A casual encounter becomes a nightmarish ride of spellbinding suspense under Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful direction
“Strangers on a Train” is one of the most cinematically suspenseful films in history. It is an astonishing example of filmmaking used to invoke thrilling uneasiness. The choice of visuals that tell the story is largely what makes this film riveting, so it’s no surprise it was directed by a virtuoso, the “Master of Suspense”, Alfred Hitchcock. This white knuckle ride, which begins when two strangers meet on a train, is so entertaining you sometimes forget it's about murder. “Strangers on a Train” proves mamma was right - don't talk to strangers! This is one of my very favorite Hitchcock films.
A truly Hitchockian film, “Strangers On a Train” cleverly plays with two of Hitchcock’s favorite themes (murder and the “wrong man”), and contains many of his trademarks such as trains, stairs, a dog, and his unique and delicious brand of humor. And, as in many of his films, he contrasts dramatic events with familiar places, this time using an amusement park as a place for terror. It also features one of the most entertaining and creepiest villains ever put on-screen. Everything is framed by electrifyingly innovate camera angles, lighting, and sound. Hitchcock also makes his usual fleeting cameo appearance, so try not to miss it.
If you are watching the films on this blog (and I hope you are), you saw your first Alfred Hitchcock film, “Notorious” in week three, where I wrote a bit more about him. One thing that separates “Strangers on a Train” from his other classics is how densely he relies on visuals alone to tell the story. Incidentally, Hitchcock learned visual storytelling from the best - F.W. Murnau (who I discuss in film #22’s post, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”). While Hitchcock was briefly working in Germany, he observed Murnau filming his 1924 classic, “The Last Laugh”. The two interacted and Hitchcock was later quoted as saying “From Murnau, I learned how to tell a story without words". Along with his impressive visual storytelling, another Hitchcock trademark evident in “Strangers on a Train” is how easily Hitchcock manipulates the viewers emotions throughout the film. He does it so well, I bet you’ll find yourself rooting for the villain at least once, just to see what will happen to the hero if he is put into peril. Ingenious!
“Strangers on a Train” was based on the first novel by Patricia Highsmith, the queen of the psychological thriller. She wrote novels and short stories, including “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, among other works. Raymond Chandler (who co-wrote “Double Indemnity”) co-wrote the screenplay with Czenzi Ormonde.
Farley Granger stars as tennis champion “Guy Haines”. It took me a while to appreciate how much Granger contributes to the film, but I now realize he is key as to why “Strangers on a Train” works so well. His somewhat soft performance is in perfect contrast to his costar Robert Walker. Granger’s emotional quality makes this story believable, for we know "Guy" could easily end up in this predicament. And his constant feeling of guilt brings up a fascinating look at who feels guilty and who doesn’t. Farley Granger began his career on stage, and his first film was "The North Star”, in 1943. He would continue to appear on stage, television, and film throughout his career, up until his last film "The Next Big Thing” in 2001. He previously appeared in another Hitchcock film, “Rope” in 1948 (a film made to look like one continuous shot, such as the recent film “1917” from 2019). Some of Granger's other films include "The Story of Three Loves", "O. Henry's Full House", and "Hans Christian Andersen". He also made films in Italy, most importantly director Luchino Visconti’s 1954 classic, "Senso". Granger's television work includes parts on two TV soap operas, "One Life to Live" for which he was nominated for a Daytime Emmy, and “As the World Turns”. He is best remembered for his two Hitchcock films, in particular “Strangers on a Train”. Granger never married and did not hide the fact he was gay. He had a relationship with screenwriter Arthur Laurents, and after with producer and director Robert Calhoun for 43 years. Farley Granger died in 2011 at the age of 85.
Ruth Roman stars as “Anne Morton”. She does a fine bringing to life a beautiful, demure, and wealthy Senator’s daughter. She excelled in this type of role, which she often played. Ruth Roman started her career in uncredited and bit parts in 1943, including one in the classic film “Gilda" in 1946. Her big break came in 1949 with two films, "The Window", and "Champion", where she played Kirk Douglas' wife. These made her a very popular star, and she began to get decent parts and some leads. “Strangers on a Train” came at the height of her film career. She worked in theater and television as well, mostly on TV from the late 1950s until 1989, including a recurring role in “Knots Landing" in the 1980s. She was married four times and had one son. She and her then three year old son were among the survivors of the sinking SS Andrea Doria in 1956. Ruth Roman died in 1999 at the age of 75.
