Film Spotlight: Strangers on a Train

Alfred Hitchcock hired Raymond Chandler to write the script for the 1950 book adaptation of Strangers on a Train. Considered a masterpiece by Roger Ebert (read his review here:  http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/strangers-on-a-train-1951 ), there is a lot to ooh and ahh about the film because of the skillful camera work by Hitchcock. Not everyone loved the film. Raymond Chandler criticized Hitchcock for altering his script too much and complained to Hitchcock in a letter:

“What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mass of clichés, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screen writer is taught not to write—the kind that says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied by the actor or the camera.”

Read the scathing letter in its entirety here: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/01/flabby-mass-of-cliches.html

Predictable dialogue, wooden-cartoonish characters, and absurd plot aside, perhaps these dings dent the overall composition of the film, but it doesn’t take away from the last half of the film’s suspenseful rise to the fantastic climax on the merry-go-round in an amusement park. For its flaws, it is a worthwhile cinematic experience.

Hitchcock opened with close-up shots of two sets of shoes getting on a train. Thus began the meeting of two strangers. Robert Walker played the bored, garrulous Bruno Antony, a socialite cushioned by the wealth of his New York father and batty mother. He recognized pro-tennis player Guy Haines, played by Farley Granger and pestered the celebrity about his upcoming divorce which he read about in the social column of the newspaper. An elaborate plot constructed by Bruno Antony ensues: Bruno will kill Guy’s scheming wife if Guy kills Bruno’s father.

strangers-on-a-train-family

Alfred Hitchcock and wife of 50 years, Alma Reville, had one daughter.  Pat Hitchcock played a supporting role as the young, sassy daughter, Barbara Morton, in Strangers on a Train. Barbara and sexy-even-with-those-glasses, Miriam, were my two favorite characters, easily outshining the rest of the cast.

 

Alfred Hitchcock was famous for hiring blonde bombshells as stars in his movies but not in this one. Thick rimmed glasses play a role in the film. Barbara represented smarts while Miriam represented sexuality, and their  performances were essential to the success of the film. They paralleled the two males–Guy Haines was wholesome and polite while Bruno Antony was manipulative and brash. Props played a larger role if you consider Guy Haine’s lighter found at the crime site. Hitchcock stressed the importance of these props when he shot them with long close-ups.

Two favorite scenes showcasing Hitchcock’s innovation behind the camera happened during a tennis match and at an amusement park. If you haven’t seen the film, keep a look out at the tennis match and watch how the crowd moves their head in sync to the left and right, but in the center of the stands, Guy Haines stares back at you. At the end of the film, in the amusement park, notice how the carousel plays garish music and the petrified plaster-painted animals are stuck in a nightmare. Their expressions compliment the human struggle taking place. It’s an original, perfect place to have a showdown.  Have you seen Strangers on a Train? Rent it quick for the cinematography and decide for yourself if Raymond Chandler had a legitimate gripe against Hitchcock’s script.

43 thoughts on “Film Spotlight: Strangers on a Train

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  1. When I asked Herbie Hancock about his soundtrack for Antonioni’s Blow Up, he answered that on first viewing he hated it. When he complained to the director about the use to which his music was put, Antonioni suggested he watch the movie again, and this time to just watch the movie without obsessing over the music. Hancock did so, and afterwards apologized to the director, and complimented him on the use to which his music had been put in the service of the whole experience of the film. Carver would have been well advised to take another look at Stranger on a Train, and to see it as a complex work, not just a pictorial representation of his script. Then he might have appreciated what a magnificent film Hitchcock had made of his script. In my opinion, it is second only to The Birds in Hitchcock’s filmography, and I suspect Daphne du Maurier would have hated what he did with her story on that one.

