July 18, 2010

Strangers on a Train

At the beginning of Strangers on a Train, an eccentric young man named Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) meets a tennis celebrity named Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on board a train. Bruno asks Guy if he wants a cigarette, but Guy says he doesn't smoke much. In a split second, Guy produces a lighter--engraved with the inscription "from A to G" on it--for Bruno to light his with. This bit of minutiae is extremely pertinent to Alfred Hitchcock's movie, probably his best thriller. It's got a better sense of humor than Psycho and it moves along at a sharper pace than Vertigo. Strangers on a Train has all the ingredients of a perfectly entertaining suspense picture, from the touches of black comedy to the often funny characters themselves: Guy is so noble that he's a perfect dupe for the insane Bruno (but he's also good-looking and sharp enough to keep his cool when he becomes a suspect in his wife's murder). And Bruno is undoubtedly one of the creepiest villains among Hitchcock's menagerie of maniacs. Walker seems to be having a thoroughly marvelous time throughout.

The plot involves Bruno's attempt to "swap" murders with Guy. Both men have people in their lives they don't like: Bruno carries a sense of superior contempt for his father, and Guy is trapped in a fizzled marriage to a nasty, greedy woman. (She's a salesgirl who's pregnant with another man's baby.)
I haven't read the Patricia Highsmith novel, which this movie was based on, but I'm almost certain Guy's character was cleaned up in the process of adapting him to the screen. He's completely opposed to Bruno's proposal in the movie version, which allows us, the audience, to root for his triumph without any guilt. What's so interesting is that, while Hitchcock makes Guy's character sort of banal in his goodness, Bruno is so despicably rotten that we're half interested to see him pull it off.

Much about Bruno's psychosis seems linked to his relationship with his mother (Marion Lorne). Lorne injects into her character a sort of aloof amusement at her son's unhinged behavior, and the result is quite fascinating. There's a scene early on where she reveals a painting she's finished of St. Francis. It looks like The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Bruno erupts with devilish laughter, finally composing himself enough to hail the painting as a first-rate rendering of his father. Bruno's mother typically downplays Bruno's tenacious rage, passing it off as a kind of humor only she can understand fully. Hitchcock uses the portrait scene as a moment of comedy where we are laughing despite our feeling that Bruno is truly disturbed--it's as if the murder-swapping ploy that came about in the first part was sort of old hat compared to this sinister little moment.

Bruno's obsession with Guy is clear from the beginning, but as he inflates Guy's involvement in the murder swapping plan, the obsession grows. This shot of Bruno standing in front of the Capitol is one of the most memorable in the film, and it's classic Hitchcock imagery. We can also see the influence of shots like this in later films (such thrillers as Night of the Living Dead and Halloween used similar images of the villain's shape lurking far in the distance--ironically maximizing the sense of danger for the viewer). Bruno is watching Guy from a long ways away, but it's almost as though he can hear every word Guy speaks--indeed, every thought in his mind seems captive to Bruno's eerie prescience.

Strangers on a Train set a new standard for thrillers: it's a cross between film noir and those sophisticated comedies of manners from the 30s and 40s like all the The Thin Man movies and The Philadelphia Story. Bruno is like the creepy brother in The Thin Man if he'd stop repressing his kooky personality. He taps into the morbid repressions of all the other characters in the movie, including Patricia Hitchcock (Hitch's daughter), as Anne's bookish sister, who possesses a strong fascination with murder. When Bruno meets her, she reminds him of Guy's wife Miriam (whom he murdered at a carnival), and the memory triggers an eerie moment in the thriller that pulls us out of the comedy and into the film's dark undercurrent.

This film in particular demonstrates the importance of pacing and building up the suspense, and yet Hitchcock doesn't resort to arbitrary plot devices to move his story along or attempt a superficial development of that suspense. Instead, everything is carefully configured into the story, but the comic touches and the energy from the actors brings it to life. It's no longer something written down on paper: it's a movie, a kinetic experience that involves the viewer in a way that Hitchcock had suck a knack for in his films up until the 1960s.

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