Film Discussion

Strangers on a Train (1951) – A classic revisited at LIFF 2023

Sam Judd takes a look at Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, which played at Leeds International Film Festival 2023.

Not many film directors are known outside of film circles. I know! Shocking behaviour! There are a few exceptions to the rule such as Quentin Tarantino but still, to many, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) is Brad Pitt‘s and Leonardo DiCaprio‘s film. Funny how we put so much emphasis on authorship. But at the end of the day does it really matter? Or do we all just really want recognition and to be seen?

Anyway, one of the first directors to inhabit both the weird film world and the non film world was Alfred Hitchcock. My first exposure to the master of suspense happened when I was in my early teens and I watched Rear Window (1954). You always remember your first. Needless to say it was love at first sight. The off-putting camera angles, the paranoia, the intensity; oh man I was gone.  

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Boasting arguably the strongest run of any director in the history of cinema, with Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), he certainly left his mark on popular culture. Lets not forget his trail of often quite abrupt and somewhat out of place cameos throughout his filmography, making him an instantly recognisable figure to film fans.

What really turned Hitchcock into a household name though was the small screen, not the big, most notably Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962) which was rebranded as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour(1962-1965). That is ironic given that in his earlier career he did his best to ignore the invention of television completely, even going as far as refusing to show a television set in any frame of his film. However, times change, and like any great artist, Hitchcock learnt how to adapt.

© 1951 Warner Bros. Pictures.

The Leeds International Film Festival this year had a screening of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). For any poor soul out there who hasn’t seen it, I shall give you a summary. The straight laced tennis star Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger) and the deliciously dreadful Bruno Antony (played by Robert Walker) meet on a train. Bruno has the rather intriguing idea of swapping murders.

What follows is a nail-biting thriller and examination of the human condition in a way which only Hitchcock can deliver. Based on Patricia Highsmith‘s 1950 novel, the film initially received mixed reviews but has since been regarded much more favourably. In 2021, the film was selected for preservation in the United States’ National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

© 1951 Warner Bros. Pictures.

 Although admittedly some of its impact has been diminished throughout the years, with Bruno’s lilting tones now feeling more at home in a pantomime, it nonetheless is still a delight to behold, and quite rightly an example of how a thriller should be made. Its influence can be felt in films such as David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) and Steve McQueen‘s Widows (2018).

The visuals are excellent with the spinning merry-go-round of madness being at the same time both comical and deeply disturbing. The figure of Bruno stalking Miriam Joyce Haines (played by Kasey Rogers) through the fairground like a tiger waiting to pounce upon its prey is stuff of nightmares. The opening sequence featuring feet (yes, feet) making their way to the train beautifully sets the film’s off-kilter tone. 

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What I love about Strangers on a Train most of all is that it’s a window into the director’s later and perhaps more accomplished work. You can hear echoes of Norman Bates in Bruno’s drawl, see Vertigo’s dizzying camera work in every frame, and feel just a touch of North by Northwest in the story of a man in a world of murder and intrigue. Although I do love it, the legacy to me is just as beautiful.

Strangers on a Train played at Leeds International Film Festival.

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