In his second film with Warner Bros., Alfred Hitchcock created what is arguably his best contribution to film noir. Dense and dark, Strangers on a Train (1951) was his most expressionistic and germanic picture in years, thanks to the moody, atmospheric cinematography of Robert Burks. Building on his success with psychopath Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock delivers one of his most disturbing villains in Bruno Anthony, a grown man doted on by his mother and intent on having his father murdered. What could have been a simpler film about a murderous madman takes on much more humanity and evokes real foreboding with the inclusion of the unassuming Guy Haines. In contrasting these two men and their rationalization of murder, Hitchcock presents an unforgettable story of good versus evil, authority versus anarchy, and bright futures versus sinful oblivion.
The film begins, appropriately, with the meeting of two strangers on a train: the amateur tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and the disturbed Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Their conversation is innocent enough, drifting from tabloid gossip to family and marital troubles, until Bruno excitedly reveals his foolproof plan of a crisscross murder. Since they are unconnected strangers, there would be no identifiable motive and therefore no suspicion from the police if Bruno were to kill Guy’s troublesome wife, Miriam, and if, in exchange, Guy killed Bruno’s unloving father. Brushing off this proposition as a passing fanciful idea, Guy hurriedly departs at his station but leaves Bruno thinking he has agreed to the murderous deal. Remembering Bruno’s words only after his wife is found strangled, Guy suddenly realizes what has happened and weighs the pros and cons of telling the police about Bruno or going through with his half of the madman’s bargain to avoid blackmail.
The master of suspense, Hitchcock uses a novel approach to introduce the contrasting characters in this thriller. As the film begins, we do not see the faces of Bruno and Guy. Rather, we see their shoes striding into the train car, lifting as legs are crossed, and finally, gently bumping together to cause the film’s principal meeting. This scene serves more than to show Hitchcock’s ingenuity and crucially provides us with incomparable characterization. Bruno’s shoes appear first, the flamboyant attire of a dandy matched only by Bruno’s cocky and confident gait. Guy is, from the beginning, much more conservative in his apparel and self-assurance. His shoes are dull and inoffensively traditional, and his walk is unmistakably cautious. From this minimal introduction, Hitchcock provides all we need to know about his protagonists and builds up to a final reveal of their faces. In conversation, the two compliment their established personalities – Bruno being the bold one to strike up a conversation, and Guy displaying the awkwardness of youth, dumbfounded by Bruno’s audacious nonchalance.
The essence of Strangers on a Train is the duality Hitchcock presents in these two characters, echoed in the film’s overall theme of doubles. Throughout the film, Hitchcock presents everything in pairs: two taxicabs, two redcaps, two pairs of feet, two women at a party imagining ways of committing the perfect crime, two influential fathers, and two women with glasses. Bruno can be viewed as Guy’s dark double and the real-life incarnation of Guy’s desire to kill Miriam. Hitchcock’s treatment of these two characters, especially when they are separated, illustrates an unsettling symbiosis between Bruno and Guy. Scenes and shots crosscut between them depicting similar, or rather shared, thoughts and transferred gestures. One man asks the time, and miles away, the other looks at his watch. In anger, Guy declares that he could strangle his wife, and closing in on Guy’s hometown, Bruno makes a choking gesture with his hands. While these actions show Bruno and Guy, to an extent, as doubles, they are, in many more ways, opposites. From the very beginning, Hitchcock establishes the contrast between the two men. However, this contrast is not simply between good and evil. Hitchcock painstakingly shows us that this is a film about two deeply flawed characters – one weak and the other evil, and it’s this aspect that makes the film plausible and intriguing.
What is most persistent throughout Strangers on a Train – and indeed Hitchcock’s career – is the deeper theme and concept of inherent darkness in humanity’s heart. From the seemingly trivial conversation about murder between old ladies at a party to the central character of Bruno and his cavalier attitude toward murder and death, Strangers on a Train unflinchingly depicts an evil in all people. As the film’s villain, Bruno is a particularly terrifying and dramatic force. His is at once very charming and haunting, engaging and brooding. Whatever outward nonchalance he broadcasts, nothing can mask the shadow of his emotionally and mentally troubled side. Bruno’s best scene sees every side of his character revealed in one conversation. Desperate to stop Bruno’s plans, Guy sneaks into the Anthony home to warn Bruno’s father but instead warns a lunatic Bruno who is waiting in the dark for just such a betrayal from Guy. The ensuing argument comes to blows, and Bruno leads Guy out of the house at gunpoint, threatening much worse than murder but saying, “I would do anything for you, Guy,” all the same. This is the man who is willing to do anything to become Guy’s lasting friend, but by spurning his offer of friendship, Guy forfeits Bruno’s silence about Miriam’s murder. The psychopathic killer’s only revenge now is to frame his former “partner” for the crime.
Strangers on a Train is an unrelenting story of hatred, murder, and blackmail tempered only by Hitchcock’s insistence on portraying the humanity in his characters. Even Bruno is given a moment of sympathy, desperately trying to fish incriminating evidence out of a gutter and being aided by unsuspecting good samaritans. Ultimately, Bruno and Guy are both evil and good, as befits their interests. The sheer convenience of Miriam’s murder appeals to Guy’s ambition and keeps him from turning the obvious killer in immediately. The ambiguity in their goodness solidifies the film’s suspense. There is no femme fatale, lone detective, or corrupt cop in Strangers on a Train. Instead, two morally compromised men stalk one another, and the result is one of the best examples of suspenseful film noir.