Strangers on a Train (1951)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman

Hitchcock doesn’t waste any time getting to the plot in this movie, which is a delectable little truffle among Hitchcock’s movie scenarios. Among his better, or at least his most famous movies, this rush to get to the meat of it is a little unusual. Strangers on a Train has more in common with a movie like Rope than it does Psycho or Vertigo or The Birds. Rope has a long credits sequence before we begin with the strangulation of a young man; Strangers on a Train eschews the long intro and gets us to the point almost immediately. A man seated across from another on the train strikes up a conversation after their feet accidentally meet in the aisle. Both of them are wealthy, although one of them appears to be richer than the other if for no other reason than his fancier footwear. The especially rich one is named Bruno Antony (Walker, who died in 1952 at 32 but already looks ten years older in this movie). Bruno wears a tie clip in the shape of his name written in cursive; he knows it’s just awful, he says to his new buddy, Guy (Granger), but his mother gave it to him. He speaks in a conspiratorial voice. He leans in close and smokes too much by his own admission. He recognizes Guy, who is a well-known amateur tennis player, and he also happens to know a great deal about Guy’s personal life; Guy makes a comment about how much reading his new friend must do.

Strangers on a Train spends the vast majority of the movie coding its resident psychopath as homosexual. I don’t think my reading of that is off; The Celluloid Closet, for example, is just one text that does a great deal of work describing how homosexuals in studio system movies were rarely named, but given some type to play: the sissy, the bloody-minded psychopath, the lush. For example: in Pillow Talk, Brad Allen, playacting as gay Texan Rex Stetson, makes a comment that he’ll have to get a recipe for his mama; he just loves his mama. Incidentally, the group of people Bruno does best with is old ladies, who think he’s just wicked. His mother, of course, adores him. It’s not just a paternalistic “Shucks, Ma” kind of relationship either, but one where he’ll bury his face in his mother’s hands and comment on her abstract art. (His father hates him, and the favor is returned.) He makes a hit with two older women at a party later on by teasing one of them about having wished her husband were dead in a moment of anger. (That woman, Mrs. Cunningham, titters through a description of what her idea of the perfect murder is: drive your husband out into the woods, hit him over the head with a hammer, set the care on fire. It’s the creepiest part of the movie for my money, but Bruno handles it better than I would. You don’t want to do that, he says, because you’d have to walk back.) You can sense that he would like to do better with Guy, down to getting Guy to light the cigarette for him with the lighter he got from his girlfriend, but that doesn’t come to pass. It’s hard to know what makes Bruno come out to Guy as a wannabe murderer. Is it desperation, believing that an unhappily married man is his best chance to kill off his father? Is it hope, praying that there might be something sympathetic hiding a little south of his opposite number’s chiseled jaw? Whatever it is that inspires Bruno to make his move is misguided, obviously, but part of that is that he’s misread the man he’s made into a confidante. Guy is a straight man, a democratic capitalist. (In real life, Granger was a practicing homosexual, so there’s a pleasant irony here much in the line of a spiritual descendant of his, Rock Hudson.)

Bruno ought to understand that he has no more chance of converting his straitlaced new buddy to opportunistic murderer than he would getting him into a gay bar or attending a Communist meeting. If there’s a really great success in Strangers on a Train, it’s in its command of subtext. While I personally favor reading Bruno as a homosexual who is coded as such a man based on a series of ’50s indicators, there’s a perfectly good case for reading Bruno as a Marxist subversive. Indulge me in an interesting thought experiment, he says, one that most decent people would reject offhand. I suppose there’s something as threatening in “Workers should seize the means of production” as there is in “Murders without motives are particularly difficult to trace.” In any case, Bruno may as well work his magic on a tree for all the good it does. Guy is a bland presence no matter where he goes, it seems, the kind of vapid handsome that appears on fashionable arms in the Hamptons or, in this case, on Capitol Hill. His mental failing is that he doesn’t have the strength of character to openly reject dangerous, potentially evil ideas with the firmness that might be impolitic but would certainly be safe. I was a little surprised that even when Bruno named specific targets for murder, Guy didn’t pump the brakes with nearly enough force. His single physical failing as a conventional man’s man of the time is his wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott). The two of them are separated, and in what must have been a sizzling little yowser for audiences back then, she’s having another man’s child. (One wonders what audiences made of Guy having his dalliance with a senator’s daughter while still married; I think the daughter of a senator, played here by Hitchcock regular Leo G. Carroll, would be hard-pressed to get away with that today, much less sixty-plus years ago.) The divorce is Miriam’s idea, but she also tells him it’s off when she sees he might be in better financial shape than she thought; not much later, we see her go to the fairgrounds with two men who are both vying for her affection. The only time we can really feel bad for her is when she’s being strangled to death by Bruno, who has decided to do Guy a favor and, better yet, force his hand to kill the elder Antony.

The movie, sadly, doesn’t quite know what to do with itself once Bruno has offed Miriam, nor does it quite know what to do with Bruno. Guy emphatically becomes the main character, which is a shame, since Bruno was a zillion times more interesting. Travis Bickle could have learned a thing or two watching Bruno Antony wander just a few steps behind Miriam Haines at all times. He hears her ask the guys to get popcorn; he stops to get some popcorn and blithely pops pieces into his mouth as she looks back at him. Her beaux can’t quite prove their strongman credentials, but with a mighty strike of the hammer, Bruno wins a Kewpie doll. When he strangles Miriam to death not long after by the light of Guy’s lighter, he has made a mockery of what the happy straight guys with Miriam were up to. He is the one who recognized her desires, even if they were as petty as wanting more to eat. He is the one who was the strongest, not merely in some carny game but in the way his hands clamp around her throat. He is the one who awoke the most interest in her; Miriam gives him a smile and an appreciation, even from a distance, that is far more serious and lasting than the ramshackle excitement by which she throws herself from activity to activity. Bruno plays the part of a straight man for the night, and it ends with him murdering a heterosexual woman. Combined with the fact that Guy spends most of the movie calling him some variant on “psychopath,” Bruno is the clinically defined fear of what Betty Friedan would call call a “lavender menace” about twenty years later. Depravity starts with homosexuality, and from there goodness only knows what kind of wickedness might stem from such a broken mind.

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