Strangers on a Train was the first collaboration between director Alfred Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks. Burks would go on to be the cinematographer on eleven more Hitchcock films. He was always able to adapt to the subject matter and give Hitchcock exactly what was needed. Whether black & white or color, whether the documentary style of The Wrong Man or the lush color scheme of Vertigo, Burks and Hitchcock were always in sync. Burks received an Oscar nomination for Strangers, and I think it’s worth taking a deeper look at his lighting scheme.
I have already written about Hitchcock’s clever use of lamps in several movies. (The Paradine Case has a sequence in which a lamp is almost a third character in the scene. And I’ve written extensively about the importance of lamps in Dial M for Murder.) But I am amazed at the number of visible lamps in this movie, often (but not always) in place as a visible light source. Clearly this was a deliberate design, the result of Hitchcock and Bob Burks working together. And of course credit has to be given to set designer George James Hopkins, a four-time Oscar winner.
So in the following picture it is not exactly a lamp, but there is a visible light source in between Guy and Miriam as they talk. It provides visual balance to the framing.
The entire carnival sequence is fantastically lit. It was rare in the early 50’s to see a sequence like this filmed on location, at night, and it makes a huge difference. In a shot like this, there is the play of light on the water for an added effect.
How about this interesting camera angle, when Guy gets the phone call from Anne Morton after Miriam has been killed. The lamp appears to tower over Guy.
When Guy gets to the Morton’s house, the sequence features no less than three lamps, filmed from a variety of sides and angles. This first lamp is easy to identify, with the sash along the top.
Now here is lamp number 2 behind Barbara’s head. What a perfectly framed image. Notice that the lamps all function practically as part of the set; in other words, they are one of the light sources illuminating the image.
This is lamp number two again, seen behind and below Anne in her close-up.
Now we see the original lamp, at frame right, where before it was frame left. Notice how it not only lights the corner, but provides balance to the composition.
And here is lamp number three, as the camera has made a full circuit of the room.
After Senator and Barbara Morton leave the room, Anne and Guy come together, with lamp number one perfectly centered in the frame behind them.
When Guy returns to the Morton’s the following evening, we see lamp number one from a different angle. Guy is feeling the weight of his predicament, and a lamp again seems to tower over him.
Later, Guy is in his apartment, hiding Bruno’s gun. For the first time he towers above a light source.
Hennessy joins Guy, and the same lamp provides balance to the scene. Now Guy has visual dominance over another character, as well as a light source.
Now we are back at the Morton house for the party, but in a different room, which means…different lamps!
Here is lamp number two in this room. Once again, it provides nice balance. Just as in the other room in the Morton house, the lamps in this room all have distinct designs, making them easy to distinguish.
Finally we get this lovely lamp, and composition, as Bruno is talking about murder to the two older married women.
Notice how the light sources shift, from frame left to frame right. Here Bruno is demonstrating the instruments with which he would kill.
And now, back in the study, the very same lamp that was between Guy and Anne in a moment of affection is between Guy and Bruno. (I must also note the reprint of the famous Lansdowne portrait of George Washington hanging above the lamp. We can see the painting every time we see the lamp, and the lamp illuminates it as well.)
Here is a fantastic shot, just after Bruno turns on the lamp in his father’s room. Yet another lamp illuminating the gulf between Guy and Bruno.
This is my favorite use of a lamp in the entire film, and for once it is not used as a light source. This scene takes place in daylight. The lamp is there purely to provide visual balance and counterpoint.
And finally, there is this hanging light at the carnival, which causes Bruno to hide his face in the shadows.
It is no wonder that Bob Burks received an Oscar nod for this movie. What is perhaps more impressive is how the lights are hiding in plain sight. Lamps are such a simple, innocuous feature in most rooms. And yet, just like any other detail, they are never seen within the frame by accident in a Hitchcock film. To paraphrase Hitchcock, the background has to function. And this movie is a perfect demonstration of how the director, cinematographer, and set designer all worked together to create a lighting scheme that serves both the function and the aesthetic of the movie.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) – Warner Bros. – ★★★★1/2
B&W – 101 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: Farley Granger (Guy Haines), Ruth Roman (Anne Morton), Robert Walker (Bruno Antony), Leo G. Carroll (Senator Morton), Patricia Hitchcock (Barbara Morton), Laura Elliott (Miriam Haines).