    1. Wow! Second to The Birds. Interesting. What would be my favorite Hitchcock film? Notorious, Spellbound, and North by Northwest. Oops, that’s three. Bill, you bring up a valid point about the parts to the whole. Scripts have always meant a lot to me and I do think that’s a fault of Strangers on a Train. But, there are also great lines and dialogue, too. I think it’s a choppy mixed bag with slow pacing in the first half. However, there’s so many great things to relish about the film, I forgive the faults and cheer anyway. I think it’s brilliant cinematography. Cheers!

  2. Hi, Cindy:

    I like Hitchcock’s subtle touch with character introduction (Bruno’s two toned shoes) in this film. And the slow revelation that Mr. Bruno Anthony may have been the very first charming sociopath I was introduced to in ‘Strangers on a Train’. Also like the slowly increasing amount of attention just short of obsession Guy Haines experienced with his friendship of Mr. Anthony. The tennis match scenes have a growing sense of creepiness about them.

    Not exactly a masterpiece, but a most memorable and enjoyable journey into the dark side.

    And the scene where Mr. Anthony pops an annoying child’s balloon with his cigarette at the carnival was inspired!

        1. Hello, Sean. Oh, I was confusing. I meant that Fields disliked kids and was proud of it in his films and so the popping of the balloon was something I could see W.C. doing. I don’t know if he ever did, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Maybe Hitch was inspired?

  3. I haven’t seen this one yet. And just the small snippet of the letter from Chandler is illuminating. Not sure he likes movies, yet wrote a screenplay.

    1. Hi TBM! How have you been? How’s your writing? I hope you are well 🙂
      Yes, I would be thrilled to write a screenplay but he has problems allowing the director to shape it for the film. Still, his script for The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, The Long Goodbye were much better.

  4. Hey Cindy! What a wonderful coincidence that I’m about to post a review of a film based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel. This one is on my to-watch list, interesting tid bit about Hitchcock daughter. Great post as always!

  5. I like this film mainly because I like Farley Granger. I liked him in this film, but liked him even better in ‘The Rope.’ (Not that you asked – 😀 – but I think I may like ‘The Rope’ best of all of Hitchcock’s films. It’s bitterly satiric, claustrophobic, and the idea of having a dinner party with all the accoutrements laying atop the chest the body is stuff into is… well, just the sort of thing that appeals to my twisted mind! It’s also worth the movie to watch James Stewart begin to understand his own – unwitting – culpability in the crime.)

    But this is not about ‘The Rope,’ but about ‘Strangers on a Train.’ Sorry for the digression. 🙂

    1. Oh, Kate, please be my guest and digress. I have not seen The Rope! Now I must put that in the front of the queue. Twisted is how I like it, too. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  6. it may be worth mentioning that chandler’s letter was written two weeks before principle photography on the film was finished, so he could not have been comparing his original script, of which hitchcock reportedly used nothing, with the finished film. he must have gotten hold of the shooting script, or maybe it was even an early draft of the script. whatever it was, it was not the film, so should not be considered a criticism of the film. but of a subsequent draft of a screenplay by the writer of the first draft, who was fired while the project was still in pre-production.

    1. Thanks, Bill, for the clarification. It seems on the surface like a “Chandler hates Hitchcock” letter, but after your explanation, I could see how the multiple layers of drafts/scripts could muddle the issue. I’d like to buy the book about Chandler’s letters or a biography about him. He’s a fascinating figure of the 20th Century for me. 🙂

  7. I watched this a couple of months ago for maybe the third or fourth time. The growing realization that Bruno is nuts should have had Guy a little more frantic in those early stages of the plot. The climax on the merry go round shows where Spielberg learned how to ratchet up the tension. I saw “The Lost World” two nights ago, and the whole scene in the R.V. on the cliff reminded me of pieces of this film. The parts on the ride coming slowly apart are mirrored in the cracking glass that Julianne Moore is lying on. Cribbing from the master is always a good idea. Very nice Cindy.

