Registering the Registry 2021: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, we come to the latest of nine Alfred Hitchcock films inducted into the NFR, his big 1950s comeback that began a decade long string of hit after hit, exemplified the focuses he’d narrow on in the coming years, and gave us another instance of Hitchcockian queerness on the big screen. From 1951, starring Farley Granger and Robert Walker, it’s Strangers on a Train! Climb aboard and see what’s in store!

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It should come as no surprise Strangers on a Train diverges widely from its source material’s plot. Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 debut novel is a tale of two men who come to view each other as a polar opposite towards whom they feel an indelible attraction. Architect Guy Haines and rich layabout Charles Anthony Bruno cross paths one long cross-country trip, each with a frustration on their minds — Guy’s wife Miriam is holding her pregnancy by another man over Guy’s head as means of dodging their long-festering divorce, Bruno just plain hates his father for obtuse reasons and spends his days plotting out perfect murders. As it happens, he and Guy make the perfect instruments for such a mutual killing, as they do not know one another and so can kill the other’s bugbear with minimal suspicion from the police, an ultimate act of freeing that would prove their mutual cleverness and compatibility. Guy naturally wants nothing to do with this, but Bruno made a quick connection with this stranger, coming to hate Guy’s wife with a burning, psychotic passion before he even lays eyes upon her, and deigns to end her life, doing so after stalking and strangling her at a carnival in Guy’s hometown. Then Bruno comes to Guy and lays down the proposition: he did Guy’s murder, now Guy’s gotta do his. Crisscross.

Author Patricia Highsmith.

These components Hitchcock takes directly as he can, plus or minus some elements we’ll discuss in a minute. The direction and theming of Highsmith’s work past this dramatic opening act closer, however, he seems at first blush to leave entirely on the table. Highsmith takes the opportunity to freely shift between Guy and Bruno’s perspectives across short chapters presented in rapid succession, typing out the fever in Guy’s brain of whether guilt over saying the wrong thing with the wrong emphasis drove Bruno to kill and whether HE’S partially responsible; the frustration in Bruno’s heart as Guy refuses to take what he considers an easy course fated by their innumerable similarities; the tension between the two men as Guy tries to live vicariously through his work with an emotional drunk of a stalker on his trail. Queerness creeps into the work none too subtly as each track of narration comes to mirror the other in word choice and focus, each preoccupied beyond rationality with the other man and frequently noting a disgust so strong it loops into admiration and empathy. Once Guy can take no more and actually does gun down Bruno’s father in his own bed, the moral bleakness of discovering someone who creates such beautiful buildings and holds spiritual sanctity as a virtue above all could do something so vile and ugly only drives him to identify with Bruno all the more, loathing the man and wishing him dead or captured even as he does nothing to speak out against Bruno’s perfect game, or prevent him from ingratiating himself into Guy’s social circle, or deny the benefits to his life brought about by these murders. Something bigger than Bruno’s threats keeps Guy in line, something stronger than disgust forces him to play buddy-buddy and privately regard Bruno as the only person who understands. In the end, Guy comes to frantically regard himself victim of little more than the world not understanding what it’s like to have a devil in your breast and a demon twin in your train compartment, and (right before the law catches him) resolves he’ll go to the grave denying he partook in any greater evil than this if he can walk the world seen as an innocent man, goodness reduced to a sheen assumed by strangers all.

Hitch’s cameo

In many a sense, it’s easy to understand why so much of this was left out of Hitchcock’s adaptation. The novel spans years and miles of countryside, relies heavily on internal monologue to make chapters disappear near-entirely within a character’s head, and takes advantage of the literary format’s easy perspective shifts to bring us into intimate understanding with both leading men in addition to a number of conflicted supporting players — none attributes easily transferable to film. Guy’s capture at the end is a near-perfunctory matter, of far lesser importance than his self-absolution of something even less socially acceptable than murder in 50s, and would require active fights against innumerable censorship bodies to get, “This man killed in cold blood/privately pines for another man but you’re still supposed to sympathize with him,” past the Hays Office. Perhaps most importantly, it was Alfred Hitchcock who bought the rights (for a paltry $7,500 by keeping his name out of negotiations), and a Hitchcock joint is not typically one defined by extensive introspection or reckonings with the balance of divine and carnal within man. An Alfred Hitchcock film is an active, heart-pounding thing, driven by visuals the director captured in his head long before cameras rolled, defined by intense focus on a singular scenario you could explain in the time it takes to cross a lobby, elevated by the care and intricacy the man devoted his craft. Under Hitchcock’s care, Strangers on a Train needed take a largely different shape from Highsmith’s novel, a shape which owes greater debt the visions the text conjured in his mind’s eye than actual words on the page, and while one ought be skeptical about such dramatic shifts in nine out’ve ten cases, a Hitchcock film towards which Hitch felt such deep-seated personal interest earns ample benefit of the doubt.

