Strangers on a Train (1951) | Old Classic?…Newly Reviewed
This time around, Gini’s watching Turner Classic Movies noir classic:
Alfred Hitchcock Presents:
…a psycho socialite ruining the life of a tennis pro by suggesting they can each kill the person ruining the other’s life. And, in Hitchcock’s hands, it’s a premise that works magnificently.
Strangers on a Train has a connection to Stephen King’s Misery in that the protagonist of each is a public figure beset upon by a psychotic fan. In Misery, the fan tortures the protagonist physically. In Strangers on a Train, however, the fan tortures him mentally and socially but with just as much life-threatening menace.
Farley Granger is our tennis pro, Guy Haines. Robert Walker is Bruno Antony, the rich socialite psychotic fan. They meet on a train and Bruno recognizes Guy. Guy does his best to not get into any deep conversation with Bruno, but circumstances essentially force Guy into Bruno’s private car for lunch. Those circumstances work, by the way – you can easily see how Guy is pretty much given no choice but to go with Bruno, both from what’s going on around them and Bruno’s casual yet strong insistence.
While dining, Bruno discusses how Guy’s got an unfaithful wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers) who won’t give Guy a divorce so that Guy can marry a senator’s daughter, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman). Bruno also shares that he wants his father dead, so he can have money because his father is mean and cruel and horrible and wants Bruno to *gasp* get a job and be a contributing member of society. Bruno’s mother doesn’t feel that Bruno needs to work, but “evil” dad does.
Bruno comes up with the “perfect” murder plan – he’ll kill Guy’s wife and Guy will kill Bruno’s father. There’s no connection – other than this train trip, they have never met and have no people and nothing in common.
Guy leaves the train clearly not promising to do this crime – in fact, he’s obviously going to go home and do his best to forget ever having met Bruno. But Bruno has spent his time dining at the Cray-Cray Buffet, and he slinks into action.
Anne, her father, Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll), and her younger sister, Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock) are all shown to be decent, good people. You want Guy to get to marry into this family, especially after you meet Miriam. She’s a tramp and more, pregnant with someone else’s baby – no idea whose and she doesn’t care – but she wants Guy’s money as he moves up the tennis ladder and she wants to mess up his relationship with Anne. She starts claiming the baby is Guy’s and that he’s trying to desert her, to ruin his reputation. In her way, she’s easily as detrimental to Guy as Bruno is and just as evil.
Speaking of Bruno, he follows Miriam as she’s off on a date with two guys – and yes, the implication is that she’s going to sleep with both of them, possibly at the same time – and murders her at a carnival. He’s spotted by a ride operator, but no one else.
Viewers will note that Miriam and Barbara resemble each other. At first, you may think that’s just an accident because Hitchcock wanted his daughter to have a big role. Not so. First, Barbara is a great character, well played by Patricia. Secondly, though, that resemblance is key to the plot.
Because Guy, being sane, refuses to kill Bruno’s father. So, Bruno inserts himself into Guy’s life. Bruno spots Barbara and it’s clear that he’s reliving killing Miriam any time he looks at Barbara – as in, he enjoyed it and is enjoying the memory.
The police are, naturally, looking closely at Guy as Miriam’s murderer, and Bruno is doing his best to frame Guy for it since Guy is refusing to uphold “his half of the bargain” – that he never made and that he reminds Bruno he never made, not that Bruno cares. And the police are not idiots – it’s always nice to see the police portrayed as not perfect but also not morons. The cops on this case are ON in, paying attention, watching, interacting, doing their best to solve the crime. But with Bruno doing his best to “help” them, they might be able to confirm Guy as the murderer
Do sanity, decency, and cleverness win out over crazy deceit? I’m not going to tell you – you need to see the movie to find out. Because in film noir, a happy ending is not a given, and if you get one, it has to be earned.
A note about the Miriam character. Many times, a promiscuous woman is shown to be evil simply for enjoying sex. In a comparison to D.O.A. the main character in that movies does his best to cheat on his good girlfriend but he’s not shown to be bad for this in any way. The attitude is hey, boys will be boys. But in most movies, a woman cheating or sleeping around is considered bad SIMPLY because she’s sleeping around.
But this script doesn’t take that easy and, quite frankly, nasty way out. Miriam isn’t evil because she wants to screw everything that moves. She’s evil because she’s not only doing this while married to Guy, but she’s reveling in letting him know she’s cheating, she wants to hurt him just because she can – and it’s established that he’s done nothing to deserve her venom, she’s just bored with him until he starts making money – and she wants to ruin any chance he
might have for happiness with someone else while simultaneously draining his bank account dry, just as if she was a male character doing this to a female one as happens a lot in film noir as well.
Miriam’s not evil because she’s sleeping around – she’s evil because she likes being evil. Considering that the cheating wife motif is used a lot in film noir, that we are clear that Miriam’s “sins” are not the promiscuity so much as what she’s doing with it and why it’s far fairer than most of the cheating wife scenarios out there.
A note about Robert Walker. As we watched this, the hubs insisted he’d seen Walker in a Star Trek: The Original Series episode. But Walker died soon after making Strangers on a Train, meaning that would be impossible. A bit of research revealed that it’s his son, Robert Walker, Jr., who was in Star Trek. Walker, Jr. had a much longer career than his father, but the resemblance is uncanny. So, apparently, were the acting chops.
Truly, Strangers on a Train is film noir at its best. Unlike D.O.A. that was a ridiculous mess, this film still crackles. The acting is spot on – Walker is unctuous and unpleasant and quietly terrifying, Granger is perfect as the desperate not-quite-everyman who sees his life slipping out of control through no fault of his own, and the supporting players are great, Patricia Hitchcock in particular. It’s Alfred Hitchcock so the direction being perfect is not really a surprise, but everyone can make lesser films – this just isn’t one of them. And the script is excellent. Nothing is wasted, no one you see is there as filler; any all the thrills and stress and payoffs are earned.
Turner Classic Movies is dead on with this one. Strangers on a Train is a film noir classic that should not be missed.
5 stars out of 5
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