Screenplay by Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde and Whitfield Cook based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Cinematography by Robert Burks
Edited by William H. Ziegler
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Hitchcock at Warners: Alfred Hitchcock completed Stage Fright, which was distributed by Warner Bros., just before he entered production on Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock had found a new professional home, signing a multi-picture deal with Jack Warner. Stage Fright, while it had not lost money, was certainly no blockbuster, and even Hitchcock himself seemed indifferent towards the movie. Things would be different with his next film. He was completely engaged, and definitely firing on all cylinders creatively. As we take a look at the story of Strangers on a Train, we will see how Hitchcock used creative visuals throughout to advance and enhance the narrative.
A chance encounter? The movie opens with scenes inter-cutting between two pairs of very different shoes. Two men disembark from taxis, and enter a train station. They are never seen above the knee, as one moves from left to right, and the other from right to left. The way the scene is shot and edited, along with the music, seem to imply that they are moving inexorably towards one another.
We then see a train moving down the track, from a low camera angle. The intersecting railroad tracks suggest divergent lives that are about to intersect.
Hitchcock said of this opening: The shots of the rails in Strangers on a Train were the logical extension of the motif with the feet. Practically, I couldn’t have done anything else. The camera practically grazed the rails because it couldn’t be raised.
Then our two pairs of feet finally collide. One could almost call this a “meet cute”, because there is at least a slight homoerotic undertone to the relationship. One man, Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger), accidentally bumps his foot against the man sitting opposite him. This man, Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) recognizes Guy as a tennis player, and engages him in conversation. Bruno, talking almost non-stop, demonstrates that he knows quite a bit about Guy, including the fact that he wishes to be divorced from his wife, so he can be with Anne Morton, a senator’s daughter. Bruno entices Guy back to his compartment for lunch.
Bruno is clearly an eccentric character, from his lobster-print tie to his many bizarre theories, and he has a delicate nature. Guy finds him a little odd, and slightly amusing, but ultimately harmless. Perhaps Guy feels a little sorry for him. Bruno proposes one of his many “theories” to Guy: the idea of a murder swap. Two people have someone in their life that they would like to be rid of (such as Guy’s wife and Bruno’s father), but they can’t do it because of the motive. But if they, complete strangers, swap murders, they will both be in the clear. “You like my idea, don’t you Guy? You think it’s OK?” asks Bruno. “Sure” Guy assures him, “they’re all OK.” Guy thinks he is just humoring this strange fellow, not endorsing his scheme.
Guy meets with his estranged wife Miriam, played to shrewish perfection by Laura Elliott. She refuses to divorce him, saying she wants him back, even though she is pregnant with another man’s child. When Bruno hears of this, he sets out to put his “theory” into practice.
Hitchcock has a marvelous sequence at a carnival, where Bruno follows Miriam and her two (!) male companions. Bruno is not secretive about it; rather, he makes sure that she sees him. And she appears interested. Even as she is with two other men, she is measuring the potential sexual prowess of a third. She marvels at his strength when he rings the bell at the strongman game, and he wiggles his eyebrows at her, flexing his hands. Miriam does not realize that this very strength which she is attracted to will be the instrument of her death. Bruno follows the trio into the tunnel of love, and we get this interesting shot, as Bruno’s boat, and his figure, seem to overtake and engulf Miriam.
Finally they end up on an island, a lover’s lane of sorts, and Bruno strangles Miriam to death. The scene begins quite violently.
The censors would never have allowed the entire strangulation to take place on screen, so Hitchcock found a very creative way to show her death.
Miriam’s glasses drop to the ground, and the act of strangulation is completed in the reflection of the glasses. This was achieved by constructing a giant, oversized set of reflective glasses. Actress Laura Elliott recalls that Hitchcock then instructed her to “float to the ground.”
Bruno then waits outside Guy’s house to tell him that his wife is dead and he is free. Naturally, Bruno expects that Guy will fulfill his end of the bargain by killing Bruno’s father. Notice how this scene is staged. First Bruno is standing behind a gate, implying his guilt.
Then, when the police show up at Guy’s door, he too hides behind the gate. Now he is complicit in the crime. He tells Bruno “Now you have me acting like a guilty man.” And of course he is guilty of wishing Miriam dead. After all, he really did want his wife out of the way, and now it has happened.
The next section of the film has Bruno continually inserting himself into Guy’s life, a constant reminder of the crime that has been committed, and the crime that Bruno wishes to still be committed. Meanwhile, the police are suspicious of Guy in the death of his wife.
In one unforgettable shot, Bruno observes Guy from a great distance, on the steps of the Jefferson memorial.
