I’ll admit that I’m more than a touch obsessed with Farley Granger and Robert Walker and their career-defining performances in the criss-cross carnival caper Strangers on a Train. It’s far and away favorite Hitchcock picture, and in my expert opinion one of the most satisfying character studies ever filmed. Farley and Bob, two semiforgotten players from separate studios who had never met prior to landing the most iconic roles of their lives, hammer through the ambiguity at the heart of the script to forge a dynamic that bolsters an astoundingly offbeat thriller.
Farley Granger’s screen career had, until this point, been mostly undistinguished despite excellent work in Hitchcock’s 1948 experiment Rope and an affecting performance as a lovestruck delinquent in the Depression-set noir They Live By Night (1949); he had become something of a matinee idol whose critical regard was endangered by a number of truly execrable turkeys made while under contract to Samuel Goldwyn. In his autobiography, Farley describes his first meeting with Hitchcock concerning Strangers as being casual, with Hitch performing every part and flatly informing Farley that he was to play Guy. “I almost jumped out of my skin,” Granger writes, before delving into the casting of the film’s manicured antagonist. Hitchcock, who, I imagine, derived some perverse delight from resurrecting the career of the only man in Hollywood whose hatred for David O. Selznick eclipsed his own, presented Walker’s casting with an ominous flourish:
“Then he asked who I thought should play Bruno. I hadn’t a clue. He leaned in with one of his inimitable smiles and said, ‘What do you think about Robert Walker?” … I remembered Hitch’s Shadow of a Doubt, in which he cast Joseph Cotten, who almost always played honest and trustworthy characters, as the murderous Uncle Charlie. It was masterful surprise casting, and so was this. I said to him, ‘What a terrific idea!’ Then he leaned in with that same grin and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if something happened on our film?’ I knew he was trying to shock me, so I just said something stupid like, ‘Oh, Hitch…'”
Walker’s 1945 divorce from Jennifer Jones had precipitated a pretty shocking personal decline, remarkable both for its coverage in trashy papers beyond the studio’s control–what Granger termed, amusingly, “some unfortunate tabloid publicity”–and by virtue of having befallen an elegant, cultured Mormon boy from Utah high society who engaged wartime audiences projecting upon him the son, brother or boyfriend lost to battle overseas. The man who Granger’s then-paramour and lifelong friend Shelley Winters would later recall as supremely intelligent, with a love of art and the burgeoning California counterculture, was a wreck. His year-long institutionalization at the Menninger Clinic had made national headlines but ultimately proved inadequate; his mental illness was poorly understood and improperly treated. As he told Hedda Hopper in a 1950 interview, “I’ve hated myself and blamed myself all my life for things I shouldn’t have blamed myself for. I felt that everybody was against me, hated me, couldn’t understand me. I was only moments away from alcoholism, which is a slow form of self-destruction.” Strangers was to be his comeback picture and, though he did not know it then, his finest–and final–performance.
The night before shooting commenced in Washington, D.C., Hitchcock and his two stars had a night out, culminating in what appears to be a relatively sedate party cut short by Walker’s drinking, which, despite his determination to get better, had relapsed. Granger, whose parents were both alcoholics, knew how to handle his costar, and arranged for Walker to arrive later in the day, sending himself in his place. Bob had spent the night confessing his demons to Farley, and that moment of honesty and emotional intimacy set the tone for the picture, at its core the story of two men channeling their unconscionable ambitions and desires into a vicious game of cat and mouse–but, as Farley had asked in Rope three years earlier, who is the cat and who is the mouse?
The answer? Who knows. Bob was six years older than Farley and a more experienced actor, but both first made an impact with movie audiences in a set of war pictures made in the early-to-mid 1940s, including Walker’s turn as cub reporter-turned-Army recruit in 1944’s aimless but endearing service comedy See Here, Private Hargrove and seventeen-year-old Granger’s film debut in the bizarrely uneven pro-Soviet propaganda piece The North Star (1943). Both ran in intellectual circles, had little respect for the institution of stardom and squabbled ceaselessly with the system and its cigar-chomping champions–though Granger’s disputes with Goldwyn pale, crumble and turn to blinding white B-movie moon ash in comparison with Walker’s prolonged collapse at the ends of Selznick’s gold-plated marionette strings. A punchline pariah and the honorary president of the “would you rather” club, c/o sexually repressed high school students everywhere: it was a combination that only Hitchcock himself would contemplate, much less attempt.
