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Posts Tagged ‘Strangers on a Train’

As this long, hellish, The Day the Earth Caught Fire-esque summer has worn on, so the Kubrick season at the Phoenix has come to a conclusion, which is obviously cause for sadness. But looking on the bright side, in its place we are currently enjoying a season of Hitchcock revivals, which is always something to relish. Most recently on the screen was a movie from the start of the 1950s, the decade which arguably saw Hitchcock at the height of his powers and brought him his most sustained run of popular and critical successes. The film in question is Strangers on a Train, one of the great director’s most playfully ambiguous works. Is it a psychological thriller? A film noir? A pitch-black comedy? Or just a searing indictment of poor health and safety standards at American funfairs? Nearly seventy years on, the jury is still out.

Farley Granger plays Guy Haines, an amateur tennis player and aspiring politician, who is making a fairly routine train journey when – apparently by chance – he makes the acquaintance of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a wealthy, charming fellow who seems to be a fan of his. Somewhat reluctantly, Guy gets to know Bruno better, and it transpires that both men have their problems: Guy is stuck in a marriage to an unfaithful wife (Laura Elliott), while Bruno finds himself oppressed by his authoritarian father. Bruno takes the opportunity to unveil his ‘perfect murder’ scheme, whereby he will kill Guy’s wife, while Guy disposes of Bruno’s father – as each man apparently lacks a motive for these particular killings, they should get away with it, with no difficulty.

Guy is clearly just too well brought-up, for his attempts to extricate himself from the company of someone who is clearly slightly unhinged only serve to give Bruno the impression that he is enthusiastically on-board with this ‘criss-cross’ plan. Matters become somewhat more complicated when Guy’s wife proves to be not just unfaithful but rather manipulative, soaking him for money while refusing to give him a divorce, even though she is carrying another man’s child (hey, it was the Fifties). All this causes Guy to make some rather intemperate public utterances, which could well be seen as incriminating when his wife turns up dead in the middle of a funfair one night – Bruno has gone full speed ahead with his murder-swapping plan…

Guy is safe for the time being, but one piece of evidence away from being arrested (his alibi just isn’t quite watertight enough). This would be stressful enough, even without Bruno starting to haunt his footsteps, wondering why Guy is so reluctant to follow through on his side of the deal, and clearly quite capable of making Guy’s life extremely difficult if he reneges entirely…

Strangers on a Train is not quite at the very top of the list of Hitchcock movies everyone can name – it’s a step or two down from Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo, for instance – but it is still immediately recognisable as a product of the same creative sensibility. From the very first seconds you are aware of the playful way in which the director is presenting the two leads as doubles, or opposites – their arrival at the station opens the film, with Hitchcock choosing to show us their feet rather than their faces, saving this for the moment when they first see each other. There is also the same kind of moral ambiguity that shoots through so many later Hitchcock films – it’s made clear that Guy really does want to murder his wife, it’s only the social contract which is keeping this urge in check. There’s a sense in which Guy is a bad, er, guy.

In the same way, there’s a sense in which Bruno is, if not a good guy, then at least a charming, appealing presence whenever he appears. This is mostly due to a terrific performance from Robert Walker, whose final completed film this was: Walker pretty much walks away with the acting honours from Strangers on a Train, as the good guys are decent but wooden, and his only real competition (Elliott) is only in the film briefly. Elliott manages to be so objectionable that the set piece in which Walker stalks her through a funfair before eventually strangling her – the murder famously reflected in her fallen glasses – is essentially one in which the audience is complicit with the killer, or at least feeling no guilt at anticipating the murder.

Of course, there’s something else going on in this film, a subtext which is surprisingly clear given the time it was made. Guy is dashing but weak, led into immorality by a charming older man with a mother-fixation. The coding is quite obvious – Bruno is presented as a thinly-veiled predatory homosexual, aiming to seduce Guy – morally, if not physically. Robert Walker’s performance is very good, but it’s also kind of Liberace meets the Boston Strangler. Suffice to say that the love of a good woman (Ruth Roman) is essential to Guy’s clearing his name and resolving the crisis.

As the film goes on, it progressively deviates, if you’ll pardon the expression, from Patricia Highsmith’s original novel, which (to minimise spoilers) concludes with Guy being arrested, and this may be why the initially watertight plotting of the film begins to unravel somewhat. There’s something a little melodramatic, or at least rather improbable, about the way the climax is managed – Guy has to win his tennis match in double time, lose his police tail and then get to the scene of the crime before Bruno can plant the evidence that will see him arrested. You could poke half a dozen holes in the scenario, yet it is still thoroughly engaging, enjoyable stuff, and you do get the sense Hitchcock is having fun, not intending the audience to take it too seriously either . There are quite a few moments during the climax of the film which drew general laughter from the audience at my screening, and I’m sure some of this was intended. But all of it? I’m really not sure; Hitchcock remains as slippery a magician as ever.

Possibly if this film were in colour, or had a more distinguished cast, it would perhaps have a slightly higher profile. Nevertheless, it is still a supremely accomplished movie – the plot holds together well enough, there is plenty of snappy dialogue to enjoy (‘I may be old-fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law’, ‘When an alibi is full of bourbon, it can’t stand up’, and so on), and the story has just enough darkness and ambiguity to it to deliver a pleasant frisson, rather than becoming too bleak or downbeat. A very fine film, and still only one of Hitchcock’s relatively minor works.

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