In a 1955 interview in Cahiers du Cinema Hitchcock describes this shot: In Strangers on a Train I had to show a menacing crazy man. I couldn’t use close-ups all the time; that’s boring. So I had the idea of using a small silhouette. The grandiose Jefferson Memorial in Washington, all white, with a little silhouette, oh so black. That was the equivalent of a close-up.
Then we have an ingenious shot at a tennis match. Every head in the crowd is swivelling back and forth, left to right, following the path of the ball. Every head except one: that of Bruno, who stares directly at Guy.
Finally Guy goes to Bruno’s house. Is he going to kill Bruno’s father? Greater suspense is added to the scene with the inclusion of a large dog on the stairwell. Bruno gets past the dog and into the father’s room. He has not come to kill him, but rather to warn him about his crazy son. Unfortunately, it is Bruno in his father’s bed.
Hitchcock describes this sequence as follows: …in that scene we first have a suspense effect, through the threatening dog, and later on we have a surprise effect when the person in the room turns out to be Robert Walker instead of his father. I remember we went to a lot of trouble getting that dog to lick Farley Granger’s hand.
Bruno tells Guy that he will set him up for the murder of his wife. He has possession of Guy’s cigarette lighter, and Guy realizes that he will take it back to the location of the murder, in an attempt to frame him.
This sets up the film’s finale. First there is a masterful sequence, showing Guy trying to win a tennis match as fast as possible, intercut with Bruno on his way to the amusement park. Bruno drops the lighter in a storm drain and struggles to get it out.
Hitchcock described this sequence in a 1950 interview with New York Times Magazine: In Strangers on a Train, the picture I am working on now, we are really exploiting the dramatic possibilities of movement. The hero plays a championship tennis match, knowing all the while that the villain is moving deliberately toward the execution of a piece of dirty work which will leave the hero hopelessly incriminated. He must play as hard and as fast as he can in order to win the match, get off the court, and overtake the villain…The camera, cutting alternately from the frenzied hurry of the tennis player to the slow operation of his enemy, creates a kind of counterpoint between two kinds of movement.
The finale of the movie is a showstopper of a sequence, which takes place on an out-of-control carousel, where Guy and Bruno face off, with the police watching.
The shooting of this sequence involved a real moving carousel, a static carousel with a moving screen behind, and a miniature. All combine seamlessly; the sequence holds up rather well.
Bruno refuses to confess to the murder, even as he is dying, but he is betrayed by the very object that he hoped to use to pin the murder on Guy. This is a near-flawless film, that deserves to be mentioned among Hitchcock’s best works.
Performance: Farley Granger is wonderful in the leading role of Guy Haines. I find it interesting that Hitchcock wanted William Holden for the role. Certainly Holden was a great actor, but his macho persona was not what this role needs. Even as Guy is repulsed by Bruno, he still continues to show empathy, and I don’t think Holden could have pulled it off. Ruth Roman, while a competent actress, plays the part with a cold detachment. There is little chemistry between Granger and Roman. As was frequently the case in a Hitchcock movie, the best role belongs to the villain, and Robert Walker is one of the best Hitchcock villains of all. He is in some ways a precursor to Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates; a charming but fragile man, who has mental health issues exacerbated by his mother. Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, who plays Ruth Roman’s younger sister, steals every scene she is in. This is the best part she ever had in a feature film, and she plays it perfectly. Leo G. Carroll is solid, as always, in the role of Senator Morton. And Marion Lorne, who will forever be remembered as Aunt Clara from TV’s Bewitched, plays Bruno’s mother with a brilliant comic touch.
Source material: This movie is based on the debut novel of Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith would go on to write many psychological thrillers, with a taut but textured literary style. The novel Strangers on a Train differs in a few significant ways from the film. The overall premise is the same; the chance meeting on the train and Bruno’s idea for swapping murders. In the novel, Guy is an architect rather than a tennis player. The biggest difference is that in the book, Guy actually does murder Bruno’s father, completing the double murder compact. But Bruno keeps coming around, wanting to befriend Guy. Eventually Bruno accidentally drowns, which would seem to leave Guy in the clear. But at some point he feels compelled to confess to his ex-wife’s lover, and this confession is overheard by a detective. Guy turns willingly turns himself in at the end. Never content to focus just on the plot and characters, Highsmith would often delve into psychological ruminations about the nature of people. Here is one such excerpt of many to be found in this book:
But love and hate, he thought now, good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil. One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all, one had merely to scratch the surface. All things had opposites close by, every decision a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it, the male the female, the positive the negative.