Course, it’s no easy matter getting a film to screen, leastways not at a point in his career when Hitchcock suffered four critical and commercial drubbings in a row, and sought to make Strangers a blowout spotlight-recapturing effort. Initial attempts to find a novelist screenwriter who could adapt Highsmith’s already-evident particular mode of dialogue led to mystery author Raymond Chandler’s hiring, a match which quickly proved a nonstarter under Hitchcock. Neither man appreciated anything about the other’s preferred working habits, with Chandler fraying under Hitchcock’s preference for waffling story meetings and desire to keep the structure as close to what he’d already conceptualized as possible in contrast to Chandler’s all business make it work my way approach, ultimately producing several drafts Hitchcock never read and openly insulting him during their last encounters. By the time Hitch rebounded onto small-time writer Czenzi Ormonde (and made a show of delicately dropping Chandler’s last draft in the rubbish bin whilst pinching his nose), the official shooting date was only a few weeks away, necessitating her collaboration with associate producer Barbara Keon and Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville to bang out something with snappy dialogue and a few extra visual components to compliment what the director already planned in such a tight timeframe. Though Chandler’s name remains on the movie to satisfy studio demand for his clout, these three are the ones who truly defined how Hitchcock’s vision would stray from Highsmith’s material while retaining much of what made it tick. For I have, my reader, misled you a little: despite Hitchcock overhauling the plot and thematic focus of Strangers, he and his collaborators demonstrate an admirable understanding of the story’s finer points and how to translate them on the big screen, resulting in two divergent works that still function as complimentary takes on a great story.

Hitchcock with star Granger

Let’s consider the villain of the piece in close-up: Robert Walker’s Bruno Anthony. In motion he’s no overly-emotional alcoholic with a conniving mind frequently held back by his inability to detach himself and let events play out without further meddling. The drinking and the straining are certainly there — in fact, his vocal performance perfectly matches Highsmith’s description of a voice undulating and pitching too high, balancing the ridiculous quality with real malice — but Walker is handed a scripted Bruno whose defining traits are his obsessive observational skills, his tenacity when needling a conversational partner or pursuing a deadly goal, the chilling ease with which he switches out desires. There’s a brief moment when Guy listens to an inebriated professor rambling on about functions in differential calculus, and I think this pins Walker’s performance of Bruno to a T. When we meet him on the train or find him stewing beneath his mother’s (Marion Lorne) overly permissive hand, when he’s between games and looking to needle people until he can find something of interest, he appears every inch the overly wealthy layabout who’s exhausted most of life’s conventional pleasures before thirty and taken to annoying people by exploiting how much he can guess at a glance. Then he actually gets to stalking Miriam (Kasey Rogers) at the Metcalf Carnival, and the artifice slowly flakes away, the joyless and mechanical way he gives her cold smiles from across the way, demonstrates his might at a test-your-strength bell game, gets closer and closer through the tunnel of love and the merry-go-round. Although he’s putting on an act all the same, the excitement of this great taboo on his mind crushes out any sense this is genuine, any tiny notion this is a man capable of the casual air he exuded on our first meeting, until he flicks a lighter open before Miriam’s face for a brief second and then slowly, calmly chokes the life out her throat as she glides to the ground in reflected eyeglass lenses.

