Tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and psychopath Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) meet on a train. Bruno fashions himself as an ardent fan of Guy, keeping up with his tennis and his personal life. Guy’s personal life includes an unfaithful wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott) that has decided in the wake of Guy’s burgeoning fame to not divorce him, thereby preventing him from marrying the loyal Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a U.S. Senator (Leo G. Carroll). Bruno has a father that he hates. He suggests he and Guy each murder the other’s despised person, thereby eliminating the appearance of motive. Guy leaves the train, thinking Bruno’s scheme an awkward but amusing digression until Bruno kills Miriam and persistently follows Guy, expecting him to fulfil his half of the murder bargain.
Throughout Strangers on a Train, Guy and Bruno are contrasted with each other as doubled opposites, a light figure and a shadow figure. Indeed, Bruno is shown in shadow following Guy, who at times steps from a well-lit scene into the shadows to speak to Guy. Guy spends much of the film at the home of the Mortons, who, aside from the precociously morbid fascinations of Anne’s younger sister, Barbara (Pat Hitchcock), are moral, rational, well-ordered, and communicative. Bruno lives with his parents, has an oddly Freudian level of interaction with his childish mother (Marion Lorne), who paints impressionistic paintings of St. Francis, and avoids his mature and rigid father (Jonathan Hale), who seems disdainful of his conniving yet shiftless son.
Yet, Guy has his secrets and troubles. Miriam threatened his reputation if he revealed the truth about her behaviour, so he silently seethes. Despite Bruno’s praise to him that “People who do things are important,” Guy is hesitant, evasive, and reactive. He is concerned about his image in the high-minded worlds of tennis and politics. The audience gets the sense that Guy is not so much horrified at Bruno’s murder of Miriam as he is worried what people will think of his association with Bruno. He is dishonest even with Anne Morton, who begins to suspect that the hovering stranger Bruno is more than just the tennis fan that Guy describes. Even a tennis announcer late in the film says that Guy’s usual playing style is “watch and wait.”
Guy is charming, flashing his charming smile quite frequently during the course of the story, but his charm is passive, in response to the actions of others. Bruno is just as charming, but in a manner crafted to each person he wishes to influence. To Guy on the train at the beginning, he is an awkward and amusing fan. To the two ladies at the Morton’s party, he is debonair and confident, goading them into a discussion of whom they would like to murder and the manner of doing so. In contrast to Guy’s nervousness, Bruno surveys events with mild intrigue. Just before murdering Miriam, he eats a bag of popcorn while watching her as though he’s watching a mildly entertaining film. After murdering Miriam, he calmly helps a blind man across the street near the scene of the murder. Given that he’s just stalked and murdered a stranger, Bruno’s assistance to the blind man doesn’t seem like an altruistic gesture, but merely something he might do or not do with equal probability. Indeed, his later statement to Guy that he has a murder on his conscience, “but it’s not my murder,” sounds less like a confession of guilt as a manipulation for Guy to become more like Bruno and murder Bruno’s father, fulfilling his supposed part of the bargain. Bruno wears a tie with lobsters on it, a sort of oddly charming adornment until the pinching lobster claws converge with Bruno’s penchant for strangulation.
Bruno claims that some lives are more important than others, a theme Hitchcock explored more directly three years earlier in Rope. He tells Guy that “Some people are better off dead,” and playfully makes the same suggestion to the women at the party planning the perfect murder, another Hitchcock theme (Rope, Shadow of a Doubt). In contrast, Senator Morton says that everyone has a right to live. Characters’ perspectives in the film have doubles in opposition.
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Strangers on a Train is filled with visual and conceptual doubles. At the start, two men get out of cabs, two sets of feet (in very different styles of shoe) strike the pavement side by side, two train tracks diverge into two different paths at two junctions, Bruno orders two double scotch and waters and mentions bigamy, and Guy is on his way to a doubles tennis match. Then, Hitchcock, whose daughter Pat is also in the film (two Hitchcocks), boards the train carrying a double bass. Pat Hitchcock’s character Barbara becomes a visual double for Miriam, with near-lethal consequences for one of the two women discussing murder at the Morton’s party. Anne and Miriam are opposite doubles, a woman of honour and a woman of deception. Miriam has two dates to the fair, at which two men see Bruno leaving the fair ground after he murders Miriam. Even the idea of divorce is a double, a splitting into two. Late in the movie, scenes of Guy striving to win the third set of his tennis match are juxtaposed with scenes of Bruno striving to retrieve the incriminating lighter from the storm drain. The film’s use of doubling is fun and fascinating, as entertaining as it is provocative as a thematic motif and narrative technique.
Two other sinister moments are notable for also being extremely enjoyable to watch. Bruno’s murder of Miriam is shown entirely in reflection in her thick eye glasses, which Bruno later presents to Guy. Later, Guy watches the audience at the tennis match preceding his and sees all faces turn back and forth with the game play except for one, Bruno’s, who stares with a slight smile at Guy. The way these scenes are filmed seems too playful to be noir, but Hitchcock had his own rules of style and entertainment.
Strangers on a Train is film noir, and then it isn’t. The movie un-noirs itself when Guy admits to Anne that he met Bruno on the train and explains Bruno’s idea for swapping murders. Anne asks, “What are we going to do?” Not only has Guy changed his decision making to be more honest and forthright, but he is now no longer isolated in his predicament. Guy changes his tennis game to a more active, aggressive style of play in order to win quickly and thwart Bruno from planting incriminating evidence at the scene of Miriam’s murder. The film is still a thriller, but it takes a tone of optimism as Guy, in collaboration with Anne and Barbara, acts decisively, evades the detective escorts he had previously obeyed, and directly confronts Bruno on a maniacally spinning carousel.
In fact, the film has the type of happy Hitchcock ending characteristic of films like Rear Window, in which the sinister events and characters of the dark side disturbing the natural order of the protagonist are dispensed, and order is restored in the light side in which the protagonist ultimately resides. Guy even comically catches himself almost giving in to the flattery of another train passenger in the film’s final scene, then thinks better of it and in good humour escorts Anne to another car.
This contrasts with the source story of the Patricia Highsmith novel, in which Guy not only does not reveal Bruno’s macabre murder proposal on the train, but also kills Bruno’s father. Nevertheless, the shadowy aesthetic, contemplation on the value of specific lives and who is to have jurisdiction over them, and the constant procession of doubles and doppelgänger images make Strangers on a Train stand up as noir against a palatably pleasant ending. Or is it? The ending holds the undercurrent that Guy, our mild-of-manner good guy that has overcome the evil and psychopathy foisted upon him, has gotten exactly what he wanted.