Strangers on a Train (1951) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman (101 min).
Silky Bruno has an indecent proposal for a total stranger, exchange murder victims (a wife, a father) and nobody will be the wiser. Adapted by Raymond Chandler from a Patricia Highsmith novel, this is one of the Master of Suspense’s masterpieces. “Fast, exciting, and woven with wicked style, this is one of Hitchcock’s most efficient and ruthlessly delicious thrillers” (BBC).
The Spring film series, Suspense Under the Sun, concluded with two smashing versions of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, one film under that title, and the other, Purple Noon. So, I was in a Highsmith mood when I began programming for fall. Certainly, the film she is most closely associated with is Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which inaugurated his most productive decade, beginning with this spectacular thriller, and ending, a bit into the 1960s, with The Birds.
Highsmith lived an unusual life. A lesbian at a time when she had to remain publicly in the closet, she presented one face to the world, and was another person in her private life. She knew all too well the “splintered identity, insecurity, inferiority, obsession with an object of adoration, and the violence that springs from repression.” (Wilson 196). Bruno, the psychopath at the center of her first novel, shares these characteristics with Tom Ripley, the anti-hero of five of her novels.
She was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and shared a birthday (January 19) with Edgar Allan Poe. Her writing owes debts both to him, to hard boiled fiction of the 30s and 40s but also her love for bleak, existential philosophy. Will Self, on a BBC tv program said, “I think she’ll be remembered as one of the great mappers of the topography of criminal psychopathology, and an anticipator, in a way, of the collective obsession with serial killers and evil that has come to pass, a precursor, if you like” (Wilson 6). Grahame Green, who greatly admired her writing called her “the poet of apprehension…in a world without moral endings…nothing is certain when we have crossed this frontier” (Wilson 7).
She had a miserable childhood, calling it “a little hell.” Her parents were divorced before she was born (at her father’s urging, her mother drank turpentine in hopes of terminating her pregnancy) and she hated her stepfather so much, she constantly daydreamed of murdering him, an impulse certainly echoed in Bruno.
Susanna Clapp, writing in The New Yorker called her “a balladeer of stalking. The fixation of one person on another—oscillating between attraction and antagonism—figures prominently in almost every Highsmith tale” (Wilson 5). Highsmith said, “From a dramatic point of view, criminals are interesting; at least at one [particular]moment they act with a free mind, and [feel like they] do not owe anyone an explanation. I find the general public’s interest for Justice rather dull and artificial, since neither Life nor Nature are concerned about whether Justice has been rendered or not” (Lanzoni 194).
She thought the true 20th century everyman was the psychopath. She wanted to write a novel, seen through the eyes of someone “abnormal” with whom the writer sympathizes so much that the reader identifies completely. She thought only stupid people were content. “I believe people should be allowed to go the whole hog with their perversions, abnormalities, unhappinesses…Mad people are the only active people, they have built the world” she wrote in 1942. This philosophy was one reason that her books were not popular in their day, her amorality runs counter to the crime and punishment mode of detective fiction.
Highsmith had been toying with the idea of two characters who exchange murders since 1945. At first, they were two men, Alfred and Lawrence, who wished to be rid of the women they no longer loved. She didn’t begin writing in earnest until two years later, and she loved writing about the relationship between the two men, and particularly Bruno. “I am so happy when Bruno reappears in the novel. I love him!” (Wilson 123). But, she struggled and had only managed to complete one third. She applied to Yaddo, the writer’s colony in upstate New York, for a place to write in privacy. In the inscribed copy of the novel she donated to them, she wrote, “To Yaddo—with profoundest gratitude for the summer of peace that let me write this book” (Wilson 139). Her appreciation was so profound, in fact, that they were the sole beneficiary of her estate. In spite of the fact that she only spent two months there completing Strangers on a Train, she felt the experience transformative.
