Strangers on a Train (1951)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Cinematography by

Robert Burks

Plot

Criss-crossing railroad tracks are an image used in the film

Amateur tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) wants to marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator, and pursue a political career. First, he must divorce his vulgar and promiscuous wife Miriam (Laura Elliott). On a train, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) recognizes Guy and knows about his marital situation from the gossip pages. Bruno introduces himself, then proposes an idea for the perfect homicide: he and Guy should “swap murders”. Bruno will murder Miriam, and in exchange Guy will kill Bruno’s despised father. Each would be killing a stranger. Having no identifiable motive for the crimes, neither would be suspects. Guy humors Bruno’s absurd murder plot by pretending to find it amusing. Bruno interprets this as agreement to the scheme. Bruno then borrows Guy’s monogrammed cigarette lighter and slips it into his own pocket.

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Guy meets with Miriam. Pregnant by someone else, she now refuses to give Guy a divorce and threatens to cause a scandal. Guy relays the bad news to Anne, metaphorically commenting that he would like to “strangle” Miriam. Meanwhile, Bruno stalks Miriam through an amusement park and fatally strangles her on the “Magic Isle”. Bruno then informs Guy that Miriam is dead, and expects him to follow through on murdering Bruno’s father. Bruno sends Guy his house key, a map to his father’s bedroom, and a pistol.

When the police question Guy about Miriam’s death, he claims he was on a train at the time of the murder. The police determine his alibi is inconclusive because he could have left the train in time to commit the murder and continued his trip on another train. Guy is not arrested, but the police assign an officer to trail him to ensure he does not flee while they investigate.

To pressure Guy into fulfilling his obligation, Bruno introduces himself to Anne and meets Anne’s younger sister, Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock), who physically resembles Miriam. Soon after, Bruno appears uninvited at a party at Senator Morton’s house. To amuse another guest, Bruno demonstrates how to fatally strangle someone. His gaze happens to fall upon Barbara, and her resemblance to Miriam triggers a flashback. He begins strangling the woman but he blacks out before harming her. An upset Barbara tells Anne that, “His hands were on her throat, but he was strangling me.” Anne confronts Guy, who confesses the truth about Bruno’s crazy scheme.

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Pretending to agree to Bruno’s original plan, Guy sneaks into Mr. Anthony’s bedroom intending to warn him of his son’s murderous intent. It is Bruno who is waiting there, however. Guy tries to convince Bruno to seek psychiatric help. When Guy refuses to follow through with Bruno’s plan, Bruno threatens to frame Guy for Miriam’s murder.

Anne visits Bruno’s mother (Marion Lorne) to tell her that her son committed a murder, but the befuddled woman discounts it. Bruno appears and informs Anne that he intends to incriminate Guy by planting the stolen cigarette lighter at the amusement park. Anne and Guy devise a plan for Guy to finish his tennis match, evade the police, and reach the amusement park to prevent Bruno from planting the lighter.

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Guy eventually wins the long match at Forest Hills, then, eluding the police, heads for the amusement park. Bruno is also delayed when he accidentally drops Guy’s lighter down a storm drain and has to recover it. Guy arrives at the amusement park. Bruno stays out of sight until sunset when he can plant the lighter on the “Magic Isle”. A worker recognizes Bruno from the night of the murder and informs the police. Guy catches up to Bruno, and they fight on the park’s carousel. Thinking Guy is trying to escape, a police officer shoots at him, but his shot misses and kills the carousel operator instead. The dead man falls onto the control panel, and the carousel spins wildly out of control and crashes. The worker who recognized Bruno tells the police that Guy is innocent, and the mortally injured Bruno is the man he saw that night. Guy tells the police that Bruno was attempting to plant Guy’s lighter at the murder scene. Bruno refuses to clear Guy, but as he dies, his fingers open to reveal Guy’s lighter.

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Critical reaction

Upon its release in 1951, Strangers on a Train received mixed reviews. Variety praised it, writing: “Performance-wise, the cast comes through strongly. Granger is excellent as the harassed young man innocently involved in murder. Roman’s role as a nice, understanding girl is a switch for her, and she makes it warmly effective. Walker’s role has extreme color, and he projects it deftly.”

