My second film for Noirvember – I’m terribly behind but I shall persist with:
Armed with a thrilling soundtrack and a phenomenal authorial vision, Strangers On A Train delivers with a wickedly fast-paced narrative driven by the unforgettable Bruno Anthony.
In the rather self-explanatory title, Strangers On A Train, two complete strangers – Amateur tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and “poor little rich boy” Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) – meet on a train. The straightforward Bruno proposes a plan whilst the pair have lunch – a “criss-cross” murder: Bruno will kill Guy’s cheating wife Miriam and in exchange, Guy will kill Bruno’s father. To Bruno, it’s a perfect plan but Guy won’t go for it. Of course, the minute Guy started talking to Bruno, trouble has already begun for both of them…
The first time I’ve heard about Strangers On A Train was during a film class, and a girl proposed it for screening at an LGBT festival. And I think whilst watching it with this in mind, the homoerotic tension between the two leads was very subtle to be but at times, highly evident. Especially from the cunning Bruno Anthony, who has now become one of my favourite film noir villains. Bruno constantly shadows Guy’s movements – fulfilling one of the famous Hitchcock-ian themes of pursuit and surveillance – that borders on obsession and he even blatantly admits to an outraged Guy: “But Guy…I like you”.
Daring and manipulative, Bruno also oozes a certain kind of charismatic evil. What he’s doing is wrong, of course, but I couldn’t help wanting his plan to succeed.
One of my favourite scenes is when Bruno turns up at an alleyway outside Guy’s home in Washington. We hear a whisper, “Guy…” and the camera tilts from a low angle as Guy turns around. Hitchcock’s clever play with darkness comes to light here (pun intended) in the following sequence as Bruno appears from a distance; he’s mysterious and forbidding, masked by the shadows. It’s a signature silhouette that would eventually haunt Guy and the audience for an indefinite amount of time.
Guy walks up to him; Bruno emerges from the shadows and talks to Guy from behind the fenced bars but Guy keeps a distance from him; away from the bars. When the police arrive in front of Guy’s doorstep, Guy aligns himself next to Bruno, both now behind the bars. Perhaps some might find it too literal, but I think it’s brilliant – Guy’s now in this as much as Bruno is. They’re both guilty parties, I don’t think Guy is entirely innocent, and they’re bound to end up jailed, behind prison bars from their wrongdoing. It’s a superb use of foreshadowing their impending downfall and how their uneven partnership has already begun.
Another classic example of Hitchcock’s stunning auteur work is during Miriam’s murder scene (to backtrack a bit):
This iconic scene consists of a terribly unexpected and horrible murder, but it somehow transcends into something aesthetically pleasing. The slow, graceful murder is reflected in Miriam’s broken, discarded glasses. It’s this sort of unusual juxtaposition that would sit unpleasantly with the viewer, but it also arrests one’s attention immediately and makes one think. I was really impressed how the entire murder was captured from the lenses – it’s absolutely exquisite.
Before I continue harping on about the film’s stunning visual qualities (which I’m sure would take pretty much a whole day), Strangers On A Train possesses several noir characteristics that are impossible to dimiss as well. There’s dark streets, swirling cigarette smoke and the distinct thematic concern that free will is an illusion. Certainly for Guy, he feels that his life is under Bruno’s control, and he’s always one step behind Bruno’s devious schemes. This fatalistic attitude gloomily prevails throughout, but Strangers On A Train always accelerates, never hesitating, towards the finish line – where death and doom awaits.