Clearly, Highsmith enjoyed writing about the duality of her protagonists. Here, Guy obsesses about their relationship:
And Bruno, he and Bruno. Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated, but perhaps in reality, loved.
For a moment, he thought he might be mad. He thought, madness and genius often overlapped, too. But what mediocre lives most people lived. In middle waters, like most fish!
No, there was that duality permeating nature down to the tiny proton and electron within the tiniest atom. Science was now at work trying to split the electron, and perhaps it couldn’t because perhaps only an idea was behind it: the one and only truth, that the opposite is always present. Who knew whether an electron was matter or energy? Perhaps God and the Devil danced hand in hand around every single electron! (Highsmith 180-81)
The beginning of the novel, the early meetings between Guy and Bruno, and Bruno’s determination to complete his half of the murder pact are quite similar in the novel, but the film diverges after that. Bruno is not just crazy, but also a black-out alcoholic, and drinking figures prominently in the novel. Many of the set pieces we admire in this film are completely original to the imagination of Hitchcock and his collaborators.
Strangers on a Train was Highsmith’s first published novel. The book got tremendous reviews. A New Yorker critic wrote, “There is a warning on the jacket that this book will make you think twice before you speak to a stranger on a train. This is unquestionably the understatement of the year…A horrifying picture of an oddly engaging young man, who has all the complexes you ever heard of” (Wilson 168).
It took only a few days after publication for Hollywood to come calling. Hitchcock won the anonymous bidding war, and when Highsmith realized he had gotten the rights ”in perpetuity” for $6000, she was irked, although she admitted, “that wasn’t a bad price for my first book” (Wilson 169). Highsmith was pleased with Hitchcock’s version, particularly Robert Walker’s performance as Bruno, but like Hitchcock, scoffed at the limited talents of leading lady Ruth Roman. “I thought it was ludicrous that he’s (Guy’s) aspiring to be a politician, and that he’s supposed to be in love with that stone angel” (Wilson 170).
In his first film, not yet 18, Granger was paired with Hollywood veteran Jane Withers. formerly Shirley Temple’s on-screen nemesis.
Alfred Hitchcock felt an immediate affinity for the first-time author’s characters when he first read Strangers on a Train (fittingly, on a train). He and his wife, Alma Reville, and the writer Whitfield Cook, discussed the possibilities excitedly, with the added plus that the unknown author’s book would be cheap to acquire. Hitchcock loved the criss cross murder idea, but felt much of the rest of the book ripe for transformation.
Bruno is a disgusting alcoholic in the novel, but Hitchcock imagined him a dapper killer, on the order of Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. Guy, written as a Modernist architect, would become a tennis player, a sport Hitchcock played and loved. Setting the story partly in Washington, D. C. would allow Cook to include an anti-House Committee on Un-American Activities subtext. Although HUAC targeted suspected communists, they also persecuted “sex perverts” homosexuals working in the government who were believed to be vulnerable to exposure, at a time when homosexuality was criminalized. Robert L. Carringer found the reimagining of Guy “a man of indeterminate sexual identity found in circumstances making him vulnerable to being compromised” a subtle anti-HUAC message that Hitchcock and Cook believed they could get past the censors (McGilligan 443). Walker’s menacing allure dominated the film and added a twist to the intended subversion, he was a straight actor playing gay, while Granger, a gay actor, played straight. Another kind of criss cross.
After the original treatment, Hitchcock looked for a writer whose name would add prestige to the script, and finally signed crime novelist Raymond Chandler. They clashed almost instantly and although his name is in the credits, he had practically nothing to do with the finished film. Meanwhile, filming had already begun, with backgrounds shot in Washington DC at Union Station and recognizable monuments, and at the Davis Cup in Forest Hills, NY. Hitchcock had hired another writer, lacking Chandler’s fame, but much more sympathetic to his vision. At his first meeting with Czenzi Ormonde, Hitchcock held his nose, and holding Chandler’s script gingerly, dumped it in a waste basket. Using Whitfield Cook’s treatment, she would write characters and dialogue that met with Hitchcock’s approval, along with Barbara Keon, and of course, the director himself.
