I haven’t seen many films of Alfred Hitchcock; before now, my relationship with the man was limited to North by Northwest and Dial M for Murder, both wonderful films in their own right but also ones which I would hesitate to call great. My reaction to the Hitchcock films that I have seen feels similar to the way that I feel about the movies of director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). Every time I leave an Edgar Wright film, I feel that I really liked it, but then have trouble persuading myself to take the leap and give it any more than four stars. There’s something about those films which I find extremely enjoyable, but which still… feels… off. Somehow.
And so it is with Strangers on a Train, which is a technical marvel. All one needs to do is visit the film’s Wikipedia page in order to get an idea of how much intense thought went into almost every scene of the film. It’s the story of a tennis star named Guy Haines who accidentally brushes up against Bruno (Robert Walker), a flamboyant intellectual with a suspicious interest in Haines’ private affairs. Over the course of their long and varied conversation, Bruno proposes the perfect murder: two strangers kill a person each for the benefit of the other, and since strangers necessarily have no history together, there would be nothing to tie the murder to he who has the most motive. It’s a smashing idea, on the surface, but when Bruno actually follows through on this plan – either in the belief that Haines has agreed to it, or in a power move – the tennis star remains the number one suspect, since he had the most motive for murder. While trying to keep the police at bay and becoming more of an accessory every with every minute that passes, Haines also has to deal with the increasingly belligerent Bruno. He intends to make sure Haines keeps his half of the bargain, shattering the rules of the game by repeatedly approaching Guy in public. They are strangers no more.
This back-and-forth between the two men is a great source of tension, although perhaps not as strongly as it might have been. More on that in a moment. What I was saying previously about Hitchcock’s technical wizardry is evident from the opening scenes. One of the most prominent motifs in the film is the idea of doubles – which then becomes subdivided into the theme of opposites, of good vs. evil, of light vs. dark, of the id and the ego, and so forth. The movie opens with dark shoes walking one way, cutting to light shoes walking in the opposite direction. The dark shoes belong to the man who we will take to represent the light (or good), where the white shoes we will soon realize belong to the man filled with darkness (or evil). Not that either character is so thin that they could be reduced to such a simple description. There are suggestions that a lot of Guy’s actions are based on the need to preserve a gestating political career, and Bruno can be quite charming at times, until he begins strangling the hostess at your party. He’s not evil, just sick. Very sick. He freely admits to falling asleep dreaming of ways to commit murder, and when he follows through on the act he is so traumatized by it that he freezes up when reminded of the act.
Not only are there two women in Guy’s life, two women with thick glasses, two trips to an amusement park, two police escorts, and two ways to light a cigarette. Every single one of these things represents all of those themes discussed before. Let’s take one at random: the two trips to the amusement park. The purpose of the first trip was for homicide, the second to save a man’s life (Guy, in preserving his good name). The first trip is methodical, planned out in advance with little room for improvisation. On the second, the crowds are more boisterous; the men must weave and duck between the carnival’s patrons in order to evade one another. Where the Tunnel of Love first catered to the “smoochers”, it later makes money off of the gawkers, those who want to see a crime scene in person. On the first visit, one of the barkers catches a glimpse at the killer but the significance doesn’t register. On the second visit, he sees the light.
In addition to the brilliant composition of the film (watch a scene where Bruno calls Guy “free” at the same moment that police officers arrive at his door and the tennis star stands framed behind a gate of iron bars), I have nothing but praise for Robert Walker. I don’t know the names of any of the actors in the film, but I mention his specifically because he gives such an incredible performance. It’s a shame that he passed away less than two months after the film premiered. He totally owns the character, making Bruno the most lively of the entire film. He can move from fits of giggles to a devilish sneer with ease, truly embodying the character’s depraved lunacy. When the movie opened on the train, as Guy and Bruno meet cute, simple the way that Walker spoke was entrancing. I was imagining that the entire film would take place on the train, Rear Window style, and I was prepared to be alright with that because Walker alone made the movie worth watching.
And so, having said all this, having elaborated on all of the extraordinary things that make Strangers on a Train an outstanding piece of cinema, I still feel that I can’t get close to it. I want to pinpoint what the issue is, and the only thing that makes sense to me is that Bruno, though an exciting character, is not a frightening one. When Guy sees him standing in the distance on a white staircase, or when he is startled by the man’s presence in the crowd at a tennis match, I was not startled. I saw Bruno as an intriguing character, not as the monster that he needed to be perceived as for the terror to work on the audience. There are certainly moments of great tension – hell, I think Hitchcock holds the patent on the concept – but too often that grasp is loosened. The most frightening Bruno is in the entire movie comes when he shows up uninvited at a fancy party hosted by the father of Guy’s mistress, a U.S. Senator. He’s scary here because we don’t know what he is capable of; and he seems determined to make it clear that he is a killer at heart. In other scenes where the character is an out-and-out lunatic, such as the time in his own home where he confronts Haines, he’s just bizarre.
That’s the best description that I can manage for why I don’t fully connect with Strangers on a Train, despite being impressed by it in most every other way. The movie tells us that one girl has a crush on a police officer, but it never manages to show us this – it can only say it. It’s a master work on an aesthetic level, but when it comes time to visit the plot on a more emotional level (“tension” is not an emotion – it’s controlled entirely by the way a scene is arranged), the movie tends to fall apart.