Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 1951)

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Luke:

This week we’ve gone all Hitchcock

It was inevitable really. But rather than choosing one of his most seen and most revered works (because we’ve both seen them more than once I’m sure) I decided to go for one of his slightly more obscure works. That being said, I genuinely think this may be one of his best.

The plot of Strangers on a Train centres on the high concept of two men meeting on a train, one a celebrity tennis player, the other the son of a wealthy family, and a plan for murder. Both men have people in their lives causing them grief, for Guy Haines (Farley Granger), the tennis player, it is his cheating wife Miriam. For Bruno Anthony (a truly creepy Robert Walker) it’s his despised father. When Bruno mentions an idea that the two kill the other man’s ‘problem’ – meaning each man would be killing a stranger – Guy dismisses it as a joke. But for Bruno it’s no joke.

This is a screenwriter’s wet dream. The structuring, the use of an object (Guy’s fancy lighter) to propel the plot, the tension, the characters. It blew me away when I watched it because I love a film that is driven by one singular moment, where the inciting incident is everything. For me it’s the pinnacle of storytelling.

What’s your thoughts?

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Alex:

Before we start, I want to say I’m a bit worried about talking about this film- we are in serious danger of pissing off a lot of people, as well as retreading old ground. It seems fairly redundant to say Alfred Hitchcock is a good film maker and I don’t think we’re going to win any film criticism awards for saying ‘The Master of Suspense’ can create a thrilling set piece. Anyway, here we go.

I found this to be a highly satisfying watch; I enjoyed watching someone very comfortable with his chosen media and genre just have fun. Hitchcock is never afraid to play with the medium, this is apparent from the first scene in which we are introduced to the two leads with simultaneous tracking shots of just the lower half of their bodies as they board a train- you can tell a lot about a man from the shoes he wears. This sense of playfulness also comes across in the dialogue, I laughed a lot in this film. There were ideas played out in the film which made it clear you are watching a film put together by an expert who has a real youthful passion for the art form (e.g. a wide shot of an audience for a tennis games; the crowd tick-tock their heads, following the ball in unison except for the deranged Bruno Anthony, who stares directly at an exasperated Guy Haines).

One thing that surprised me about the film is that it still seems fresh, the ideas seem new, and even though Hitchcock is one of the most influential filmmakers in history, throughout the film I was reminded of filmmakers that came after Hitchcock (De Palma) – but at no point did I feel like I knew what was going to happen. One of the greatest things about this film is the way as an audience member you are played with: like a mouse and Hitchcock is the cat bouncing you between his paws.

Luke:

I couldn’t agree more, and I think the keyword here is fun – this film is ridiculously entertaining, particularly the smarmy and unmovable villain of the piece, Bruno. Like you say, this a master playing around with a craft he has already mastered. There’s an interesting exploration into the idea of our inner-most animalistic desires, and how far we might go to explore these desires.

There’s a whole load of Freudian ideas being thrown around, as is typical of Hitchcock, but the idea of ‘celebrity’ is something new and places it in a timeless rhetoric. I guess the best way to angle this discussion is where it places in the pantheon of Hitchcock films.

What’s your thoughts on that?

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Alex:

My view (and that is the view of a Hitchcock novice) is that Strangers on a Train preceded the majority of his most important films (Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho) but still came after he had been making films for 30 years. I think you put it perfectly when you said he had already mastered the art form and he was just beginning to become self-reflexive about it (the idea of ‘celebrity’).

What do you think?

Luke:

Yeah it certainly seems as though he spent a long time perfecting his ability to tell suspenseful thrillers, and, when he reached the peak of his abilities, he ventured into deeper and, as you say, more reflexive explorations into the human psyche.

What strikes me about this one is how he raises the stakes ten-fold by adding in this ‘celebrity’ element. A large part of the obstacles Guy faces in the plot stem from the attention he receives as a celebrity and the duties that come with that.

I digress, but just out of curiosity if you were to make this film now – and let’s face it you certainly could – what type of celebrity would you have and who would you have direct it?

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Alex:

Iiiiinteresting. I think I would have Brad Pitt playing Brad Pitt and then Angelina decides NOT to divorce him, and the film goes from there. Seriously though, I think it would be hard to make this film nowadays, celebrities can’t just get on trains anymore and have a quiet conversation about murder.

Though, as we have established, Hitchcock is a really great filmmaker (and could be pro if he really set his mind to it!), I feel he is much more comfortable focusing on action, detail and inanimate objects- he is not quite as good at dealing with emotions (the weakest aspect of the film is the romantic relationship).

Do you agree that Hitchcock finds it hard to deal with emotion/romance? It seems he limits his dealings with humans to a psychoanalytical level.

Luke:

I couldn’t disagree more (in terms of the film being open to a remake today), I think the film would slot into the present day perfectly. The rise of ‘celebrity’ and the limitations that come with it make for an even more intense story. If you ask me (and you didn’t but I’m a renegade baby!), you could make the Guy character a minor celeb, like a reality star. For example, if it were an X Factor contestant the stakes would be raised even further by the risk of them not winning the competition because of rumours of murder etc. It could say a lot about scandal in the age of press scrutiny.

But on to your question: I agree completely. Hitchcock is very detached in his voyeurism, seeing people as catalogued personality types as opposed to a very undistinguishable paltry dish of emotions. The relationship, which is at the centre of the plot, is never really explored. Neither is Bruno’s with his father.

I’ve read an interesting interpretation of the film and that is the idea of doubles – that Guy and Bruno are just two sides of the same coin, the good and the bad. This wasn’t my reading during watching the film but it has piqued my curiosity. Is Bruno just a manifestation of Guy’s darkest intents? Or all of ours for that matter? The side we hide away…

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Alex:

Guy’s inner murderous feelings towards his wife are thinly veiled behind a curtain of disgust at Bruno. Guy is struggling, as we all are, to comply to social norms and not go around killing people.

Me and Hitchcock have something in common: an illogical phobia of the police and the fear of being accused of a crime we didn’t commit. This is often a part of his films, and it is the driving force behind this film. How do you feel about this as a theme?

Luke:

It’s another example of Hitchcock being ahead of his time. It’s an idea that is timeless, and can be extended to authority and corrupted power as a whole. But it’s something that is perhaps most relevant today, what with the state of police-race relations in the states and the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve always found injustice to be an incredibly tragic thing so it’s certainly a theme that resonates strongly with me. I mean this is probably true to all of the ideas discussed in Hitchcock’s work, other than, perhaps, his approach to his female characters…

So, it would seem that with Strangers on a Train Hitchcock was able to display the scope of his genius: not just a weaver of labyrinthian narratives, or a master of the cinematic image, or a composer of tense scenario, but an elegant freudian psyche-molester, although perhaps with limitations . Not bad really.

8/10 | Alex    9.5/10 | Luke

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