‘Strangers on a Train’ Reconsidered

Hitchcock’s strange tale of a rich D.C. psychopath

Strangers on a Train, whose seventieth anniversary will be upon us in 2021, is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most lurid and disturbing noir films. It’s not easy to imagine an uplifting story featuring a psychopath whose modus operandi is strangulation and who likes to show off his method to fancily attired high-society dames at lavish Washington parties.

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The film is a morbid work of art. The visuals are so polished, and the storytelling so compact, that the viewer may never guess that the project went through a complex creative evolution and that Hitchcock and the first screenwriter involved, Raymond Chandler, had ugly spats. With their divergent sensibilities and ideas of what works in a movie and what doesn’t, Hitchcock and Chandler were, in a sense, like strangers on a train. Here’s a work that moved away from its source, Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel, with both good and frustrating results.

This isn’t a bad time at all to re-watch and reflect on the movie. We have the benefit of John Billheimer’s intriguing 2019 book Hitchcock and the Censors, which details the project’s evolution and its makers’ maneuvers at a time of priggish sensitivity and censorial overreach. What is more, the postmodernist writer and essayist David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), a lifelong fan of tennis, which figures prominently in the story, left us with interpretive tools that may be uniquely applicable to this film.

I Do For You, You Do For Me

In the early scenes of Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines, played by Farley Granger, lets his guard down enough to chat during a train ride with an odd stranger, Bruno Antony, played by Robert Walker. Bruno recognizes Guy as a tennis pro and, it turns out, knows more about Guy’s personal life and failing marriage than his interlocutor might like. He’s well aware that Guy has his mind set on divorcing his unfaithful wife, Miriam, and marrying Anne Morton, a senator’s daughter, but that Miriam may not grant a divorce. Guy’s life sure would be easier without Miriam around.

And what do you know? Bruno too wishes someone were out of the picture. That someone is Bruno’s father. To Bruno’s sick mind, here’s the perfect scenario. Rather than either man killing the person who’s a problem in his life, and bringing suspicion on himself as the most obvious suspect, the two strangers can “switch murders.” I’ll rub out your problem, you rub out mine. The way Bruno makes his pitch is blood-chillingly casual.

Guy parts company with Bruno without fully committing to the plan, but he hasn’t heard the last of it. After a particularly bitter row between Guy and Miriam, during which she rules out a divorce, Guy seems to realize that his problems aren’t going away until Miriam does. A bit later, Bruno stalks Miriam in an amusement park, catches up to her in a dark remote spot, and strangles her.

Despite Guy’s never having explicitly agreed to the deal, Bruno expects Guy to make good on his part of it and goes so far as to provide Guy with a gun and a map of the mansion where Guy can find Bruno’s father. It’s a twisted plan, but Bruno’s not somebody you want to cross. He glares at Guy in public, turns up at a party at Senator Morton’s Washington home where Guy is also present, lays his raffish charm on a pair of high-society women, and shows off his strangulation technique with a bit too much verisimilitude, leaving the lady in trauma while he himself passes out from a bizarre flashback.

String Theory

Much of the compact narrative of Strangers on a Train focuses on the negative attraction between Guy and Bruno. Guy may not like or trust Bruno, but Bruno won’t give up pestering Guy about the debt he believes Guy owes. His persistence draws inspiration partly from a sense, insinuated by Bruno in one scene after another, that Guy was complicit in Bruno’s killing of Miriam, particularly after the early scene where the spat between Guy and Miriam nearly crosses the line into violence. It’s utterly sick, but from Guy’s viewpoint, Bruno has served a purpose. Bruno just did what Guy would have done if he had the backbone to act on his own half-acknowledged wishes.

Maybe it’s no accident that Guy, an architect in Highsmith’s novel, becomes a tennis pro in the film. In making this change, the filmmakers raise dramatic and thematic possibilities that they don’t quite flesh out. The story hints at aspects of Guy’s not fully articulated wish to be rid of a person who’s in the way of what he wants. This aspect of his character perhaps deliberately stays a bit vague. It’s possible that Guy hears the call of impulses that exist outside and independently of any idea of moral and immoral, right and wrong, good and bad.

After all, Guy isn’t just anybody, he’s a tennis pro who performs in front of huge crowds. To be able not only to do this, but to do it masterfully and defeat a skilled and determined opponent, requires a highly peculiar psychology, in the analysis of the late David Foster Wallace, who grew up admiring the stellar performance of tennis prodigy Tracy Austin until a series of mishaps derailed that star’s career.

In his brilliant essay, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” Wallace pans Austin’s 1992 book, Beyond Center Court: My Story, as a clunkily written generic sports memoir, ridden from beginning to end with clichés and vapid generalizations and bereft of the very thing that Austin’s fans would come to such a book in hopes of finding, namely insight into what made her such a formidable athlete. Wallace asks how someone so gifted in one sphere of endeavor, tennis, could show such a marked lack of talent in the recounting of it.