The thrilling carousel climax of the film is nowhere to be found in this book, but appears to be lifted directly from the 1946 novel The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. Could it be coincidental? Possibly, although there are many similarities. At any rate, Crispin was not credited on the film at all.
Recurring players: Farley Granger had earlier starred in Rope. Hitchcock favorite Leo G. Carroll was also in Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, The Paradine Case and North by Northwest. Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia also had small roles in Stage Fright and Psycho. Murray Alper (carnival boat operator who recognizes Bruno) had appeared in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Saboteur. Al Bridge (tennis judge) had an earlier uncredited role in Saboteur. Leonard Carey (the Antony’s butler) also had small parts in Rebecca, Suspicion and The Paradine Case. Herbert Evans had appeared in Foreign Correspondent. Tommy Farrell (one of Miriam’s escorts to the carnival) would later turn up as an elevator operator in North by Northwest. Sam Flint (man who asks Bruno for a light on the train) would later turn up in Psycho as a county sheriff. Charles Sherlock (cop) was Barry’s taxi driver in Saboteur. And Robert Williams (bystander at drain) would later turn up in North by Northwest.
Academy Awards: This film received one Oscar nod. Robert Burks was nominated for best Black and White Cinematography. He did not win.
Where’s Hitch? Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 10:30 mark. As Farley Granger is exiting the train in Metcalf, Hitchcock is boarding the train, while carrying a double bass.
What Farley said: In his autobiography Include Me Out, Farley Granger had the following to say about his love interest in the film, Ruth Roman:
Warner Brothers was producing Strangers, and Ruth was under contract to them. Hitch had wanted the then-little-known young actress Grace Kelly for the part, but Warners had refused. Since they had to pay MGM to use Bob and Goldwyn to use me, they insisted that he use Ruth, who was really not right for the part. Hitch did not like his artistic wishes thwarted. As a result, he was cold and sometimes cruel to Ruth, which was unfair because as a contract player she was just doing what her studio told her to do. But Hitch was right, she was wrong for the part.
Farley does not elaborate on why he thought she was wrong. About working on the movie, he said:
All in all, working on Strangers on a Train was my happiest filmmaking experience… [Hitch] knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it…After he finished a setup, he would walk to the assistant, who would turn over a page. Hitch would look at it and say: The camera goes here, here and there; the lenses are this, this and that; the action takes place from here to there. Then he would relax while the crew got things ready. They respected and trusted him because he was able to be precise about what he wanted. He never had to peer through a lens finder to see how a shot looked.
What Hitch said: Hitchcock was proud of several moments in Strangers on a Train, but he still considered it a flawed film. I think he is a little harsh in his assessment of this movie, which is a bona fide Hitchcock classic. Among other things, he said:
As I see it, the flaws of Strangers on a Train were the ineffectiveness of the two main actors and the weakness of the final script. If the writing of the dialogue had been better, we’d have had stronger characterizations. The great problem with this type of picture, you see, is that your main characters sometimes tend to become mere figures…I was quite pleased with the over-all form of the film and with the secondary characters. I particularly liked the woman who was murdered; you know, the bitchy wife who worked in a record shop. Bruno’s mother was good too – she was just as crazy as her son.
I think the script is rather solid, with lots of well-penned dialogue. Obviously it was not what Hitchcock was hoping for. About his starring couple, he had the following harsh words:
She [Ruth Roman] was Warner Brother’s leading lady, and I had to take her on because I had no other actors from that company. But I must say that I wasn’t too pleased with Farley Granger; he’s a good actor, but I would have like to see William Holden in the part because he’s stronger. In this kind of story the stronger the hero, the more effective the situation.
Definitive edition: Warner Brothers 2012 blu-ray release is the best version of this film available for home viewing. In addition to a sensational print of the film, the blu-ray also includes an alternate preview version, which has some slight, subtle differences from the final cut; an excellent commentary track including archival audio from people like Hitchcock himself, Whitfield Cook, Patricia Hitchcock, Peter Bogdanovich, and many more contributors. Also included are five featurettes: a 36-minute making-of documentary; The Victim’s P.O.V, which is a 7-minute interview with the actress who played Miriam; a 12 minute appreciation by director M. Night Shyamalan; a featurette with Hitchcock’s daughter and granddaughters; and a one-minute archival clip with no audio, likely from the promotional tour from the movie. Also included is the original theatrical trailer.