TCM Picks for February: Film Noir
I have a great fondness for a number of Alfred Hitchcock features – Rebecca, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Dial M for Murder. But Strangers on a Train (Warner Bros., 1951) is right up there at the top. So it was a no-brainer to select it as my must-see noir airing on TCM this month. The film offers a simple but intriguing plot, a first-rate cast highlighted by the superb performance of Robert Walker, and a breathtaking climax that still sets my heart aflutter, even after countless viewings.
Two strangers – Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a tennis pro, and wealthy gadabout Bruno Antony (Walker) – meet on a train bound for New York. Antony recognizes Haines from the newspapers, and over lunch, holds forth on one of his favorite theories – to “swap” murders: by way of an example, he offers the suggestion that Guy kill Bruno’s hated father, and Bruno, in return, murder Guy’s unfaithful wife, which would clear the way for Guy to wed his senator’s-daughter girlfriend (Ruth Roman).
The scene begins with a close-up shot on Bruno sitting outside, smoking, his gaze intently fixed on an unknown target. Seconds later, we see that he is seated across from the house of Guy’s wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott). Miriam and two male companions exit the house and board a bus that pulls up, with Bruno following close behind as the trio disembarks at a local carnival. The action masterfully unfolds as Bruno trails Miriam and her pals throughout the park, and Miriam grows increasingly – and favorably – aware of Bruno’s pointed attention. He makes no attempt to hide his interest, and Miriam coyly and constantly darts backward glances at him to confirm his continued presence. I don’t want to get into any more specifics about the scene – I’ll just urge you to look for some of my favorite touches – Bruno and the boy with the balloon, the “Strongman” game, the Tunnel of Love, Miriam’s glasses, and the blind man. That’s it. That’s all I’m going to say!
“What is a life or two, Guy? Some people are better off dead. Like your wife and my father, for instance.” Bruno Antony (Robert Walker)
- Strangers on a Train was based on the first novel written by Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith also wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley, which was made into a first-rate thriller starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Hitchcock bought the rights to Strangers on a Train for just $7,500, but he purposely kept his name out of the negotiations to ensure a low purchase price. Highsmith was reportedly less than pleased when she learned to whom she’d given up the rights this small amount. (By the way, in Highsmith’s novel, Guy Haines was an architect, not a tennis player.)
- Strangers contains Robert Walker’s final completed screen performance. He died a few months after the release of Strangers, at the age of 32. He was shooting the film My Son John at the time of his death, which was caused by an allergic reaction to a sedative administered to him by his psychiatrist. The ending of My Son John had to be re-written, and outtakes from Strangers on a Train were used in the film.
- A couple of goofs: In the opening scene in the train, when Guy accidentally bumps Bruno’s foot, we hear Guy say “Oh, excuse me.” But Farley Granger’s lips don’t move. A few minutes later, in that same scene, the cigarette in Bruno’s mouth disappears in mid-sentence – watch for when he says, “Oh, I get it – a little chat with your wife about the divorce.”
- Alfred Hitchcock’s patented cameo appearance came about 10 minutes into the film, as Guy Haines is seen exiting the train. He squeezes past Hitchcock, who is climbing aboard carrying a double bass fiddle.
- William Holden was first considered for the role of Guy Haines, but when he wasn’t available, Hitchcock tapped Farley Granger for the part. Granger had previously starred (with John Dahl, of Gun Crazy fame) in Hitchcock’s Rope. In other casting news, Hitchcock did not want Ruth Roman for the role of Guy’s girlfriend, but Jack Warner insisted on giving her the part, as she was under contract to Warner Bros.
- Hitchcock hired Raymond Chandler to write the screenplay for Strangers, but the experience was not a positive one. In a 1967 interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock admitted, “Whenever I collaborate with another writer who, like myself, specializes in mystery, thriller, or suspense, things don’t seem to work out too well. [My collaboration with Chandler] 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?’” Hitchcock eventually tossed out Chandler’s version and hired Czenzi Ormonde, one of Ben Hecht’s assistants, to completely rewrite the screenplay, with help from Hitchcock’s wife, Alma. Although both Hitchcock and Chandler wanted Chandler’s name removed from the credits, Warner Bros. insisted, citing the prestige the famed writer’s name would add to the production.
- The film marked the screen debut of Marion Lorne, who played Bruno’s well-meaning but slightly addled mother. Lorne is perhaps best known for her portrayal of Aunt Clara on the long-running TV series Bewitched. (Speaking of Bewitched, Laura Elliott, who played Miriam, portrayed Larry Tate’s wife on the series. By that time, she was going by the name Kasey Rogers.)
- Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, played Ruth Roman’s sister. With Farley Granger’s death last year, Patricia is the only surviving member of the cast. According to a studio press release, Hitchcock – who, like his daughter, had a fear of heights — offered Patricia one hundred dollars if she would agree to ride the Ferris Wheel on the set of the film. After she accepted the bet, so the story goes, Hitchcock ordered the power cut, leaving her alone, in the dark, at the top of the ride, for an hour. But in Charlotte Chandler’s 2006 biography of the director, Patricia contradicted the tale – she wasn’t alone on the ride (she was with the two actors who played Miriam’s amorous boyfriends), and they were only at the top for a few minutes. “My father wasn’t ever sadistic,” Patricia said. “The only sadistic part was I never got the hundred dollars.”
Don’t miss Strangers on a Train, airing on TCM on February 22nd. You only owe it to yourself!