Feels kinda late for me to be noticing the role trains play in Hitchcock movies. They’re the setting for at least one scene of major drama in 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt, The Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest — probably others, I haven’t seen em all.
I guess he chooses trains for dramatic set pieces cuzza the claustrophobia? Especially if you’re stuck on the train with some kind of adversary. Nowhere to run. Yeah it’s probably nothing symbolic. Just a useful staging device for action. You don’t have to strain for an explanation as to why these two people are forced into confrontation. Just suddenly eliminate the option of flight and, boom, DRAMA.
Hard to tell if I’m becoming more appreciative of Hitchcock’s work as I move up the List, or if he was actually getting better as a filmmaker, or maybe it’s that, at this point in his career, he’s just becoming so Americanized that his movies feel tailor-made for my…national palate? Whatever the case — I think Strangers on a Train might be my new favorite Hitchcock movie after Blackmail. I’ve got a real soft spot for Rope, but I think that’s cuz it was so underappreciated at its time; what I’m feeling toward Rope might be more like a yearning to love it.
A quick overview: two dudes who meet on a train — one’s a famous tennis player, in love with a woman other than his treacherous philandering wife, and the other guy, swaggy as hell and smarmy as fuck, is a smooth-talking millionaire who resents his father. Smooth-talker’s played by Robert Walker and he tells the tennis guy, played by Farley Granger, that he’s given some thought to what would make a perfect murder. It’s this: meet a stranger on a train, the two of you kill one another’s enemies in different cities since there’d be no discernible motive to link you to the crime, and then return to your respective lives outside of town. Cops would never trace it back.
Then, to ground it in their own situations, Smarmy-Swaggy suggests — ostensibly in jest — that he kill Granger’s wretched wife and, in turn, Granger could kill Walker’s awful father.
Granger laughs it off. Says something like, “Yeah sure,” and then bails at the next stop.
But Walker, apparently mistaking the “yeah sure” for a binding agreement, fucking goes ahead and kills Granger’s wife. Granted, Hitchcock shows her as a vindictive dishonest asshole so that we don’t exactly grieve her, but still. Now Walker expects Granger to kill his dad in return.
It’s both simple and convoluted in the standard Hitchcock way. Consider just how, by making us hate the victim of the first murder, he puts the audience in a position of being grateful for that murder (the philandering wife was threatening to ruin our hero’s life) but then gets us tugging our collar about the toll that now needs to be paid.
And in this ’50s peak of Freudian zeal there’s a bounty of subtextual stuff waiting to be unpacked. Theres also the bounty of Hitchcock’s usual motifs, tricks, obsessions — whatever you wanna call em. They stand out shiny and tall: a grown man who’s a bit too close to his mother, drama on a train, closeups of feet, strangulation — and, just like in Rope (Hitch’s previous entry on the List, also starring Granger), we’ve got smarmy men discussing murder, discussing the sorts of people who perhaps ought to be murdered. Eugenics. A loaded subject after World War II (and discussed at even greater length in Rope). Also the killer, whose means of murder is strangulation, happens to be gay — just like the two killers in Rope, who also use strangulation to kill their friend, sandwiching the victim tightly between them as they squeeze the life out of him.
I’m also at this point resigning myself to the fact that, at least for me, Hitchcock is the main character in all of his movies. Not that the protagonist is meant to be embodying or representing him (although I think Cary Grant’s most recent biographer, Marc Eliot, made an interesting point about the great working relationship between Grant and Hitchcock: each one looked at the other and saw the face of their internal self: Hitchcock saw himself as a great Casanova, Grant saw himself as a spherical dweeb). What I mean is I can’t watch these movies without delighting in the motifs, the slights of Hitchcock’s distinctive hand, and I can’t help but contextualize the movie within his larger body of work, and where his mind mighta been during a given point of his career. Like for example the fact that Strangers on a Train was his first big success in a while, coming after The Paradine Case and Rope and Under Capricorn and Stage Fright, and so I’m looking at the movie wondering if it was a deliberate return to commercial appeal and, if so, wondering what he might have done in order to make it so. Maybe the very sinister and charismatic villain? We had two of them in Rope, but that movie did poorly. Probably cuz there weren’t enough locations? The camera gimmick, shooting that whole movie in what appeared to be a single shot, might not have registered with lots of critics but it must have struck an unconscious chord with viewers. Whether we notice the camera techniques or not, they influence our experience of the picture.
But yeah it’s like each successive Hitchcock movie also teaches you how to watch and appreciate a Hitchcock movie. Like I was noticing here, more immediately than in other movies, how Hitchcock lives up to his dictum about suspense. He always said that good suspense is only achieved if the audience knows of the threat and is then strung along to wonder if that threat will be realized.
So look here at Strangers and see how it manifests in the scene where Walker is stalking Granger’s wife, leading up tot he murder. We know that he’s thinking about killing her. We don’t know if he actually will.
Or look toward the scene with the tennis match, which flaunts one of my favorite shots in all of cinema: the camera zooms in on the crowd to show Walker sitting there, the only spectator whose attention isn’t following the ball. So the match unfolds, just about every character is consumed by the match, but we the audience know that there’s an unspoken threat and it’s something our hero (the potential victim) can’t draw attention to. Nor can he flee from it.
The final scene on an outta-control merry-go-round is impressive but I don’t think it’s as exciting as Hitchcock intended. Or maybe it just hasn’t aged well? But that’s fine. Strangers on a Train is, in my estimation, one of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements. I’m thinking, too, about M. Night Shyamalan’s comeback in the past decade, which he engineered with two small movies: The Visit and Split. Neither one of them shook the Earth, but they were cool and successful because they showed a talented filmmaker just trying to make a good, contained, entertaining movie. he isn’t trying to dazzle us with spectacle or experimenting with technique. He exhausted people’s patience with a handfulla egotistical failures and now, in order to win their trust back, he had to present a humble film that flaunted no airs.
Shyamalan said in this recent Rolling Stone profile that he was only able to make those kindsa movies after navigating a midlife crisis where he came to terms with the fact that he is the guy who makes a certain kind of movie. And yes, some might think it’s mundane that he does the same kinda move over and over, but his realization was like, “If this is my calling, if this is what I’m good at and what I enjoy and it’s what people wanna see from me, then this is what I should be doing.”
I think Hitchcock might have had a similar epiphany here. And I think that Strangers on a Train might be the induction to his great mid-late period.
The perfect blend of the craftsman and the entertainer.