Up until the other night, I had never watched an Alfred Hitchcock film all the way through. But the lists I found of the top films featuring trains consistently put 1951’s Strangers on a Train near the top, and since it was the only highly ranked train film available in the main branch of the Leon County library, I checked that sucker out.
To be fair, the movie didn’t feature trains all that much except for the long opening scene where Guy Hanes, a well-known, amateur tennis player, meets Bruno, a charismatic, murderous psychopath, and they make their tacit agreement to criss-cross applesauce murder each others’ problematic loved ones: Guy’s current wife who’s pregnant with another man’s child, and Bruno’s father who wants his son locked up. Thing is that tacit agreement happens only in Bruno’s mind as he fingers the lighter Guy, who thinks the arrangement a morbid joke, leaves behind in the train car.
Billed as a “dark comedy,” Hitchcock evinces his legendary skills of building suspense as Bruno follows Guy’s wife around a carnival in Metcalf, bashing the strength meter with all his sadistic energy, through the tunnel of love where his shadow overtakes her on the wall of the brick tunnel just as she screams from the tickles of the two (count ‘em, two) men she’s with, and onto Lover’s Island where he strangles her in the dark.
Meanwhile, on a train commute, Guy speaks to an inebriated professor on sabbatical from Delaware Tech. who says he just gave a speech about integration and sings a song about kids who love donkeys. The professor cannot corroborate Guy’s alibi because he’s blacked out—a snide needling of Delaware Tech.—so Guy, who has all the motive to kill his wife (he’s been dating the senator’s daughter) can’t tell the truth because, as Bruno, who waltzes into Guy’s social life in Washington and demands Guy keeps up his end of the bargain to kill Bruno’s father, reminds him, the police would never buy his story.
That’s a complicated way of saying that Guys seems the dumb athlete type, not smart enough to get his divorce while his manipulative wife is still alive and believing Bruno’s rationale for his own complicity in the murder. Instead of coming out with the truth, Guy sneaks around Washington covering up his train conversation with Bruno, showing off his awful tennis form that somehow wins him matches and local fame, and dating the senator’s daughter. The political family approves of Guy’s dissembling (much of the film’s dark humor comes from depictions political subterfuge), and in the end, the whole convoluted thing unravels at the carnival in Metcalf where the original murder occurred.
Bruno returns to the scene of the crime to plant Guy’s lighter where on the island where the murder occurred and frame Guy for the murder. After an anxious train ride to Metcalf, Guy confronts Bruno and they tussle on a merry-go-round which soon spins out of control and finally topples and crashes, unraveling the plot and killing Bruno. When his fist unclenches at the moment of death, the Guy’s lighter appears, exonerating Guy of the murder. It’s implied that Guy will get to finish his tennis tournament, marry the senator’s daughter, and pursue a second career of politics like he always dreamed. In fact, he’s better off having met Bruno because he doesn’t have to go through a nasty divorce and he’s earned some sympathy votes for the future. Still, it was a close call.
So what will I stock away from Strangers on a Train and use on my trip? Stay out of Metcalf. If a guy looks at me and asks, “Hey, aren’t you Guy Hanes?” or talks about criss-cross arrangements, move to another car. Don’t let him buy me a double gin and tonic, or roll me a cigarette. Next thing I know he’ll be at my door telling me he killed my wife.
And most importantly, don’t tell anyone that I want Aimee killed. That’s what she asked of me after the movie: “Don’t tell anyone you want me killed, okay?”
Okay darling. You got it.