It is 1951. The American empire is at its height. Your name is Guy Haines. You are tall, dark, ridiculously handsome, and a famous athlete. You are set to be married to the beautiful, sophisticated daughter of a United States Senator, who fully intends to take you under his wing and guide your way into the American political elite. In other words, everything is going your way.
There’s only one little problem. Isn’t there always? You’re already married to a vulgar promiscuous little hussy from your hometown who had until very recently intended to grant you a divorce until she realized just how far your were going and decided that she wanted to hitch along for the ride. That baby that may or may not be yours — they didn’t have DNA tests until 1983 — just might be the boat anchor that keeps your ship from sailing.
The United States, at least through the eyes of Alfred Hitchcock was beautiful back then. Small towns had their own amusement parks. There’s so little evidence of poverty that it’s hard to believe that the Great Depression had only ended a few years before. You could have a real dinner on a train going from Washington DC to New York. Not only does Union Station in Washington look great in classic black and white, Penn Station in New York, the real Penn Station, not that abomination that took its place, was still standing at 34th Street and 8th Avenue.
At Union Station, on the way back to his hometown — it’s supposed to be somewhere in Maryland but it’s really Danbury Connecticut — another man gets on the train with Guy Haines. Bruno Antony, unlike Guy, is from a wealthy family. He’ll never have to work a day in his life if he doesn’t want to. In fact he has so much time on his hands that when he recognizes Guy on the train, and barges his way into his space, he has already read everything there is to know about him. His full time profession, it seems, is to read the sports and gossip pages.
“Aren’t you Guy Haines?” Bruno asks, clearly already knowing the answer to the question. Guy, who is noticeably uncomfortable, tries to get away, but Bruno insists so relentlessly, and Guy is so well-mannered, that he reluctantly agrees to have a drink in Bruno’s private cabin. Unbeknownst to himself, Guy has ventured into the sights of a dangerous predator. Critics have speculated that Bruno Antony, played by the brilliant Robert Walker, who sadly died at the age of 31, is driven by a homosexual attraction to Guy Haines. That certainly comes through. In spite of being over 6 feet tall, and traditionally masculine, there’s something just a little too foppish and a bit feminine about Bruno Antony. The very first image from the movie contrasts Guy’s sensible dark brown shoes with Bruno’s flashy two toned wingtips. Other critics have speculated that it’s really Guy Haines who represents the closeted 1950s homosexual and Bruno Antony the McCarthyite inquisitor hunting down the “lavender menace.”
In any event, whether or not either Bruno or Guy, neither or both, are closeted gay men is not really central to the plot. Being a McCarthyite inquisitor and a closeted gay man are not mutually exclusive anyway. See also, Roy Cohn. What’s important is that Bruno knows all about Guy’s little problem with his first wife, and his plans to marry the Senator’s daughter. He makes a proposition. Bruno, hates his father — who wants him to get a job — and seems abnormally close to his mother. He proposes that he kill Guy’s wife if Guy agrees to kill the elder Mr. Antony. Guy is shocked, or so it would appear. But Bruno’s proposal is also so outrageous and so out of the blue who could take it seriously? In fact, Guy does. In reality, even though Guy tries to laugh it off as a big joke, he also seems just a little too interested. Perhaps Bruno Antony is not only his stalker but his id. Even though Guy is so flustered that he forgets his engraved cigarette lighter — quickly pocketed by Bruno — at some point they almost appear to be doubles, as if Bruno is Mr. Hyde to Guy’s Dr. Jekyll, as if Guy subconsciously left the cigarette lighter in Bruno’s private cabin to establish a connection he doesn’t fully understand he wants.
