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Reviews in Retrospect: Strangers on a Train

Hitchcock and Highsmith’s outstanding collaboration creates a perfect murder.

Strangers on a train film still

Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's debut novel Strangers on a Train (1950) was a memorable cinematic success.

Revisiting both film and book, whilst there is a departure from the novel's narrative after the first 30 minutes Hitchcock retains all the psychological themes that were to become both his and Highsmith's hallmarks.

Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker) become enmeshed in an unlikely attachment involving the plotting of two murders. This is arguably a psychological thriller since the focus is on their relationship - with homoerotic undertones - rather than any crime.

Both writer and director shared a fascination with what Marcel Proust called ‘neurosis that drives plot’. Motivation is explored as a theme and manifests as the interplay of status, sex and revenge.

There is some sympathy for both characters but Walker’s Bruno, whilst seen as a manipulative and amoral person, perhaps has more integrity than the cold tennis player Guy, who wants to win the match - and the senator’s daughter, Anne (Ruth Roman).

Scenes of strained civility at the house of the senator (Leo G Carroll) are punctuated with the performance of the kid sister Barbara (Patricia, Hitchcock’s daughter), who has all the lines that the adults might like, calling out the repression and concealment in the room.

Who we are and who we pretend to be are central concerns for Highsmith, explored here and revisited most memorably in the character of Tom Ripley of The Talented Mr Ripley. The fear of the pretence slipping creates a mood spectrum from anxiety to menace which Hitchcock captures perfectly.

The director’s talent for stunning set-piece visuals is amply illustrated here: the famous scene at the tennis match, where the whole audience is moving their heads from side to side following the ball except Bruno, who is looking straight at Guy; the deceptive shadow play in the tunnel of love; the dramatic scene at the carnival where a worker crawls on his stomach under the merry-go-round to get to the controls. An economical script (Raymond Chandler, Whitfield Cook and Czenzi Ormonde) also supports an atmosphere of fearful isolation.

Strangers on a Train leaves us with the signature moral discomfort Hitchcock so often engenders. The real suspicion at the core of this tale is that we are all capable of subterfuge, deceit and, yes, even murder.

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