I would like to dedicate this retrospective to the “Save the UCLA Arts Library Petition” (AKA: Stop the closing of the library where Drew Morton gets his books so that he can continue to write thoughtful reviews like these). If you enjoyed the series and/or you’re a supporter of arts education, I strongly encourage you to sign the petition.
Both the enthusiastic comments of the Eloquents on my Laura (1944) and His Kind of Woman (1951) reviews and Dustin’s guiding hand pushed me to tackle a film noir retrospective for my next Pajiba project. Therefore, over the coming days, I’m writing analyses of my top five favorite noirs in ascending order. I’ve given myself two rules of the road on this venture. First, I will only be covering the classical age of the film noir which, according to filmmaker and noir scholar Paul Schrader, ranged from 1941 to 1958 or, to use specific films as temporal boundaries, from John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). That said, you will not find some of my favorite neo-noirs (Chinatown, Hard Eight, Bound) here. Secondly, I have limited the selection to one film per director with the hope of offering up a bit more of a variety. Quite simply, I didn’t want this list dominated by Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, or Billy Wilder so I distilled their extensive list of noir titles down to one film per person. So, without further ado, I give you my fifth favorite film noir, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951).
Strangers on a Train isn’t only one of my favorite noirs, but my favorite of Hitchcock’s films. Yes, I love Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960) and I admire Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959) but I feel like this is one of the few films in which Hitchcock’s mastery of visual style is evenly matched by the material, the characters, and the actors and actresses portraying them. Adapted from pulp writer Patricia Highsmith’s (The Talented Mr. Ripley) novel by first-time screenwriter Czenzi Ormonde and hardboiled novelist Raymond Chandler (screenwriter of Double Indemnity and the creator of detective Philip Marlowe), Strangers finds its victim of fate in Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Guy, a successful tennis star, is stuck in an unhappy marriage to Miriam (Kasey Rogers) who not only cheats on him but also refuses to grant him a divorce. Guy laments his wife’s refusal to sign off on the divorce to a tennis fan and fellow train passenger by the name of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) who swiftly proposes an exchange. Unfortunately for Guy, this isn’t the type of switcheroo that Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg sang of in “Motherlovers.” Rather, Bruno suggests that he kill Miriam and, in exchange, Guy kill Bruno’s father. The result would be a perfect crime because, due to the lack of connection between the two strangers and their lack of motive, neither guilty party would be a logical suspect.
The problem is that Guy is too polite in his interaction with Bruno. He senses that there is something psychologically amiss with Bruno and indulges his murderous fantasy simply to avoid an awkward encounter. Bruno mistakes Guy’s courtesy for complicity and murders Miriam. The police suspect the innocent Guy (a long running trope in Hitchcock’s films, often attributed to a childhood episode in which Hitchcock’s father had his son arrested to make an example of out him) due to the fact that he was pushing hard for the divorce with the hope of marrying the daughter of a U.S. senator. To make matters more difficult for Guy, Bruno shows up to remind him of their deal and, if Guy does not comply, Bruno will frame him for Miriam’s murder.
If the plot sounds convoluted, that is probably due to my awkward summarization. Despite my writing, the way in which the events unravel is not only comprehendible but suspenseful, masterful, and yet shockingly economical. Take, for instance, two of my favorite sequences in the film in which Hitchcock makes full use of film’s visual capabilities to accentuate the progressions in the plot. The first scene takes place when Bruno tracks Guy down on a dark night in Washington D.C. to inform that he has murdered Miriam. The shots of Guy are canted (or tilted, putting the starkly lit black and white compositions out of visual balance) as he approaches Bruno, who is hiding in the shadows behind a wrought-iron gate. Guy goes from being behind of to in front of the gate as he contemplates his next move. Yet, regardless of his spatial location, Guy cannot escape the shadows of the gate (which mark his face the same as they do Bruno’s) and he ultimately joins Bruno in the cover of the shadowy alley. Hitchcock underlines the message of the sequence perfectly with his visual composition: Guy’s world has suffered from an unintentional lapse in his moral compass (accentuated by the canted angles) and he has been trapped into conspiring with Bruno (the shadows of the gate over both their faces, Guy’s ultimate spatial coupling with Bruno).
The second sequence is the famous tennis match in which Guy attempts to best an opponent in record time so that he may intercept Bruno and end his blackmail attempt. As Guy’s match heats up, Hitchcock begins crosscutting to Bruno leaving his house en route to the spot of Miriam’s murder. As the match comes to a climax, Bruno becomes sidetracked on his voyage by a sewage grate. Thus, Hitchcock’s crosscutting makes Bruno the real opponent in Guy’s tennis match. Both men are fighting separate battles for their own personal victories: Guy needs to beat the other tennis player so that he can leave the match and stop Bruno and Bruno needs to overcome the sewer grate so that he can blackmail Guy. While Bruno may be the film’s antagonist and Guy’s opponent, we often find ourselves rooting for both characters due to Hitchcock’s crosscutting. As François Truffaut noted in his interviews with Hitchcock, members of the audience often find themselves sympathetically drawn to Bruno rather than Guy.
The magnetic draw we feel towards Bruno is what makes Strangers on a Train one of my favorite films noirs. While it also features many aesthetic and dramatic keystones of the genre (a morally confused protagonist doomed by fate, high-contrast black and white cinematography, and snappy dialogue), I constantly find myself transfixed by the viewer’s relationship to Bruno. Not only is Bruno a complex character, but he is made even more mysterious by the film’s ambiguous handling of his homosexuality. In an odd sense, Bruno is the femme fatale in a noir without a traditional one. While I wouldn’t say that Guy is sexually attracted to Bruno as a traditional noir anti-hero is to a femme fatale, he is attracted to what Bruno’s proposal can bring to his life: the promise of an escape from his wife and the hope of finding happiness with another woman. With the exception of the absence of a large sum of money, this no doubt sounds like the motive of most noir protagonists, does it not? Moreover, femme fatales often resort to murder to free themselves from the power of a dominating male (see Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, or The Postman Always Rings Twice), just as Bruno wants to escape the control of his father. As Bruno remarks, “With all the money he’s got, he thinks I ought to catch the 8:05 bus every morning, punch a time clock somewhere, and work my way up selling paint or something.” Finally, it’s not for Bruno’s lack of trying that Guy doesn’t get sexually involved with him, as Bruno drunkenly and awkwardly propositions him (this is more explicit in the recently discovered British version, widely available on DVD).
Walker’s performance as Bruno is elegant yet obsessively creepy, making his premature death at age thirty-two that much more tragic. Just two months after the theatrical release of Strangers, Walker suffered a nervous breakdown. His psychiatrist administered a sedative to which he experienced an allergic reaction and stopped breathing. Yet, thanks to Hitchcock’s mastery of visual style and a memorable screenplay by Chandler and Ormonde, we are able to celebrate Walker’s short life with perhaps his greatest performance. It’s no coincidence that the performance just happens to come in the shape of one of the finest films of noir genre.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.