Z To A: Strangers On A Train (1951)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

Plot Synopsis: A psychotic socialite confronts a pro tennis star with a theory on how two complete strangers can get away with murder…a theory that he plans to implement.

– From IMDB page

After a visit to a Santa Rosa Big Lots! I came home with the two-disc special edition of Strangers On A Train, my favorite Hitchcock movie. The special features were quite impressive, boasting a documentary, several featurettes and the most thorough audio commentary I had ever heard. The only minus to the set was an interview with M. Night Shyamalan, or as my friends and I refer to him, “M. Night Shamalanadingdong.”

The first time I heard of Train was when it was referenced in Danny DeVito’s directorial debut, Throw Momma From The Train (1987). Scenes were included within the movie (the famous “criss-cross” line, for example) and it mirrored and parodied Hitchcock’s plotting and style. It took a while before this film-within-the-film caught my attention and it was years later when I saw the actual thing.

What made the biggest impression on me was Robert Walker as the antagonist, Bruno Anthony. I could have sworn I had seen Walker before, but a quick internet search proved me wrong. Instead I found out that Walker had been born in Salt Lake City, Utah, which wasn’t far from where I had been born and raised. He then went on to lead a bittersweet, tumultuous and tragic life before dying at the age of thirty-two. The circumstances surrounding his death are… well, weird.

However, in this film Walker is very much alive and I think it’s safe to say that Train features some of his best work (yes, I did check out his other films). Bruno is a coddled, spoiled playboy whose mother is oblivious to how psychotic he is and a father he resents for- apparently- no goddamn reason. He is charismatic but his social skills are poor. Also, there’s a scene where he pops a child’s balloon with a cigar, which is pretty hilarious.

Walker isn’t the only reason why I loved the film, though. It’s the supporting characters that give it that extra push, and in this case they are the women. Laura Elliott as Miriam, Guy Haines’ (Farley Granger) duplicitous wife is absolutely deplorable, and of course Elliott relishes the role from beginning to end. Why? Because villains are more fun. She is manipulative, calculating and an all around awful human being. She seems to be origin of the term “total bitch,” and for the 1950s her sexual appetites must have been shocking. One sequence presents her at a local fair- a married woman pregnant with another man’s baby- on a date with two other men and eyeing a third.

I know. Wow.

Other notable performances are Marion Lorne as Bruno’s mother, a woman so drowned in denial it borders on comedy. The other scene stealer is Patricia Hitchcock, who plays the younger sister of Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), Guy’s clandestine girlfriend. As the spirited Barbara she is whip-smart, calls it like it is and often gets the best lines. Her interactions with Walker’s Bruno- whom she suspects of something- are probably the most important in the film. She is the only character who makes him vulnerable, which is a pretty remarkable feat.

The interesting thing about Train‘s legacy is that some believe there is something homoerotic about Guy and Bruno’s relationship. There are supposedly two cuts of the film, one of which contains more of these insinuations, but after watching both I didn’t see any difference. It was a case of viewers reading into things too much and my research on the matter confirms that. The only difference between the U.S. release and the alternate “British” version are the endings and a few missing lines about food.

But sure, it’s obvious that Bruno’s fixation on Guy is unhealthy. I just never got the feeling it was sexual. Creepy, yes-

“I’m not watching tennis, I’m watching YOU.”

– but Bruno doesn’t seem to be taking it to that level. He’s obsessed with carrying out his “plan,” not with getting into Guy’s pants. But then again, that’s just the way I see it.

Train was what Hitchcock considered his “first” American film, and as every cinephile knows it was the beginning of a beautiful (and profitable) friendship with the studio system. Along with The 39 Steps I would say it’s the Hitchcock film I’ve enjoyed the most and love sharing with people. Nevertheless, it’s one of the director’s lesser-known works, and overall it was moderately successful when it was released.

Still, it has made its impact on pop culture, first with Throw Momma From The Train and other films, then rumors of a remake and this absolutely wonderful recreation in Vanity Fair.

Seriously. Click on this. It’s worth it.

Man, usually I don’t care for remakes but that photo actually made me want this to happen for real.

But for now the original film will do. And that’s just what Strangers On A Train is. I’m glad I have it.