What it may come down to, Wallace suggests, is that some people have what he ironically calls a gift of dullness. They are simply more innately practical than others, and in extreme cases this practicality can blunt their sensitivity to how watchers may judge their thoughts and actions. Wallace recalls his own junior-league matches, and the agonizing self-consciousness that overcame him at times when playing in front of crowds far tinier than those watching Austin, let alone Guy Haines in Strangers on a Train.

“Ever try to do something difficult with a crowd of people watching? Worse, with a crowd of spectators maybe all vocally hoping you fail so that their favorite will beat you?” Wallace asks. Self-consciousness, rather than mere lack of physical ability, may be what divides ordinary people from top athletes, as Wallace’s own experience attests. There were times, he writes, when he could barely control his sphincter as he stepped up to serve a ball under the gaze of so many eyes. But people like Austin, Wallace posits, are wired differently. It may seem incredible to most of us that they can act at will on a cliché like “Gotta concentrate here” and shut out forces of distraction that would cripple others.

“Maybe it’s because, for top athletes, clichés present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or triteness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not and, if useful, to be invoked and obeyed and that’s all there is to it,” Wallace reflects.

In the later scenes of Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines performs the seemingly incredible feat of playing against and beating a masterful competitor at Forest Hills before a huge crowd, while under suspicion of having committed a murder and facing imminent arrest. Just try to imagine what that would be like. Just try. The only way this could be remotely plausible is if Haines can invoke those imperatives described by Wallace, and obey them, because they serve a useful purpose and obedience to them requires no further justification.

Guy’s not fully articulated assent to the murder that Bruno commits on his behalf must also stem, in part, from obedience to imperatives that he knows to be useful. Miriam’s in the way? Then she should die. Nothing more to discuss. Concepts like morality aren’t part of the equation.

Changes made in adapting Highsmith’s story from fiction to cinema both fulfill, and frustrate, our understanding of Guy’s motives. Turning him from an architect into a tennis player opens up an intriguing avenue of character analysis. But one difference here is that in the novel, Guy comes through with his part of the “bargain” with Bruno, and carries out the murder of Bruno’s dad. In the movie, he doesn’t go that far. His obedience to cold practical imperatives is more subconscious, more a matter of interpretation, though clearly a part of him badly wants Miriam dead and doesn’t object when Bruno gets this done.

Battles with Censors

Preempting objections from the Production Code, Hitchcock and his collaborator Winfield Cook decided not to have Guy carry out the reciprocal murder that Bruno demands. But this issue was far from the only bump on the road. Viewers of Strangers on a Train over the past seven decades may not have realized that what they see is a severely watered-down version, not only in comparison with the novel, where Guy carries out his reciprocal murder, but even relative to the original script.

According to Billheimer in Hitchcock and the Censors, the filmmakers had to alter a few things to make Strangers on a Train conform to then-current ideas of propriety. They sharply downplayed the element of homoerotic attraction between Bruno and Guy. In deference to the Production Code, Hitchcock made Bruno’s enactment at the party at the senator’s home of how to strangle less explicit, removed a line of Bruno’s praising murder as “part of the natural law,” and, in the interest of having a somewhat likable lead in the form of Guy, decided that it should not be Guy, but rather Miriam, who makes the marriage insufferable.

Czenzi Ormonde’s late version of the screenplay was the one that passed muster with the censors, and it reportedly retained little of Raymond Chandler’s original, though Chandler’s name still appears in the credits.

In recent decades, reports have emerged that Hitchcock made a slightly different version of the film that ends, not with Haines and his fiancée running into yet another stranger on a train who recognizes Haines and then fleeing to a different car, but with a phone call in which Haines voices his wish to give up tennis and settle down with her for good. Maybe it’s for the better that the version we know is not the one that ends on such a saccharine note. There were already enough problems.

Maybe Chandler’s input could have saved the day. He was an incredible writer. One wishes that Chandler and Hitchcock had gotten along, had avoided feuding over how to improve the screenplay, and that Hitchcock hadn’t tossed out Chandler’s revision in frustration and deferred to Ormonde. Chandler had worked with Billy Wilder on the great James M. Cain adaptation Double Indemnity and his instincts for film noir were strong. But Chandler evidently applied high literary standards to the art of screenwriting, and the dramatic license taken in the medium of film, the expected suspension of disbelief, didn’t always sit well with him. Billheimer quotes a letter that Chandler wrote to a friend, stating that he thought Hitchcock “too ready to sacrifice dramatic logic (insofar as it exists) for the sake of a camera effect.”

Chandler, a writer of dialogue sans pareil—just read a few pages of The Big Sleep—also felt that some of the dialogue the filmmakers wanted in the film was beneath any self-respecting screenwriter. On this point, he was pretty withering.

“What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mess of clichés, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screenwriter is taught not to write,” Chandler wrote to Hitchcock.

We can easily imagine Guy following through on his part of the bargain with Bruno. Guy isn’t exactly a faceless character, but one whose psychology the filmmakers ultimately kept a bit muted. No one wanted, in the lead role, a creep who could shut out any impulses or imperatives he didn’t find useful. Strangers on a Train is not a bad film at all, but it’s a casualty of self-editing and self-censorship in deference to the standards and expectations of its time.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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