STRANGERS ON A TRAIN -Alfred Hitchcock runs the gamut.
A couple weeks ago, I discussed the notion of classic Hollywood directors operating at a pace similar to that of workhorses; pumping out movies at breakneck speeds like their creative brake-lines were cut. In this method of working, it’s humanly impossible for every film to be a hit… and if you have a slip-up, you’re so far into development on the next project, who has time to be bothered? The greatest of filmmakers are the ones who managed to maintain a consistent quality of excellence in the sweatshop of Old Hollywood — and who exemplifies this more than Alfred Hitchcock?
Simultaneously the most imitated and yet misunderstood director, I don’t think there’s any disputing Hitchcock is on the cinematic Mount Rushmore. All it takes to realize what a powerhouse he truly was is to venture beyond the glimmering surface of Psycho, Rear Window and Vertigo into the sea of the over fifty features he made during his career, and discover that the deeper cuts command the same power. Among the strongest of these is 1951’s Strangers on a Train.
Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, it’s a film that certainly delivers on its title. It opens with two men who meet on a train - Guy (Farley Granger), a champion Tennis player, and Bruno (Robert Walker), a psychopath. As the two converse, they both air grievances about how their lives would be substantially better should certain individuals disappear. Guy wants a divorce from his wife so he can marry a Senator’s daughter and Bruno wishes his father would die. Seeing a golden opportunity, Bruno suggests the two swap murders and eliminate each other’s target. Guy laughs… obviously, but Bruno is dead serious and the story that follows is a classic tale of that weird guy you met once who thinks you’re best friends trying to blackmail and kill you.
Granger gives a solid performance as a pursued hero but the film truly belongs to Walker, whose psychopathic turn rivals- and serves a precursor to- De Niro in Taxi Driver. Additionally, Hitchcock’s own daughter Patricia plays a key role in the film and promotional images of the film showed the director strangling a bust of his daughter…
The development of the script is as complex as the plot of North By Northwest. It was Highsmith’s first novel in a monumental career that would include works such as The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels. Hitchcock took advantage of the fact she was an emerging writer by keeping himself anonymous and purchasing the rights to the novel at the lowered rate of $7,500 (about $80,500 today). Understandably when she found out, Highsmith was not thrilled by this. Having acquired the rights, Hitchcock began slashing through screenwriters, trying to get the script where he wanted it. He wanted a “name” but was rejected by eight writers including John Steinbeck and Dashiell Hammett, who weren’t keen on the story. It was then that he turned to the great Raymond Chandler (hot off writing Double Indemnity), who also was not keen on the material. From all accounts, the two did not get along and after two drafts, the only feedback Chandler received was his dismissal.
Hitchcock finally found his writer when his frequent collaborator Ben Hecht suggested his assistant - Czenzi Ormonde, who had recently published a successful short story collection - to pen the script. With less than three weeks until shooting, Ormonde worked with associate producer Barbara Keon and Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville and the three women pumped the script out together.
The resulting film is delightfully dark and has one of Hitchcock’s most creative climaxes, set amidst an off the rails merry-go-round. Despite its iconic status today in the Hitchcock pantheon, critics were mixed when Strangers was released, citing the suspense sequences as highlights but criticizing the story. Cinematographer Robert Burks was the only member to receive an Academy Award nomination for this work on the picture, though Hitchcock would receive a nomination from the Directors Guild. Time has final say however, and the movie sits at a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes with critic Roger Ebert considers it one of Hitchcock’s five top and included it in his Great Movies collection.
Strangers is Hitchcock stripped-down to a degree and, as a result, gives us one of the few memorable Hitchcock characters in Bruno in addition to some of the best of the filmmaker’s favorite protagonists: his suspense set-pieces. Strangers on a Train exists as a hybrid of the best qualities of the legendary director and is undeniably essential viewing in a one of the finest of all filmographies.