And for what, for who? Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a locally famous tennis player whom Bruno previously only knew through the socials section of the paper, but now regards as a partner in this dread enterprise, someone who’ll willingly go along with Bruno’s latest time killer, or at least will if leaned on heavily enough. Without the immediacy of written narration from the page, Hitchcock and collaborators guide Walker as an obtrusive force through the second act, first by having him come to Guy immediately after the killing for some falsely cheery celebration mixed with threats through the jail-like bars of an iron gate, then as little more than a shadowy figure on the other end of the phone line, a briefly-glimpsed dark mar on the steps of the Capitol Building, a single face staring directly at the camera through a crowd of turning heads. Without ever going away for a meaningful amount of time or letting up on the intensity of his performance, Walker and Hitchcock make Bruno someone cold and distant, someone whose good nature we know conceals an efficient killer, whose every thought is processed through a simple filter of, “What do I want, and what is the fastest way to get it?” All the charm we saw in the opening is superficially there, but when he worms his way into a party hosted in Guy’s honor and strikes up a conversation with two little old ladies about hypothetical perfect murders, amiably offering to play choke one as a demonstration of the method’s efficiency, we already know it’s only a matter of time before he drops the act and unconsciously tries to do it for real, long before he catches sight of Barbara (Pat Hitchcock) in her glasses so much like Miriam’s own and falls into a bloodthirsty fugue state. What’s more, when he intuits Guy’s breakdown and swift decision to kill Bruno’s father after a whole act’s coercion came so quickly as to mean he’s gonna try and warn the old man about Bruno’s threats instead, the realization Guy is not really on his team does not break him as in the book; instead, he simply switches gears, takes it in stride, and calmly vows Guy’s total destruction in the cruelest way he can imagine.

All this to say Hitchcock evidently gravitated towards Strangers on a Train in part because he could reformat Bruno into an ideal Hitchcockian villain, a body who is paradoxically passionate to the extreme and presents the mask of a perfect socialite gentile, yet eventually proves themself to move and think in a hollow, morbid manner. The fascination with Bruno as a sociopath who can bedevil Guy at every turn and present an insurmountable challenge had me initially thinking Hitchcock retained the queerness in the text only as an incidental matter. Sure, he expanded on the implied importance of Bruno’s dotting mother in explaining his behavior, and amplified the character’s inherent misogyny with his compulsion to reenact the murder whenever he sees a woman who reminds him of his victim, and there’s the not insignificant confluence of him being a dominant figure who presses Farley Granger to the borders of his own movie much like John Dall in Rope. Compared against the likes of Mrs. Danvers or Brandon Shaw or Norman Bates, though, any homosexual dimension to Bruno initially seems incidental to why he is the way he is or does what he does in the story, an element of attraction that draws him to Guy quickly trampled and subsumed by his desire for murder. Besides, more than any of Hitchcock’s other noted queer characters, without the magnetism and repulsive mutual attraction of the story on page, reading Bruno as queer in a “this is why he done did it” way falls into the trap of many a mid-century popular fiction queer character, of demonizing them because they are divergent from the norms of sex and gender. Without Guy’s perspective standing as equal to Bruno’s, looking at his being gay as anymore important than something Hitchcock considered sensible for the character but not a driving force brings the movie to a far darker social corner.

Ah, but there lies the trip, don’t it? It’s easy to gravitate towards Bruno, for Bruno IS at the center of Hitchcock and cinematographer (in the first of a VERY productive twelve-film collaboration between the two) Robert Burks’ flashiest moments — he’s always the one who stands through mottled shadow out when doubled against plainly-lit Guy, the haunting figure stalking through the carnival at center screen, the strangler reflected in fallen glasses, the blot on an orderly Washington DC landscape, the suddenly illuminated climax of a creep through a blackened mansion, the most interesting figure in the frame for the way he flits between light and darkness and never quite leaves your mind when you so constantly suspect he MIGHT be around, the man you really notice when Dimitri Tiomkin’s score drops at his approach. He’s so fascinating and fun to dissect a character, we easily overlook Farley Granger as Guy, and why shouldn’t we? He’s cramped, submissive, overwhelmed, hardly a presence in the story which calls him protagonist thanks to the insidious, dominant stalker who constantly threatens to expose the horrible mutual secret of their relations… and y’know, I think we need to talk about Guy in detail before we miss Some Important Things too much longer.