Robert Walker is truly brilliant, stealing the show as the flamboyant, unpredictable, and unsettling, albeit captivating, “Bruno Antony”. Early in the film “Bruno” says "I have a theory that you should do everything before you die”, and you get a sense that he is capable of doing anything. Even though his behavior is appalling, he has a certain humor to him (I can’t get myself to call it charm), which keeps the viewer from outright hating him. An unnerving twist to a psychopath. As Hitchcock often did, he cast Walker against type, as he was known for being the good guy next door.
Robert Walker started his career studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City in the late 1930s. While there, he met unknown actress Phylis Lee Isley, who became his wife. The two quit the school, worked a bit in radio, had two children, and eventually relocated to Los Angeles. His wife, who had changed her name to Jennifer Jones, soon caught the attention of producer David O. Selznick, who would help her go on to be an Oscar winning, major Hollywood star. In addition to giving Jones her break, Selznick helped Walker get a contract at MGM where he started with a few uncredited parts, gaining attention with his first real role in the 1943 film “Bataan”. Two films later, in 1944, Walker became a star with the film “See Here, Private Hargrove”. In his all too brief career he would appear in such classics as "Since You Went Away", "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo", "The Clock", "Till the Clouds Roll By", and "Sea of Grass”. Jones would have a much publicized affair with Selznick, divorcing Walker and marring Selznick in 1949. Walker would continue working up until his sudden death in 1951, just months after completing “Strangers on a Train”, having made one additional film. In August of 1951, Walker was reportedly in an emotional state. His psychiatrist came to his house and injected him with a sedative. Walker lost consciousness, stopped breathing and died. Apparently, he had been drinking, and the combination of the alcohol and sedative killed him. He was only 32 years old. What a tragic loss of such a talented actor. Years ago, in Malibu, California, there was a shop near the beach I would sometimes frequent. The owner looked exactly like Robert Walker. I mentioned it to him the first time I first saw him, and it turned out to be Robert Walker Jr., one of Robert Walker's two sons. He was very sweet and spoke fondly of his father and mother (who was still alive at the time). Robert Walker Jr. was an actor himself with a very successful career. His store later closed and he died in 2019. I’ll never forget the shock of seeing him the first time. It was like seeing Robert Walker standing in front of me, from “Strangers on a Train”.
The supporting cast in “Strangers on a Train” is so excellent, that with the exception of Robert Walker, they often steal the scenes in which they appear. I’ll briefly mention a few:
Leo G. Carroll who plays “Senator Morton”, doesn’t have a large part but I thought I’d point him out since he appears in six Alfred Hitchcock films, usually as a doctor or other professional (“Rebecca”, “Suspicion”, “Spellbound”, “The Paradine Case”, “Strangers on a Train”, and “North by Northwest”). He was a skilled British character actor, best known for his Hitchcock films, and also for playing “Alexander Waverly, Quentin Lester Baldwin” in the TV series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E..”. He died in 1972 at the age of 85.
Alfred Hitchcock always has humor in his films, even his darkest, and this time the laughs are largely supplied by his daughter Patricia Hitchcock who plays “Barbara Morton“. She is outstanding in the film, with her bold “tell it like it is” sensibility, her passion for murder, and her vulnerability. She eagerly provides the intrigue along with the humor. Patricia worked as an actress in half a dozen films, and a bit more in television, appearing in three of her father’s films ("Stage Fright", “Psycho", and "Strangers on a Train”), and on the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV series. I had the honor of meeting her once and she was delightful. As of the writing of this post, Patricia Hitchcock is still alive and is 92 years old.
Laura Elliott is unforgettable as “Miriam Joyce Haines”. You simply can’t take your eyes off her. She is splendid as the slutty ex-wife you just love to hate. While "Strangers on a Train" is her most famous film, she is probably best remembered for her television role as (the second) "Louise Tate" in the classic 1960-70s series “Bewitched”. She is billed as Laura Elliott here, a name given to her by Paramount studios (she was one of their contract players). She changed it back to Kasey Rogers in the mid 1950s. Rogers was her birth name, and Kasey a nickname she used since childhood. Kasey Rogers died in 2006 at the age of 80.
