The Distraction Blogathon: Strangers on a Train (1951)
Last month I sat down to look at The Wrong Man, a first time watch for me from the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. This week, we’re returning to the Hitchcockian goodness as we participate in The Distraction Blogathon with a look at Strangers on a Train.
Yes, I know. I know. I’ve talked about this movie more than a few times. It’s hard to mess with perfection. However, when faced with the question of the distraction… or the ‘MacGuffin’… this film felt like the perfect place to start. Though, I have to freely admit here… I’m very biased…. Everywhere in Strangers on a Train feels like a good place to start. In fact, among Hitchcock’s bevy of amazing works, it sits among the greats.
Strangers on a Train follows tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) who meets the wealthy and decidedly quirky n’er-do-well Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) on a train. As they talk, it suddenly enters Bruno’s mind that both men have people they need just to… die. Their lives would be so much easier. So, what does one do in that instance? Switch murders of course! Criss cross! There’s only one problem though… Guy has no intention of participating in the plan. Ruth Roman, Patricia Hitchcock, Kasey Rogers and Leo G. Carroll co-star in the movie. Alfred Hitchcock directs the film from a script by the almighty Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormondo. The story comes from a novel by Patricia Highsmith.
As an actor, Robert Walker’s filmography is a bit of a Hitchcockian ‘MacGuffin’ in itself. While you’re distracted by the baby-faced boy next-door, you don’t see the calculating character performer honing his skill. Walker began in the industry at the tail end of the 1930s before scoring his breakout in 1943 with a role in the World War II drama Bataan.
Throughout the decade, his presence came to symbolize the human toll and tragedy of war. He played an awful lot of soldiers during the peak of his career. However, he was never the John Wayne or the Errol Flynn who could beat a platoon of soldiers with his eyes closed. Walker was the boy next-door. The image he conveyed in his movies was homespun. He conjured images of soda-fountains and writing letters home to his girl. His characters went to war willingly, but they couldn’t hide their fear. This persona is best seen not only in Bataan, but also in Since You Went Away, The Clock and even in See Here, Private Hargrove.
Strangers on a Train hit theaters in 1951. Walker was just entering his 30s and the United States was six years removed from World War II. However, a look at his films immediately surrounding the thriller shows him still very much saddled with this persona. He plays in a lot of romances and quite a few of those with a period or military slant.
This would have been the Robert Walker viewers knew in 1951 when he stepped into the part of Bruno Antony. The role is decidedly against type for him. Audiences in this movie see him starting to show his age in the wake of his well-publicized struggle with addiction. However, World War II (and with that, Walker’s persona) was still fresh in the minds of many. In 1951, even Walker’s Los Angeles Times obituary referred to him the “shy guy of motion pictures”.
Herein lies the importance of Robert Walker’s presence in Strangers on a Train. While of course he is an active participant in the plot, he also serves as a tool for building the suspense. As Haines, Granger is playing very much in his usual type. Bruno though is a wild-card. He’s colorful, flamboyant and ultimately psychotic. In fact, it’s impossible to tell just how far he’s willing to go in the scope of the narrative (and as we learn early… he’ll go pretty far). Heck, it’s Bruno who orchestrates the film’s actual narrative MacGuffin (a cigarette lighter) which casts the shadow of guilt squarely onto Guy.
Strangers on a Train hit theaters in the summer of 1951 and was very much still in its opening popularity when Walker passed away in August of that year. 1951 had been a hallmark year for the actor which showed him to be putting distance from the roles (and indeed the persona) he’d orchestrated over the last half-decade. That year, Walker co-stared (once again as an antagonist) in Vengeance Valley opposite Burt Lancaster. The western hit theaters shortly before Strangers on a Train. Right after the Hitchcock classic, Walker appeared in My Son John opposite Helen Hayes which directly subverts his boy next-door persona to explore the perceived “Communist Threat” of the Eisenhower era.
Ultimately, Strangers on a Train (and with that Hitchcock) would have been aware of Walker’s persona going into this picture. While Walker’s name largely hasn’t transcended the decades, he was a mainstay on screen during this time. He’d appeared in 16 films in just seven years and had starred opposite A-listers like Judy Garland, Jennifer Jones and Ava Gardner. In casting him, Hitchcock wasn’t using an unknown. In Walker’s hands, Bruno hits far differently than he would in the hands of a different actor and it’s creepier that way.
All in all, questions of star persona are difficult to explore when looking back in history. Robert Walker has come to largely be remembered by popular culture specifically for his work in Strangers on a Train. However, he was so much more than that. When viewing the classic through a period lens, it is possible to read Strangers on a Train far differently.
As a largely typecast actor only one film into what would be a fast (but sadly brief) career resurgence, his presence would have conjured a different images for audiences. He symbolized World War II and innocence. He was the boy next-door. They hadn’t seen him like this before. So, while Strangers on a Train certainly has a more literal ‘MacGuffin’, Robert Walker enters this film as a distraction. In a coy subversion of his star persona, he begins the narrative very much the troubled boy audiences would have seen him as, and he exits a legend. This is the role we remember him for. It’s one of the ultimate Hollywood tragedies we didn’t see where he was headed.
Strangers on a Train is very much a lesser known gem of Hitchcock’s work. It of course isn’t talked about as much as the recognized classics like North By Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, but it should be. The film is a tight and scary thriller which is very much carried on screen by Walker’s colorful performance. However, one can’t ignore Hitchcock who is (as always!) functioning at the peak of his powers. Then there is the little matter of the Patricia Highsmith story and the Raymond Chandler (among others!) script. These are some of the truest titans of mid-twentieth century literature. If you haven’t seen this one, definitely add it to your lists.
Strangers on a Train is widely available as a rental through a number of streaming platforms.
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Having come at Walker’s career through television screenings of his films in my teen years, Strangers on a Train came late in my viewing so I did get to experience his career trajectory as his original fans might have done. However, I don’t think I ever approached his stellar performance as Bruno in the context you presented and it is a fascinating take on the creation of the movie.
I recently came home after a long hospital stay and as my husband set up the living room for my comfort, he called “TCM knows you’re back. They’re showing Strangers on a Train.”
Brilliant essay. Robert Walker’s being cast against type definitely made him creepier in the role – and his character is creepy enough to begin with!
I love, LOVE Walker in this role. He is exactly who the film needs him to be.
You make a great point about Bruno being somewhat of a continuation of Walker’s boy-next-door image — Bruno is certainly “boyish” in a weird, creepy sort of way. While I may admire some of Hitchcock’s other movies more, for me, Strangers on a Train is his most enjoyable “ride,” and I never get tired of revisiting it.
Walker was definitely a disarming actor–like you said, his boyishness threw people off. It’s interesting to think about where his career would have gone if he had lived longer. Thanks again for joining the blogathon with this great article! 🙂
Terrific article, Kimberly! Love your look at Robert Walker’s career and as the Distraction piece in Strangers on a Train. It’s always a joy to see him act and he delivers in spades as Bruno. I haven’t seen this film in years, and now I must revisit it soon.
A great performance indeed. Sad he passed away so young.
Carol, The Old Hollywood Garden
A) I love people playing against type (I’m a sucker for Cary Grant in Father Goose 🙂 )
B) Robert Walker – the prototypical “what might have been” guy