene with Bruno behind the wrought iron bars as he tells Guy about it. When the police pull up to Guy’s apartment, he instinctively moves behind the bars with Bruno, joining him in his guilt.
And what would a Hitchcock thriller be without looming physical catastrophe? Out climax here is on a out of control carousel, the painted horses thundering forward like real runaways, their hooves descending dangerously to crush those trapped below them.
The old man who crawls beneath the marauding merry-go-round to stop it does so in real time. Hitchcock himself could not recall filming the scene without breaking into a sweat. Another film linked fact is the real life death of 32 year old Robert Walker who played Bruno with such captivating presence. It occurred slightly a month after the film’s release. He had, in fact, suffered psychiatric and drinking problems, and his death was due to a sedative administered by his physician. Perhaps his inner demons made his portrayal of the driven Bruno so captivating.
Savor the suspense and marvel at the technique as you acquaint yourself with this lesser known masterpiece.
Even though the title and the initial incident in this film involves a train, both the murder and the heart stopping climax occur at a carnival. Hitchcock is in good company here joining Edgar Alan Poe who chose the lavish Italian Carnival setting to contrast with the grim underground realities of his “Cask of Amontillado.” Likewise the zither music and seedy carnival in post war Vienna set the tone for Carol Reed’s The Third Man, where corruption and decadence run rampant.
The nighttime carnival in Strangers on a Train is set off by the garish lights, the hawkers’ voices selling their “red hots,” and the dark shadows in the tunnel of love. Typical of Hitchcock is to have his mayhem occur where one least expects – among the happy crowds enjoying themselves as they taste the visual and culinary treats of this fair. Just before she dies Miriam stuffs herself with ice cream and popcorn. Even psycho killer Bruno Anthony chomps down the kernels before he offs her.
I’ve jazzed up this last meal a bit. Our recipe is for Caramel Corn, just the thing to munch on as you enjoy this classic.
In the meantime, enjoy these other street foods. (You might not think of Italian Beef as street food, but it was a well-loved specialty at our local Melrose Park Summer Festival when I was a young lass in Oak Park, Illinois.)
- 1 cup Butter
- 2 cups Brown Sugar
- 1/2 cup Corn Syrup
- 1 teaspoon Salt
- 1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda
- 1 teaspoon Vanilla
- 6 quarts Popped Popcorn
Melt butter; stir in brown sugar, corn syrup and salt. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Then boil without stirring for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in soda and vanilla. Gradually pour over corn, mix well. Turn into two large, shallow baking pans. Bake at 250 degrees F for 1 hour. Stir every 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely. Break apart and store in tightly covered containers.
This recipe from CDKitchen for Baked Caramel Corn serves/makes 10
Recipe Source: CD Kitchen