Thing to understand about Guy is he’s a whiff of a character onscreen compared to his literary twin, and I think this is on purpose. Granger plays him mild as May from the jump, easily coerced into hearing out Bruno’s ideas and letting them run through his head as he tries to set his affairs in order. For well over an hour, the firmest things we see him do are lose his temper with Miriam and shake her in a private diner compartment with windows open to the whole world, and scream over the phone about how he wants to strangle her sometimes as a train drowns his voice, both actions far closer to Bruno’s manner than the cautious, timid tennis player we follow otherwise. Just as Hitchcock affords Guy very little time in the spotlight, Granger keeps Guy milquetoast and meek, overwhelmed in scenes at Anne’s house by her statesman father (Leo G. Carrol) and sister Barbara, who takes such pleasure in needling the logic behind all the ways Guy might be seen as guilty and romanticizing the idea of a man who’d kill for love. Here’s a man constructed from fearful stares, color visibly draining out his face in black & white, silence and passivity where he should stand up for himself, driven by weak hope in the possibility of an idle witness or the natural order of things saving his skin. For every inch Bruno runs rampant across the movie, asserting his dominance and demanding audience attention, Guy’s there as the submissive party, barely able to take matters into his own hands by going against Bruno’s wishes without Bruno intuiting his meaning and cutting him off at the knees.

This much is evident in Highsmith’s text, though in far greater protraction, and culminated in Guy succumbing to his weakness by acting as Bruno’s chosen instrument of death. With these possibilities collapsed by twin matters of censorship standards and Hitchcock’s differing interests, we look to see what becomes of Guy with his designated fate impossible… and in looking we find the soul of the work hidden in new form. See, when the third act rolls along and Guy is left knowing Bruno intends his destruction without knowing how, there’s a marked change in reaction to his first failed attempt at resistance. Guy is finally backed so far into the corner he must can either give in entirely or press an advance of his own, so to this end Granger starts modeling his performance by degrees after Walker’s, matching the script’s turn to Guy thinking and acting somewhat like Bruno. As Guy draws on what he knows about Bruno’s proclivities and formulates a plan to get ahead of an evidence planting scheme, Granger firms his manner, takes charge in dialogue-driven scenes, allows some cold efficiency to creep around his performance. In kind, Hitchcock and editor William Ziegler place the two in direct distant conflict in the famous self-timed tennis match mirrored with Bruno’s attempts to retrieve an incriminating lighter after he drops it down a storm drain. Through this high-intensity battle of swinging rackets and flying balls and dripping sweat, we see Guy as we haven’t before, a body push himself to end this obligation quickly as humanly possible so he can dash off and fight the real fight after, while Bruno debases himself upon the ground, reaching his arm into filth and grime so his fingers might scrape the one thin hope he has of maintaining this façade. It is as if there’s some psychic confluence to these happenings, Bruno so affected by Guy truly taking charge for the first time that all his battering and bullying across the picture collapses for just this one long, humiliating minute, his prey suddenly strong and assertive in a mode not unlike his own.

In a word, Hitchcock and company recognize the vital theme in Strangers on a Train, the notion Guy and Bruno have something of the other in themselves, are paired and intertwined in ways far deeper than their happenstance meeting would imply. Why this picture strays from the mutual self-destruction of the page while maintaining its own strong identity rests on a few factors. First, I believe Hitchcock found something inherently fascinating and thrilling about amplifying Bruno’s dominance while doing the same with Guy’s weakness, the challenge inherent to a film in which the antagonist has all scenes in his corner and makes the best of all advantages until a bitter hard turn against him — you might consider Psycho a structural reverso from this film, given its own antagonist’s sudden focal hijacking halfway through and refusal to let go. Second, despite Hitchcock’s love for tweaking social standards and making his audience uncomfortable, he was nothing if not committed to gratifying an audience’s tastes by the final reel, and even his bleakest films show a man or group who stand for something akin to justice or righteousness to win out in the end, give or take some tragic losses along the way. This here means the big carnival chase scene keeps escalating until neither Guy nor Bruno is in control, both men whipped about by the runaway merry-go-round in a clutching, strangling struggle, until the climactic crash takes the guilty life and leaves the innocent one, revealing Bruno’s shows of strength as completely hollow when he lies through his teeth in one final effort to incriminate Guy before death loosens his fingers and blares truth to light. The sexually aggressive braggart bullies his way through the picture so long as it is entertaining, until it’s time for the meek to grow a spine and give his tormentor a taste of their own medicine, whereupon they retch and clam and fall because now this makes the superior entertaining sight.

