‘Strangers on a Train’: A Technically Perfect Psychological Carousel as One of Hitchcock’s Best

One of the most popular psychological crime thrillers that Hitchcock ever made is definitely Strangers on a Train, the master’s adaptation of crime novelist Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel that hit theaters back in 1951. Even though a lot of film scholars over the years considered the movie at least to a degree inferior to Hitchcock’s landmark films such as Vertigo or Rear Window, this captivating story of two people meeting on a train and conversing about the execution of a perfect murder has forever remained a much desired topic of analysis and debate among film enthusiasts all over the world. What distinguishes Strangers on a Train from similar films, even within Hitchcock’s own canon, is the fascinating idea at the center of it–the motif of doubles, the inner battle of good and evil in all human beings–as well as impressive technical virtuosity we grew accustomed to when talking about the works of the British highly commercial artist. The suspense is so powerful it can be felt though the screen, the acting is great, mostly thanks to Hitchcock’s old friend from Rope Farley Granger and his antagonistic counterpart Robert Walker, the script… oh, the script. If acquiring the rights to Highsmith’s novel was a walk in the park—by purposely leaving out his name from the negotiation process, Hitchcock managed to get the rights for a meagre 7,500 dollars–the process of finding the right screenwriter and producing a satisfactory script was nothing less than a hike over the Himalayas.

Writer Whitfield Cook satisfied the filmmaker with his treatment of the story, but it is here that real problems began for Hitchcock, eager to make a successful thriller that would wipe away the memory of financially lacklustre couple of projects at the end of the previous decade. Desiring a strong name from the literature milieu, he contacted and was turned down by eight writers, including Thornton Wilder, Dashiell Hammett and John Steinbeck. He finally managed to strike a deal with Raymond Chandler. Unfortunately, due to the writer’s allegedly difficult character and the stubbornness of both of them, the collaboration fell through and Hitchcock was right back where he started his search from. During the time they strenuously worked together, Chandler wrote two drafts, but upon handing in the second one, he received Hitchcock’s dismissal. Ben Hecht was next on the filmmaker’s list, but “the Hollywood screenwriter” was too busy and suggested his assistant Czenzi Ormonde, who had recently published a critically acclaimed collection of short stories called ‘Laughter From Downstairs.’ Explaining to Ormonde that Chandler’s versions were unacceptable rubbish and that work needed to be started from scratch, the new screenwriter joined forces with the director’s wife Alma Reville and his associate producer Barbara Keon to complete a satisfactory script, allowing for the production to finally begin. Chandler’s name, however, remained on the script, as the studio felt it could help in the promotion of the project, despite objections from both the writer and Hitchcock.

In the visual sense, Strangers on a Train owes its style to the excellent cinematographer Robert Burks, who would continue to work with Hitchcock on a whole series of his films, but the two sequences that mostly stand out in the picture are at the same time undeniable reminders of Hitchcock and Burks’ technical prowess. The first one is, of course, the shot of strangulation caught in the lenses of the assaulted woman’s glasses flung to the ground. The other astonishing visual set piece is the fight occurring on the carousel gone wild at the end of the film. “You never have any trouble with Hitchcock as long as you know your job and do it. He insists on perfection,” said Burks on one occasion. As you watch these sequences, it’s easy to hear his words echoing in the background. This is simply perfect artistry. With Dimitri Tiomkin’s symbolic score, perpetuating the omnipresent theme of duality, and William H. Ziegler’s masterful editing, Strangers on a Train is easily one of the top exhibits in the genre’s history.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Raymond Chandler & Czenzi Ormonde’s screenplay for Strangers on a Train [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
In the fall of 1962, whilst The Birds was in post-production, François Truffaut carried out extensive interviews with Alfred Hitchcock at his offices at Universal Studios. The interviews were recorded to audio tape and the content eventually edited down into the ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ book. Buy Hitchcock by François Truffaut from Amazon.

Well, this brings us to 1950, when your situation is any­thing but brilliant. It’s very much the same as in 1933, when, right after Waltzes from Vienna, your prestige was re-established by The Man Who Knew Too Much. Now again, the consec­utive failures of Under Capricorn and Stage Fright will be followed by a spectacular come­back via Strangers on a Train.
You might say that I again applied that old “run for cover” rule. For your information, Strangers on a Train wasn’t an assignment, but a novel that I selected myself. I felt this was the right kind of material for me to work with.