Marion Lorne is simply fantastic as “Mrs. Antony”, “Bruno’s” mother. Other than Robert Walker, she gives my favorite performance in the film. Her jovial, bumbling warmth and wonderful voice, make it twice as fun when you realize she's bonkers. Lorne is so convincing one can easily see how her son, “Bruno” could grow up to become a sociopath. Marion was a prolific stage actress with a career lasting over 50 years. "Strangers on a Train" was her first film, and the start of her film and television career. Sadly, she only appeared in three films, the other two being "The Girl Rush” in 1955, and the 1967 classic "The Graduate". After “Strangers on a Train” she worked mostly in television, and like Laura, was a regular in the TV series “Bewitched”. She worked on the show until her death, playing her most famous and beloved character, “Aunt Clara”. Marion Lorne died in 1968 at the age of 84.
Last but not least is Norma Varden who has a very brief, yet memorable role as “Mrs. Cunningham”, the woman who’s neck “Bruno” uses at the dinner party. Not only is she great fun in the role, but I mention her because she is a face that appears time and time again, and if you are watching the films on this blog, you've already seen her briefly in "Casablanca". I wrote more about her life and career in that film's post. She appears in so many classics that if you pay attention you'll start to spot her, often in very small roles. Her appearance in "Strangers On a Train" is one of my favorites. She appeared in well over 150 films and TV shows from 1922 until her death at the age of 90 in 1969. And yes, she did appear in “Bewitched”, but only in one episode!
“Strangers on a Train” received only one Academy Award nomination - for Robert Burks’ spectacular cinematography. This was his first time working with Hitchcock, and he would become Hitchcock’s most used cinematographer, filming twelve of his masterpieces throughout the 1950s and 60s, including “The Birds”, “North By Northwest”, “Vertigo”, and “Rear Window”. In addition to his gorgeous photography, Burks was also an expert in special effects, and known for his techniques with forced perspective. Some non-Hitchcock films which he photographed include "The Fountainhead", "The Spirit of St. Louis", "A Patch of Blue“, and "The Desert Song”. He was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one for another Hitchcock classic, “To Catch a Thief”. Robert Burks died tragically, along with his wife, when his house caught fire in 1968. He was 58 years old.
You are in for a film loaded with suspense from beginning to end, and a fun and entertaining ride I’m sure you will never forget. Enjoy “Strangers on a Train”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
As mentioned before you watched the film, visual storytelling is at its best in “Strangers on a Train”. In this section I want to point out a few examples of how Hitchcock used visuals to inform the viewer about the characters. The film begins by introducing the two main characters via their shoes. Each wears a different type of shoe, moves in a distinct way, and has its own musical theme, all cleverly setting up that these are two very dissimilar people.
Hitchcock also brilliantly uses visuals to inform us about the personality of “Miriam”. The dialogue between her and “Guy” in the music listening room let us know that she had an affair while they were married. But it really hits home as we get a visceral picture of her when she is frolicking with the two guys at the amusement part while flirting with "Bruno" - all without a word of dialogue.
One more magnificent example of Hitchcock’s visual genius is how he shows us the depth of “Bruno’s” psychological makeup. The first amusement park scene alone tells us everything. He shockingly pops a child’s balloon, and immediately after murdering “Miriam”, helps a blind man across the street. With no dialogue, that sequence alone shows us his moral code and that he is capable of anything.
In case you missed it, Hitchcock makes his cameo appearance in “Strangers on a Train” as “Guy” is getting off the train. Hitchcock is getting onto the train carrying a bass instrument.
A fun fact about “Miriam’s” iconic glasses. Though they were props, they were real glasses. Laura, the actress, couldn’t see when she was wearing them, and if you look closely you can see her leaning on different things in different scenes. For instance, in the music store there is a moment when she leans on the counter. And between the time she leaves the house with the two guys until her death, she is often helped by the two actors (when boarding the bus or walking), as they are often arm in arm. Laura did a great job, as it looks like she is palling around having fun with them. I never even picked up on any of this, until I learned about it several years ago.
The last thing I’ll mention about “Strangers on a Train” is the extraordinarily chilling carousel climax. It alone is one of cinema’s classic scenes. It looks so real, yet was done with a combination of special effects, rear projection, and masterful editing. It is said Hitchcock was terrified watching the filming of the worker crawling under the moving carousel, because the man was not a stuntman or actor, but the actual carousel operator and that was no special effect. Had he lifted his head, his career and life would have ended right then and there. Thanks goodness he lived, and he is now part of one of the most exciting and gratifying climaxes in cinema history.