Third, more than just a rote rebuilding to make the story match with Hitchcock’s understanding of how best to construct a thriller, I’ve a suspicion Hitchcock simply liked Guy and wanted him to win out, for Hitchcock was often something of a bleeding heart for his protagonists. Sure, he put them through the wringer and has quite a few instances of lives shattering past the point of reformation or recovery (Vertigo springs to mind), but one finds a good deal Hitchcock leads guided to a steady, happy end as here, and Guy Haines of the page is certainly the sort of lead Hitch would take to. Bright future ahead, difficulties with women not entirely outside his ability to resolve, strong confidence in who he is and where he’s going, unfortunate association with a monster who breaks down his sense of self and leads him into evil. What more satisfying a story is there for the master of suspense than to take a man damned by text to find he has the unholy within his soul, dangle him before the jaws of defeat and destruction, and then allow him escape because he recognized the flawed facets within himself, denied them totality, used them to turn the tables on his tormentor? It’s the sort of major rework I’d say comes across exceptionally well in view of the original story, as all the huge shakeups to plot and theming and characters and overall direction seem irrelevant once you realize all that’s REALLY changed is Guy having enough wherewithal to right his ship atop storming seas and sail on to clearer skies. In a way, Hitchcock’s major reinterpretation stands as valid as Danny deVito’s own radical tinkering with this movie’s contents for Throw Momma From the Train and its black comedy with an ultimately kind, humanist heart — all three works in this chain are differentiated merely by how much faith and love the artist shows flawed people. For his part, Hitchcock sure liked the idea of people as they could appear in his stories, even if he often bristled against the flesh-and-blood folks playing ‘em.

All this understood, we can look on the business of queerness in Strangers with clearer eyes, and mayhaps understand its function in the film a bit better. True, the internal torment Guy feels in Highsmith’s hands is largely externalized, and Bruno’s own torment is excised entirely to focus on him as torturer, changes which seem too drastic to call book and film of a like kind. On close inspection, however, one finds the whole film slathered with all-consuming obsession from both parties, one keeping the other pinned with all his might, the twinned men who passed from strangers to battlelocked souls in a matter of days unable to shake the one or give up the other until climactic termination. In Bruno’s case, his preoccupation with Guy is all but crushed beneath his sociopathy, any kindness or positive development from their chance encounter buried in an avalanche of conniving, slithering, manipulative bullshit, a direct release of what’s only ever implied in the book. As to Guy, he must reckon with that which is like and of Bruno inside him to survive, face it head on and embrace it or be caught in a snare of lies and destroyed, and unlike his original ink-worded self, the act of acknowledging this does not rend his mind to confetti. Within Hitchcock’s interpretation of Strangers on a Train, a man can house something he might find unsavory or counter to his nature within him — be this the desire to see another dead or attraction to the same sex, however you like to read it — and not let it taint him by association with another who has flooded his own unseen side with vice and ruinous action. He may even take it as his own for a time, use it to fight the one who would see him squashed like a bug, and release it back into the depths, safe from harm and able to process at his own pace after the final reel tapers out. That what a body might call evil by the typical views of their time can exist in a man, and unless he allows the idea of harboring evil to make him genuinely vile and cruel, he can survive with no need to banish it from himself. In this way, we arrive at something very close to Highsmith’s written conclusion, just with a gag about not falling in with another stranger on another train instead of a man falling to pieces as he challenges the world entire to prove him guilty, Hitchcock cheek over a Highsmith gutpunch.

It’s my prerogative to find the “Actually this has a positive queer reading” angle on every Alfred Hitchcock film, and neither you nor God can stop me.

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We got a bit lost in the queer sauce this week, so I wanna hear your take on Strangers on a Train! The performances, the cinematography, the structure, the Hitchcock cameo, whatever you’ve got down in the comments! Nobody go planning any crisscross murders, and I’ll see y’all two weeks hence. Courtesy Robert Aldrich, it’s Betty Davis vs. Joan Crawford in the original psycho-biddy war: 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Available to stream on HBO Max or for rental/purchase on all the usual sites. Catch you then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, shares ’em on twitter, answers questions from time to time on tumblr, and accepts donations on ko-fi.

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I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus

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Gargus

Gargus

I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus

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