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6 thoughts on “Z To A: Strangers On A Train (1951)

  1. Donald Spoto writes in his biography of Alfred Hitchcock (“The Dark Side of Genius”) that during the filming of the carnival sequence Hitch called lunch at one point during night filming, shutting down the set and leaving his daughter Patricia atop the ferris wheel in total darkness knowing full well that she was terrified of heights. Was this true? Pat denies it, but Hitchcock was a well-known prankster and this sort of shenanigan is equal to the well documented and true joke he played on Madeline Carroll and Robert Donat while filming “The 39 Steps”, during which the key to the handcuffs binding the two together mysteriously could not be found after one filming break, and a strong laxative had been slipped into one (or both) of the stars.

    • I’ve heard Patricia’s side of the story. She said that she was on the ferris wheel with the two actors who played Miriam’s “dates” and there are photographs of them waving and laughing. The rest of the story was made up by Warner Bros. publicity department. Her only complaint was that her father promised $100 for doing it and never paid her.

      As for the stunt on the set of “The 39 Steps,” it was implied that Hitchcock wanted to force the actors to experience what being handcuffed to the other was like, adding realism to their performances. I’ve never heard of a laxative, though. I really hope that part isn’t true.

      • There are just so many other instances of Hitchcock’s fondness for pranks, and who can really unravel fact from fiction. As for the contention that the handcuffs was a situation Hitch used to aid his actors — well, I think that is studio jargon to cover up the public outcry against him by Carroll over the incident. What makes sense to me about it all being a cruel joke is that Hitchcock really didn’t involve himself with the actor’s job. He always hired actors who knew what they were doing, and Hitch concentrated on putting the story to film. For “I Confess” he had a great deal of trouble with Montgomery Clift because Clift looked to Hitchcock to supply him with motives and reasons why his character would do the things he was supposed to do. Hitchcock would not be bothered. It was the only time that I can recall him having this problem with an actor. In one scene, Clift is supposed to see something in an upper part of a building across from him. The building and what he was seeing would be shot by second unit, and the building Hitch chose was a federal building redressed as a hotel with a big sign on it which was costing the studio lots of money. Clift, of course, could not see anything as they were shooting so he needed to know how to react. Hitchcock more or less told him to figure it out for himself since everything anyone needed to know about the story was in the script. No hand holding there. And he was like this with actors from his earliest days in Germany. Do your job and don’t bother me while I’m doing mine. Actors loved working for him, and they all respected him … with the exception of those who didn’t like him on a personal level, which was rare. Even Tippi Hendren, who suffered mentally and physically at his hands, and who almost lost an eye due to a Hitchcock prank, has always said the most praiseworthy things about him.

  2. Why did actors love working with Hitchcock, if he was such a prick at times?

    PS; LOVE this movie. Wish it was a remake with mcAvoy and Hirsh. I think it would be perfect.

    • I’m not sure. There are a lot of directors who are difficult and yet actors clamor to work with them. Hitchcock was one of the most notorious on that count.

      • In spite of the pranks—which, it seems, is a tradition among English theatrical people: James Whale was known to do some mighty cruel things to his actors, and Noel Coward was no piker—Hitchcock was never considered a prick. The reason why actors loved working for him, and why so many of them desperately wanted to be in a Hitchcock film, was because his reputation for making quality and superior movies was well-known in the industry. Those of us old enough to remember when Hitchcock was releasing films remember that when interviewed, those who worked with him always referred to him as “Mr. Hitchcock”. During his life his films were moderate financial successes with some out-and-out box office failures, yet critics and industry insiders admired the craft he maintained in “art” plus his sterling work habits. He always brought his product home on time and well within budget, never had tons of wasted expense, and promoted his material in the most visible way. He was a great showman. To be in a Hitchcock movie, during the 1950s especially, meant appearing in the crème-de-la-crème of motion picture “art” in America. The great worldwide post-war cinema explosion which created a massive amount of cinephiles in France and Italy rested on the shoulders of filmmakers idolizing and emulating the work of Hitchcock. The public persona of the droll fat little Englishman that can so easily be cartoonized and the image of a dark, emotionally troubled genius have today removed the actual feelings of awe and respect the man generated during his working career. But when he was alive and making his movies, it was a horse of another color entirely. Norman Lloyd, one of the very few collaborators, co-workers, and friends of Hitch’s still alive today, can tell you; Pat Hitchcock can too, but since she is his daughter we tend to take what she says as loyalty rather than truth.

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