Quest for the Classics: Strangers on a Train

by Tom Ingram

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most important directors ever. It would be madness to have any kind of discussion on classic film without including him. I set my completely arbitrary cutoff for “classic movies” at 1955. For my purposes, anything released after midnight on December 31, 1955 belongs to a different era. However, most of Hitchcock’s best-known work falls after this cutoff. Today’s entertainment isn’t as ubiquitous as Psycho or North by Northwest, but it’s an excellent movie nonetheless.

Strangers on a Train is a Hitchcock thriller from 1951 that’s been parodied and referenced countless times since then. But who’s actually seen it? All anyone seems to know about it is the classic murder plot that is concocted within the first few minutes. Today, we’re going to take a deeper look.

Guy Haines, an amateur tennis player, accidentally bumps into Bruno Antony on a train. The conversation that strikes up between them takes a weird turn somewhere, and Bruno suggests that they each have a person in their life they’d like to be rid of. He gets the idea to “swap murders” with Guy–he kills Guy’s unfaithful wife, and Guy kills his strict father. Guy thinks that Bruno is either joking or mildly insane, and he makes an excuse to leave.

When Guy gets back into town, he meets up with his wife, Miriam. He had brought money to pay a divorce lawyer, but she steals it and refuses to get a divorce. Bruno finds out about this and goes, without Guy’s knowledge, to kill Miriam.

One thing you can always expect from a Hitchcock film is that it will be stylish. I’m not very good at the visual stuff, but there were a few shots in this movie that were just so well-composed that I was wowed. See the “Moments…” section below.

Guy doesn’t tell anyone about the conversation with Bruno, and tries to pretend the whole thing never happened so that the police don’t suspect him. However, events conspire to bring him further under suspicion and Bruno won’t stop following him around. Finally, Guy sneaks into Bruno’s house at night, hoping to warn Bruno’s father and get everything sorted out. Unfortunately, he’s too late: Bruno’s father has already gone on vacation to Florida, and he accidentally gives the warning to Bruno.

This is where Bruno transforms from an eccentric, naive, but still essentially likeable guy (who incidentally kills people) to a scary bastard. This scene is the pinnacle of the movie, by far the most evocative character moment. Bruno lets Guy go, saying that he’ll think of something much more clever than shooting him.

Guy learns that Bruno is planning to plant his lighter at the scene of Miriam’s death. He needs to end his tennis match quickly and slip out in order to evade the police, who still suspect him. When you realize what’s at stake, this is an edge-of-your-seat moment. Alfred Hitchcock has done the impossible: made a tennis match exciting. When he finishes the match, Guy races back to Metcalf to catch Bruno.

The music up to this point has been mostly string-based, using crunchy sounds and suspended notes to underscore the tension of the scene. But when Guy enters the amusement park, something interesting happens in the score: it becomes really fucking annoying. The cheesy organ waltz repeats ad nauseam until you want to tear your hair out. But given the climactic events of this scene, the silly music contrasts nicely. It’s an artistic choice–building tension by annoying the viewers.

The ending of this movie has been much derided. To the modern viewer, at least, it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief and a little selective memory in order to take seriously. Guy chases after Bruno, and the police inexplicably shoot at him. They neglected to notice that in front of Guy was the merry-go-round, with all its passengers. The merry-go-round attendant is hit by a stray round and killed. On his way down, he catches on a lever and kicks up the speed on the ride.

Guy and Bruno are both on the platform as it speeds up, leading to a final battle that ends with Bruno crushed under the remains of a wooden horse. A man from the amusement park tells the police that he saw Bruno the night of Miriam’s death, and he’s never seen Guy before in his life.

Why does it even have a 'whiplash' setting?

Strangers on a Train isn’t as famous as the other classics I’ve looked at so far, but it’s a pretty good film in its own right. Hitchcock’s most famous work was still to come, but his masterful touch is evident here. The ending is a little hard to swallow from a plausibility point of view, but the whole thing is well plotted and paced, with surprising character depth. All in all, a very solid Hitchcock offering.

Quotes: Bruno outlines his idea for the perfect murder: “A couple of fellows meet accidentally, like you and me. No connection between them at all. Never saw each other before. Each of them has somebody he’d like to get rid of, but he can’t murder the person he wants to get rid of. He’ll get caught. So they swap murders.”

Moments to watch for: As Guy gets off at Metcalf, Hitchcock makes a cameo as a passenger loading a bass onto the train.

Miram’s death is shown as a mirror image in her glasses which are on the ground. This was an interesting stylistic choice. Another visually striking moment is during Guy’s tennis practice. He looks out into the crowd, their heads moving back and forth to follow the ball. All except for Bruno, who is sitting in the middle of the crowd and staring right at him. Everyone else is dressed in light colours that contrast with Bruno’s dark suit, which makes an even more stark contrast.

He kind of looks like Bill Murray.

In a callback to Guy’s first meeting with Bruno, two strangers bump into each other on the train and begin talking. This happens while Guy is racing back to Metcalf to stop Bruno from planting evidence, and it really ramps up the tension.

Next on Quest for the Classics: A Night at the Opera.