    1. I was on the same Bat-Channel and thinking the same thing! Spielberg loves to mirror the action, a trademark of his work (Remember War of the Worlds and the action is mirrored on a film camera? Or the rearview mirror in Jurassic Park, the laundrymat dryer in ‘Duel’ or in Minority Report…etc, etc) –I think we know where he got it from. Either way, it’s an awesome technique and I never tire seeing it whoever directs it. The parts of the RV slipping toward the cliff rocks. My heart was pumping.

  8. The premise of this movie has been used in so many tv episodes and other movies – I think all that imitation proves Hitchcock’s genius in suspense. Of course as a person he was one major control freak and Chandler could complain till he was blue in the face…. 🙄

  9. I haven’t seen this one, but it’s quite interesting the author so publicly disliked the movie. Don’t normally see an artist use that much gusto to decry an adaptation if their work. Especially not when they’re talking to someone like Hitchcock.

    1. Perhaps because Chandler was quite famous by then, he felt he could say what he wanted to whomever. But, I’ve heard from a fellow blogger it wasn’t the final cut of the film he was disgusted about, it was a first draft by a writer (who was fired) that made Chandler boil. Anyway, fascinating stuff–on the screen and behind the curtain.

  10. This is one of my favourite Hitchcock films! Definitely in my top 5 for sure.

    I am actually reading a book on Hitchcock at the moment that was written by French director Francios Truffaut. Basically the book is a compilation of interviews the directors had with each other over the course of several years. Hitchcock speaks candidly about the process behind making every one of his films, it is a fascinating read so far.

    1. Courtney, oohhh, what is it? I’d like to get my hands on a copy. Sounds fascinating. I love what goes on the screen, but the trivia behind the curtain is almost as entertaining. Did you like ‘Hitch’? I thought it very good and enlightening.

      1. Though I like Hitchcock’s films, seen about half of his canon so far, I have yet to see either of the bio-pics about his life. Hoping to catch up with both of them on Netflix at some point. Right now, I am just focusing on filing some of my personal Hitchcock blind spots (finally caught up with Rebbeca a few months back). What I like about Hitchcock is his versatility. Though most famously known for suspense/thrillers, he can handle pretty much any genre (comedy, spy flicks, etc).

        The book is simply called “Hitchcock”. I found it at a used book store in town but you can get it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Hitchcock-Revised-Francois-Truffaut/dp/0671604295/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1406808313&sr=1-1&keywords=truffaut+hitchcock

      2. I just added the book to my cart. Thank you! Ah, Rebecca. Saw it once as a girl and am about to write a review for it in the next few days. I hope you will come back and expound your excellent insights. 😉

  11. A brilliant post and a great film … I agree with your selection of the great scenes, but I always find that the scenes on the court don’t seem convincing. I wonder whether its because I’m so used to the conventions of television when it comes to tennis. The close up scenes seem lifeless.

    That said, there are some brilliant suspenseful moments throughout and was the inspiration for THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN, one of my favourite Billy Crystal movies!

    1. Haha, that’s right! A funny Crystal film, indeed. Thanks, Dirk. I was pleasantly surprised with the tennis match. Considering the year it was made and the limitations of filming speed and editing, etcetera, I thought it was well done. 😉

  12. GREAT write up Cindy! I love this film and I do think it is one of Hitchcock’s better movies. I actually disagree with Chandler. I always felt the dialogue snaps and the characters, while over the top, are perfectly woven into the fabric of this crazy thriller. And you nailed it about the camera work. Hitch really expresses himself through his incredible style. Even the shoe scene (which you show) has a cool significance. Great flick!

      1. Oh I completely agree with that and I understand that frustration. I just mean I think it’s still a better result than he obviously did. That’s a very cool story. I didn’t know anything about that bi of history.

  13. Reading a book and experiencing film are entirely different and should not be compared. Certainly both can fail in their presentation, but it is unfair to judge one with the other. Hitchcock understood his audience and the film medium very well, knowing the value of dialog versus visuals. It’s interesting complaint that Chandler makes, but I feel a bit naive when considering the two separate approaches. Great post.

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