Strangers is the crown jewel of Hitchcock’s early ’50s output, a character-driven bare-bones black and white thrill ride comparable in restraint to his Warnercolor masterwork Dial M for Murder. But for all the film’s strengths–carefully crafted thematic elements, brilliant location shooting, gorgeous Robert Burks cinematography–nothing stands out with the same distinction as Granger and Walker’s performances. To address them individually:
Walker’s work in the film has become immortal, a subject of study in college film classes and a fond footnote in movie history, but Granger is often criticized for making Guy so weak, so unsympathetic, so unmasculine–when, to my mind, it’s Guy’s reluctance to take action that distinguishes him–and the picture itself–from the gloomy hunted-heroes-with-a-past that plagued studio press kits of the postwar era. Guy takes advantage of Miriam’s death, more interested in maintaining his reputation than in catching her killer, afraid that implicating himself will put a ding in his political ambitions. Because he was not preoccupied with maintaining his stardom, Granger felt no obligation to keep up this illusion of meta movie star bravery, and Hitchcock understood that. Granger owed nothing to audiences and played it the way he pleased. His Guy is selfish and vulnerable because we are selfish and vulnerable, and that character interpretation is subversive superb.
Walker, a former radio actor, had stammered through most of his pictures with an instantly identifiable yelp–strangled, breathless, dripping with earnestness and vulnerability, perfectly paired with the sometimes grating naiveté of his characters. In Strangers, he employed a voice–often inexplicably attributed to Hitchcock in a daring directorial act that auteurists must equate to Capra rubbing mercury solution on Jimmy Stewart’s vocal cords in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington–similar to the one heard here in a 1947 radio interview with Florence Pritchett (Walker portion begins at 14:13). That voice is perhaps Walker’s most crucial physical contribution to Guy and Bruno’s dynamic. When Bruno speaks to Guy, his tone is hushed, confessional, in moments of stress twisting into a tortured bleat, as in the scene after Bruno trots out his murderous tendencies at a party and is herded by Guy into a side room, only to protest that he can’t leave Guy alone because he “likes” him (which earns him a punch in the nose from his rather perturbed-looking enemy).
The miscasting of Ruth Roman as Guy’s love interest Anne Morton actually works in the film’s favor–more specifically, in the main dynamic’s favor. Guy is a coward, and that message is reinforced by the dubious passion displayed by what the viewer is told to be two people deeply in love. It is clear that this is not a woman for whom Guy would refill a scotch glass, let alone murder his estranged wife, which amplifies the delicious tension of his scenes with Bruno. The two male leads have a chemistry reminiscent of that of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest–potent, mistrustful, decidedly sexual. The smug and positively smoldering stare with which Bruno appraises Guy must have been jarring to contemporary audiences familiar with a string of Walker characters who could barely squeak out a sentence without blushing profusely. The smile Guy gives Bruno in their first interaction on the train is likewise a bit too open, a bit too sparkling, to be genuine, but the sense of social obligation is quickly supplanted by a curiosity that shines from the core of Granger’s marvelous, marvelous eyes (usually contorted in fearful bewilderment). With a flash of his caddish kicks and lobster tie, Bruno establishes himself as the most important person in Guy’s Capitol-clubbing life.
Granger, who would make only one more really exceptional picture, 1954’s Senso, before more or less forsaking film for the stage, later referred to Strangers as the happiest movie-making experience of his career, a statement that Walker would likely agree with, having–with the exception of a comparatively brief turn as Hepburn and Tracy’s wayward son in 1947’s noble failure The Sea of Grass–had been America’s surrogate sweetheart for almost a decade, flitting from soldier to sailor and back again in countless formula pictures with nary a moment of malice between them. The two actors became friends and made plans to get together once Walker finished work on his next picture, My Son John. This, of course, was not to be. In a way, Walker’s death in August 1951 has become Strangers‘s best promotional aspect–a movie so exacting, so compelling, so immensely thrilling that it saved and subsequently preserved a talent that extinguished itself in booze and harried medical help mere weeks after shooting wrapped. It is certainly a part of the film’s legend, the obligatory note at the end of every screening: we have just watched a man die, creatively, textually, and, by extension of celluloid’s curious evocative properties, almost–almost–physically.
But the dynamic is what anchors what could have been a kitschy, bombastic embarrassment. Hitchcock later disavowed Granger’s performance, stating that he would have preferred a stronger figure like William Holden as the film’s protagonist, but according to Granger, always a skeptic and definitely not predisposed to lying about such things, Hitchcock did offer him the leading male role in The Birds–leading this blogger to conclude that Hitch wasn’t quite so displeased with Strangers on a Train as he would have us believe. Had Bob not died, the Walker-Granger pairing would no doubt have been exploited by studio higher-ups (or by hit-hungry Goldwyn at the very least) in at least one other picture looking to capitalize on both their dynamite chemistry and Walker’s return. What could have been a whiz-bang screen team met its untimely end pinned beneath a merry-go-round on the Warner lot, but Strangers itself survives on a loop in niche video stores everywhere, Walker’s eyes alight as he asks Granger the prying little question that started it all–“I beg your pardon, but aren’t you Guy Haines?”