Conversely, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times criticized the film: “Mr. Hitchcock again is tossing a crazy murder story in the air and trying to con us into thinking that it will stand up without support. … Perhaps there will be those in the audience who will likewise be terrified by the villain’s darkly menacing warnings and by Mr. Hitchcock’s sleekly melodramatic tricks. … But, for all that, his basic premise of fear fired by menace is so thin and so utterly unconvincing that the story just does not stand.” Leslie Halliwell felt that Hitchcock was “at his best” and that the film “makes superior suspense entertainment,” but called the story “unsatisfactory.”

More recent criticism is generally, though not universally, more positive. The film holds a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Roger Ebert has called Strangers on a Train a “first-rate thriller” that he considers to be among the top five of Hitchcock’s films.

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David Keyes, writing at cinemaphile.org in 2002, saw the film as a seminal entry in its genre: “Aside from its very evident approach as a crowd-pleasing popcorn flick, the movie is one of the original shells for identity-inspired mystery thrillers, in which natural human behavior is the driving force behind the true macabre rather than supernatural elements. Even classic endeavors like Fargo and A Simple Plan seem directly fueled by this concept…”

Almar Haflidason was effusive about Strangers on a Train in 2001 at the BBC website: “Hitchcock’s favourite device of an ordinary man caught in an ever-tightening web of fear plunges Guy into one of the director’s most fiendishly effective movies. Ordinary Washington locations become sinister hunting grounds that mirror perfectly the creeping terror that slowly consumes Guy, as the lethally smooth Bruno relentlessly pursues him to a frenzied climax. Fast, exciting, and woven with wicked style, this is one of Hitchcock’s most efficient and ruthlessly delicious thrillers.”

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Patricia Highsmith‘s opinion of the film varied over time. She initially praised it, writing: “I am pleased in general. Especially with Bruno, who held the movie together as he did the book.” Later in life, while still praising Robert Walker’s performance as Bruno, she criticized the casting of Ruth Roman as Anne, Hitchcock’s decision to turn Guy from an architect into a tennis player, and the fact that Guy does not murder Bruno’s father as he does in the novel.

Rich and entertaining premium Hitchcock

19 May 2005 | by Framescourer (London, UK) – See all my reviews

A wonderful, rich and entertaining film. It manages to be just about all things to all men: a noirish thriller, but with plenty of humour; a matinée feature with iconic set pieces (the tennis match and the final fairground showdown) and a handsome cast led by an unspeakably beautiful Ruth Roman. The acting is good and to some depth. Robert Walker’s schemer Bruno Anthony sets the standard the others follow. Farley’s tennis chump (sic) Guy Haines (a character he’s recycled from the earlier Rope) is likable but bubbleheaded enough to maintain the suspense; I also liked Patricia Hitchcock’s Bobbie soxer sister to Roman, a good foil for Farley’s character (and reminiscent of Barbara Bel Geddes’ homely Midge opposite James Stewart’s Scottie in Vertigo).

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What I hadn’t expected is the homoerotic character, not only explicit in Walker’s Bruno, but also throughout the action as a strong concurrent subtext. Once I had the idea in my head that Hitchcock intended the film as a homosexual tragedy, I found it difficult to shift. Of course, it’s no more than subtext, albeit a pervasive one (it’s 1951 after all) but the psychosis of the queer character moves fluidly between the surface action and the implication of his relationship with Haines. It also serves as a way of explaining Haines’ perplexing procrastination in involving the authorities – perhaps Bruno’s behaviour is that of the sexual blackmailer. As I say, such readings breed themselves. Anyway, any sympathy that Hitchcock might have been seen to be harbouring towards the orientation of Bruno, if not the character himself gets tied up neatly at the end with Haines decisively removed from the ‘danger’ and getting the girl.

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Hitchcock seems imperiously in control of his ideas and technique in this film. I was particularly taken with a sequence at a party. He successfully shows five different, well-developed characters all benighted to different degrees and coming to their own conclusions without any need for dialogue, both racking up tension and pushing the drama forward. There’s very little to take issue with here. 8/10

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