A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, April 7, 2017

Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)

Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest (1959) are the best of Alfred Hitchcock's "wrong man" thrillers, in which the protagonist is suspected of a crime he didn't commit and spends most of the film trying to prove his innocence. They have something else in common: Both involve seduction scenes that take place on a train, except that in the latter film the seduction, of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) by Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), is conventionally heterosexual. It's the gay subtext that marks Strangers on a Train from the very beginning, when we watch the feet of Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) as they board the train and eventually bump up against each other in the club car. It's Bruno's flamboyance, especially the gleaming white of his brown-and-white spectator shoes, that we notice first, before we see his lobster-patterned tie and the gold tie clasp that proclaims his name. Even the straightest viewer gets it: Bruno is cruising. And he lights upon the handsome athlete, Guy. Bruno is blatant, and he's more than a bit obnoxious, as he invades Guy's space and continues to talk after Guy has signaled that he'd be happy to be left alone with his book. Yet somehow Guy, who on the surface of it seems the kind of man who would brush Bruno aside swiftly, lets himself be talked into having lunch in Bruno's compartment. Only when Bruno makes his shocking tit-for-tat murder proposal does Guy make his exit. I think that Hitchcock is suggesting that Guy is at least intrigued by the possibility of hooking up with another man. Guy's sexuality is brought into question by his marriage to the promiscuous Miriam (Kasey Rogers, then billed as Laura Elliott) and by the obvious motive of political ambition that has led him to the daughter of a senator, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), who looks older than he does. (Roman was, in fact, three years older than Granger.) Hitchcock goes about as far as he can under the Production Code in making his characters gay, but even this little helps heighten the paranoia that's haunting Guy.  It was 1951, after all, when homosexuality was still considered "deviance" and ferreting it out became an obsession of the FBI and other watchdog groups. That said, Strangers on a Train works even if you prefer to ignore subtext and see Guy and Bruno as a conventional hero and villain. Walker's performance is one of the best in any Hitchcock film, and his failure to be nominated for it by the Academy remains a marked injustice. Strangers received only one nomination, a deserved one: for Robert Burks's cinematography, the first of 12 collaborations with Hitchcock. Also overlooked were editor William H. Ziegler and special effects creator Hans F. Koenekamp, who gave us one of the most exciting scenes in the movies: the runaway merry-go-round. Hitchcock was deservedly proud of the film, having fought with his first choice as screenwriter, Raymond Chandler, who retained credit after he was fired and the script was rewritten, under Hitchcock's guidance, by Czenzi Ormonde and the uncredited Ben Hecht and Alma Reville, who followed an initial adaptation by Whitfield Cook of Patricia Highsmith's novel. Roman's casting is the film's major weakness: The studio forced Hitchcock to cast her, and he made no attempt to turn her into a real actress. She quickly exhausts her limited supply of anxious looks, practically the only ones the screenplay gives her; perhaps only the fear of getting lipstick on her teeth kept her from actually biting her lip. But the film launched what some think was Hitchcock's greatest decade, culminating in the amazing trifecta of Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest, and Psycho (1960).