Strangers on a Train
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What could have been a more inspired collaboration than one between the cinematic master of suspense and the hardboiled novelist who made detective fiction a respected literary genre? While it seems like a perfect pairing in retrospect, director Alfred Hitchcock and writer Raymond Chandler clashed continually during the making of Strangers on a Train (1951). In The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto, the director admitted, "Our collaboration was not very happy. After a while I had to give up working with him. Sometimes when we were trying to get the idea for a scene, I would offer him a suggestion. Instead of giving it some thought, he would remark to me, very discontentedly, 'If you can go it alone, why the hell do you need me?' He refused to work with me as a director." In the end, Hitchcock threw out Chandler's screenplay and hired Czenzi Ormonde to rewrite it with some additional dialogue supplied by Alma Hitchcock. Even with the last minute change of screenwriters, Strangers on a Train is generally acknowledged as one of Hitchcock's best films and was a remarkable comeback from the director's previous commercial failures of Stage Fright (1950), Under Capricorn (1949), Rope (1948), and The Paradine Case (1948). Of course, Chandler devotees claim they can clearly see the novelist's imprint on the final film but the ironic part is that every trace of the screenwriter's original work was removed by Hitchcock.
Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train presents us with two men from different worlds who strike up a fateful conversation during a train trip. Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is a professional tennis player with social aspirations. He'd like to marry Anne Morten (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a prominent Washington senator, but Miriam, his spiteful wife, refuses to divorce him. Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) is an effete and emotionally unstable dilettante with a deep hatred for his wealthy father. In the course of their conversation, Bruno makes the suggestion that they exchange murders. If Guy will murder Bruno's father, Bruno will murder Miriam. Guy dismisses Bruno's comment as a macabre joke but soon comes to realize he is dealing with a psychopath.
Originally William Holden was considered for the role of Guy but when he wasn't available, Hitchcock signed his former leading man from Rope, Farley Granger. The director was less pleased with the casting of Ruth Roman as Anne Morten who was forced on him by Warner Brothers. For the role of Anne's spunky sister, Barbara, who witnesses Bruno's dark side at a social gathering, Hitchcock cast his own daughter Patricia in the part after she agreed to a screen test. However, you couldn't really say she was treated with kid gloves. A press release from the set revealed a cruel joke Hitchcock played on her one night. When Pat begged for a ride on the Ferris wheel on the fairground set, he gave his permission and then stopped the ride when she reached the topmost point, extinguishing all the lights. Hitchcock then went off to direct another scene in a far corner of the park, leaving her stranded for more than an hour in the darkness.
Of course, the real surprise of Strangers on a Train is Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony. Walker had always been typecast as the All-American boy-next-door in such wholesome MGM fare as See Here, Private Hargrove (1944) and The Clock (1945) but Hitchcock saw another side of Walker which he effectively exploited in his film. Unfortunately, Walker, who had just recovered from a nervous breakdown prior to filming Strangers on a Train, would die just a year later during the filming of My Son John (1952), a rabid anticommunist melodrama that ended up using some outtake footage of Walker in Strangers on a Train to fill in some continuity gaps. Hitchcock later said in an interview with Jay Robert Nash: "I remember one night we had him at a party, God rest his soul....a little party after the picture's showing at our house and my wife gave him brandy. Someone said, 'Oh, you should never do that, never give him brandy, because he'll be gone.' And he was gone, too. He had two or three. Then he took my wife aside and talked about me. He said: 'You know, I love him, but I hate him at the same time!' This was Robert Walker. It's scary, isn't it? In our own home!"
Director/Producer: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde, Whitfield Cook (adaptation), Patricia Highsmith (novel)
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Principle Cast: Farley Granger (Guy Haines), Ruth Roman (Anne Morton), Robert Walker (Bruno Antony), Leo G. Carroll (Senator Morton), Patricia Hitchcock (Barbara Morton)
by Jeff Stafford