I’ve read it; it’s a good novel, but there must have been lots of problems in adapting it to the screen.
There were-and that raises another point. Whenever I collaborate with a writer who, like myself, specializes in mystery, thriller, or suspense, things don’t seem to work out too well.

You’re referring to Raymond Chan­dler?
Right; our association didn’t work out at all. We’d sit together and I would say, “Why not do it this way?” and he’d answer, “Well, if you can puzzle it out, what do you need me for?” The work he did was no good and I ended up with Czenzi Ormonde, a woman writer who was one of Ben Hecht’s assistants. When I com­pleted the treatment, the head of Warner’s tried to find someone to do the dialogue, and very few writers would touch it. None of them thought it was any good.

I’m not at all surprised; it’s often oc­curred to me that had I read the story, the chances are I wouldn’t have cared for it. Here is a case where you really have to see the picture. As a matter of fact, I think that the same story made by someone else wouldn’t have been any good at all. Particularly when you consider the many Hitchcock emulators whose attempts at the thriller genre have been disastrous.
It’s been my good fortune to have something of a monopoly on the genre: nobody else seems to take much interest in the rules for that form.

What rules?
I’m talking about the rules of sus­pense. That’s why I’ve more or less had the field to myself. Selznick claimed I was the only direc­tor whom he could trust completely, but when I worked for him, he complained about what he called my “goddamn jigsaw cutting.” I used to shoot the one piece of film in such a way that no one else could put the pieces together prop­erly; the only way they could be edited was to follow exactly what I had in mind in the shoot­ing stages. Selznick comes from the school of film-makers who like to have lots of footage to play around with in the cutting room. Working as I do, you’re sure that no one in the studio is going to take over and ruin your film. That’s the reason I won out in the argument over Suspi­cion.

One senses that control in your pic­tures; it’s obvious that each shot has been made in a specific way, from a specific angle, and to run for a specific length of time. The only ex­ceptions, possibly, are courtroom scenes or scenes that require crowds.
That’s inevitable, it can’t be helped. That’s what happened with the tennis match in Strangers on a Train, and it shows the risk in overshooting material. There’s too much foot­age for you to handle by yourself; you turn it over to the cutter to sort it out, but you never know what’s been left unused. That’s the risk.

One of the best things in Strangers on a Train is the exposition, with the follow shots on feet going one way and then the other. There are also the crisscrossing rails. There’s a sort of symbolic effect in the way they meet and separate, and that’s also true of the direction arrows in I Confess. You often open your pic­tures on a symbolic note.
The direction arrows exist in Quebec; they use them to indicate one-way streets. 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.

Why not?
The camera practically grazed the rails because it couldn’t be raised; you see, I didn’t want to go higher until the feet of Farley Gran­ger and Robert Walker bump together in the railroad car.

That’s what I mean. That accidental collision of the two men’s feet is the point of departure for their whole relationship, and the concept is sustained by deliberately refraining from showing their faces up to that point. In the same light the separating rails suggest the idea of divergent courses-two different ways of life.
Naturally, there is that as well. Isn’t it a fascinating design? One could study it forever.

In several of your pictures, I’ve no­ticed, you will enhance a surprise situation with an additional twist; in other words-and I’m not thinking only of Psycho—you will use a bit of trickery to create a small suspenseful diversion so that the surprise that comes immediately af­terward is even more startling.
What do you have in mind?

Well, in Strangers on a Train, Farley Granger agrees to kill Robert Walker’s father, although, in fact, he really intends to warn the old man against his son. So Granger breaks into the house at night; the father’s room is upstairs. Now, if he simply tiptoed up the staircase, the public would try to figure out what’s going to happen next, and they might even guess that upstairs Granger will find Bruno instead of his father. So you dispose of that anticipation by creating a suspenseful diversion in the form of a huge dog in the middle of the staircase. In this way the question becomes: Will the dog let Far­ley Granger get by without biting him or won’t he? Isn’t that right?
Yes, 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.