Robert Walker was usually cast in “boy next door” roles, and the studio approved of his unconventional casting. His personal life had a lot of turmoil. His wife, Jennifer Jones had an affair with, and later married, powerful producer David O. Selznick. Walker began drinking heavily and suffered with mental health issues that resulted in his institutionalization. This would be his first film following his release. Granger and Walker collaborated easily, and Granger remembered Walker fondly. But before the film opened, Walker was dead at 32, from a combination of alcohol and a sedative administered by his psychiatrist. He never saw the rave reviews that would have invigorated his career.
Hitchcock’s first choice for Guy was William Holden, still relatively unknown. But, he agreed to Farley Granger with whom he had worked in Rope. Samuel Goldwyn had signed the handsome Granger, only 17, to a contract right out of high school. After playing a couple of small parts, he co-starred in Nicolas Ray’s They Live By Night, with Cathy O’Donnell, as a doomed couple on the run, which brought positive reviews. The couple was reunited in Side Street, a tense film noir directed by Anthony Mann on great New York City locations. Strangers on a Train is by far his most famous role. After starring in Senso for Luchino Visconti, in Italy, Granger, frustrated with the Hollywood typecasting that relegated him to “sensitive young man” roles, bought out his Goldwyn contract in the mid 1950s and moved to New York City, where he dedicated himself to the stage.
Granger spent two years in the Navy during WW II. Samuel Goldwyn made sure that his boyish face stayed in the fan magazines, though, and the scrapbooks kept by 1940s movie fans attest to his appeal.
Ruth Roman was assigned Anne, the trusting fiancée. She suffers from a dramatic lack of sex appeal. Hitchcock had asked for a little known actress named Grace Kelly for the role, but the producers could refused to pay her loan-out fees, on top of those for Granger and Walker.
Sometimes, Hitchcock got exactly the actor he wanted. He wanted Marian Lorne, a stage actress, for Bruno’s mother, even though, in the book, she was young looking and sexy. This was her first of Lorne’s only two screen appearances. Famous for her television work, especially in Bewitched, it’s hard to believe he did not appear in more movies.
The film had many electrifying visual effects, and the only Oscar nomination the film received was for Robert Burks’ cinematography. As always, camera tricks combine with more straightforward footage, and as you know, following Hitchcock’s storyboards carefully, with little extra footage that a meddling producer could use to change his intent. The climactic fairground scene combined of miniatures with a full-size carousel. “But, my hands still sweat when I think of that scene today. You know that little man actually crawled under that spinning carousel. If he’d raised his head by an inch, he’d have been killed. I’ll never do anything like that again” (Hitchcock/Truffaut 197). Some of Hitchcock’s most fondly remembered sequences are in this film. This also had the largest role that his daughter, Pat Hitchcock played in one of his films, as Anne’s younger sister, Barbara. Her father’s macabre sense of humor is well in evidence in the part she plays.
Hitchcock and his daughter, Pat
The film is a beautiful example of the film noir technique of doubling, Guy and Bruno as mirror images, good and evil, the way Guy’s wife looks like his fiancee’s sister, and so on. Hitchcock said, “I was quite pleased with the over-all form of the film and with the secondary characters. I particularly liked the woman who was murdered, you know, the bitchy wife who worked in a record shop; Bruno’s mother was good, too—she was just as crazy as her son” (Hitchcock/Truffaut 198).
Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan, The Complete Hitchcock by Paul Condon and Jim Sangster, Hitchcock/Truffaut, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies by Vito Russo, Include Me Out by Farley Granger (A note about Granger’s autobiography…it was a total hoot! He slept with lots of beautiful people, boys and girls, and if you want to know who was gay in 1940s-50s Hollywood, just ask Farley).