After Miriam, Guy’s wife, brutally rejects Guy’s final plea for a divorce, the mild-mannered pretty boy displays an uncharacteristically murderous rage, shouting at the top of his lungs at Miriam that he could kill her, and even telling Anne, the Senator’s daughter and his perspective bride, that he wants to strangle the woman standing in the way of their marriage. Normally that would be a “red flag” but this is the 1950s so it takes Anne a bit longer to become suspicious. As he boards the train back to Washington, dejected, feeling that his glorious future is becoming less and less realistic, Bruno is in the process of keeping his end of the “bargain,” stalking Miriam through the fictional Metcalf Maryland, and demonstrating his theory that “switching” murders would enable two people to commit the perfect crime, since nobody would suspect a random stranger without a motive. Indeed, as Miriam goes out for a night at the local amusement park with two gentleman “friends” — she may be pregnant but that’s not keeping her from having a good time — Bruno easily follows the three young people without attracting the slightest notice. He even manages to attract Miriam’s flirtatious attention after he rings the bell at the amusement park in a “test your strength” game, proving how much powerfully built he is than her two dates, who fail miserably.
Miriam’s murder is considered a classic set piece in world cinema. As Bruno wraps his powerful hands around her neck, preventing her from screaming, her glasses fall to the ground and we see her death in their reflection. Personally I doubt strangling someone is that effortless, especially if she has two friends in the immediate vicinity, but Hitchcock is making a trenchant sociological observation. In modern, urban America, people are so alienated from one another, such atomized individuals, that there’s really nothing keeping a random stranger with the means and opportunity from murdering another random stranger on a whim. “Why don’t people do this more often?” Hitchcock seems to be asking, as Bruno slips out of the amusement park. Even though he attracts the attention of one middle-aged man has a “gut feeling” there is something a little off about him, he has in fact committed the perfect crime.
Alfred Hitchcock is far too intelligent a filmmaker to have any part of his plot depend on the police being morons. The detectives assigned to tail Guy Haines in Strangers on a Train understand perfectly well that when a random working class women, who couldn’t have possibly had any real enemies, suddenly ends up dead, it’s probably the boyfriend or the husband. Nevertheless, Bruno Antony was right. Other than the obvious motive, there’s nothing tying Guy Haines to the murder of his wife. He was nowhere near the scene of the crime when it happened, and even if his “alibi” falls apart the police still don’t have enough evidence to make an arrest, even though they clearly want to, if only because as the pampered favorite of a United States Senator and a world class athlete, it would be a prize arrest that would immediately make anybody who solved the crime famous. Innocent working class girl murdered by her ambitious husband? Theodore Dreiser even wrote a famous novel about it. But while there’s nothing decisively tying Guy to the murder, the murder has tied Guy to Bruno, exactly what Bruno wants.
Bruno soon begins to stalk not only Guy, but pretty much everybody in his social circle, including his prospective wife’s younger sister — played by Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter Pat Hitchcock — who bears a striking resemblance to Miriam herself and who immediately suspects that she might be next. After awhile we begin to suspect that Bruno doesn’t really care whether or not Guy kills his father, or that he even wanted the old man dead in the first place. What he wants his control of Guy. More accurately, he wants to break through Guy’s sanctimonious mask and reveal the monster underneath and indeed for a man who just lost his wife — he must have loved her at some point even if the marriage did end badly — he doesn’t seem terribly upset. In fact, he comes off more like an out and out sociopath concerned only with how the murder will affect his future and never once expressing even the slightest remorse or sadness that Miriam died so young.
Strangers on a Train of course has a happy ending. Bruno is revealed to be the murderer, and Guy gets off scot free, presumably to marry Anne and live happily ever after as he makes his way into the Washington elite. But one image sticks in my mind. Guy and his police “escort” are walking past the Jefferson Memorial, chatting amiably about, what else, Guy’s future prospects. Just then we look up to see Bruno on the steps of the monument, a lone, terrifying individual, almost a ghost, almost a image of the kind of sociopathic ruthlessness that it takes to become a United States Senator, the goal Guy clearly has in mind. In the end, Guy Haines is looking not so much at his stalker, but at his reflection. He will undoubtedly go onto a great career, already aided by his future wife’s and father in law’s willingness to overlook just how much he benefited from the murder of his unlikeable, but in the end innocent, first wife. Washington, Hitchcock seems to be saying, is fully of sordid stories just like this.