I believe you used a trick shot there. Isn’t the image slowed down?
Yes, I think that’s so.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the picture is the bold manipulation of time, the way in which it’s contracted and dilated. First, there’s Farley Granger’s frantic haste to win his tennis match, and then Robert Walker’s panic when he accidentally drops Granger’s lighter in a manhole. In both these scenes, time is tightly compressed-like a lemon. Then, after Walker gets to the island, you let go, because he can’t proceed with his plan to frame Granger in broad daylight. So when he asks one of the men in the amusement park, “At what time does it get dark around here?” everything is decompressed. Real-life time takes over while he waits for nightfall. That dramatic play with time is really stunning. On the other hand, I have some reservations on the final scene, when the carrousel runs amok, though I understand the reason for it. I guess you needed a paroxysm, is that it?
That’s true. After so many colorful parts, it seems to me it would have been poor form not to have, at this point, what musicians refer to as a coda. But my hands still sweat when I think of that scene today. You know, that little man actually crawled under that spinning car­rousel. If he’d raised his head by an inch, he’d have been killed. I’ll never do anything like that again.

But when the carrousel breaks…
That was a miniature blown up on a big screen. The big difficulty with that scene was that the screen had to be angled differently for each shot. We had to move the projector every time the angle changed because many of the shots of the merry-go-round were low cam­era setups. We spent a lot of time setting the screen in line with the camera lens. Anyway, for the carrousel breakdown we used a miniature blown up on a big screen and we put live people in front of the screen.

There’s a certain resemblance between the situations of the heroes of Strangers on a Train and A Place in the Sun. I couldn’t help wondering whether the Patricia Highsmith novel was influenced by Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.
It’s quite possible. 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.

Algebraic figures? You’ve just raised what I believe is the key dilemma for all direc­tors: a strong film situation involving dull char­acters, or else the characters are subtle, but the situation in which they move is a static one. All your movies, I think, are hinged on strong situ­ations, and Strangers on a Train is actually mapped out like a diagram. This degree of styli­zation is so exciting to the mind and to the eye that it’s fascinating even to a mass audience.
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.

The only flaw, to my mind, is the film’s leading lady, Ruth Roman.
Well, she was Warner Brothers’ 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 liked 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.

Yet, since Granger was appealing in Rope and not particularly appealing in Strangers on a Train, I assumed this was intentional, that you meant him to be seen as an opportunistic playboy. By contrast, Robert Walker gives a rather poetic portrayal; he’s undoubtedly more attractive. There is a distinct impression that you preferred the villain.
Of course, no doubt about it.

In many of your pictures-and Stran­gers on a Train is a case in point-there are, aside from coincidences and implausibles, many elements that are arbitrary and unjustified. And yet, in the light of a cinematic logic that is strictly personal, you impose them in such a way that once they’re on the screen, these are the very elements that become the film’s strong points.
The cinematic logic is to follow the rules of suspense. Here we have one of those stories that automatically bring on that old com­plaint: “But why didn’t he tell the police all about it?” Don’t forget that we’ve clearly established the reasons for which he can’t go to the police.

There can be no argument about that. This picture, just like Shadow of a Doubt, is sys­tematically built around the figure “two.” Here again, both characters might very well have had the same name. Whether it’s Guy or Bruno, it’s obviously a single personality split in two.
That’s right. Though Bruno has killed Guy’s wife, for Guy, it’s just as if he had com­mitted the murder himself. As for Bruno, he’s clearly a psychopath.

STORYBOARDS

This is quite priceless. Little seen storyboards for Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, courtesy of Gabriel Hardman: “As far as I know these were drawn by Art Director Ted Haworth. His son Sean Haworth brought them in for me to see when we were working on a film together years ago and I made copies.”

HITCHCOCK’S CAMEO

Hitchcock’s cameo in Strangers on a Train occurs about 11 minutes into the film. As Guy Haines (Farley Granger) climbs down off the train, he nearly bumps into Hitchcock who is struggling slightly with a cello case. Courtesy of The Hitchcock Zone.

As part of the 1997 Hitchcock Season on BBC2, several short guest interviews were filmed. Each short focused on one specific Hitchcock film. Patricia Hitchcock talks about Strangers on a Train. Courtesy of The Hitchcock Zone.

 

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“For me, cinema is essentially emotion. It is pieces of film joined together that create an idea, which in turn creates an emotion in the mind of the audience. Not through spoken words, but through the visuals. It’s a visual medium. And montage is the main thing. All moviemaking is pure montage.” —Alfred Hitchcock

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Production still photographer: Bud Graybill © Warner Bros.

 
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