Would you ever casually joke with a stranger about having him murder your wife in exchange for you murdering his father? The answer is probably not, but that’s the event that sets the Hitchcock masterpiece, Strangers on a Train, into motion. It sounds like a lot of suspension of disbelief is required for this movie, but surprisingly enough, while the inciting conversation is interesting and engaging enough, compared to most of the rest of the film, it’s relatively forgettable.
As it seems with most movies, the “villain” of the piece is the most interesting. I use the term villain lightly because the hero of the piece isn’t too great himself so the term “villain” must be used rather loosely. He lives with his mother and father still and has a disturbing affection for his mother, but strongly resents his father. It’s not quite Oedipal because the relationship between the mother and son is almost like that shared between teenage girls. He fawns over her and she dotes on him. The father, who’s the only thing standing between Bruno (the “villain” of the piece) and his mother, is the only voice of rationale in the family and as such clearly must be done away with. What’s bizarre is Hitchcock’s handling of the character. Based on his relationship with his mother and even his interaction with Guy, who is the “hero” of the piece, is particularly gay. His boyish fascination with the exploits of Guy even down to his degradation of all women that aren’t his mother.
It’s something that a lot have people seen as the movie ages. In fact, it’s one of the most common readings of the film and just having watched it recently, it’s hard to believe that there’s any other reading at all. Then again, the sexual politics of the film are what make it an interesting movie, at least for me. Maybe that’s just as a film buff or because I’ve been trained to look beyond the surface meaning of a movie, but who knows really?
As a casual observer, this movie is fun enough. It provides the suspense that Hitchcock is always hailed for, but there’s still something not there for me. I think my main issue wasn’t how the events played out, but just that the characters were so unlikeable and even boring. Most people know that Hitchcock can develop characters beautifully. In fact, it’s pretty much all he does in movies like Rear Window and Vertigo. But these characters were just emotionless for me. Sure, I wanted Bruno to get caught and Guy to get his life back, but that mainly came from knowing that’s what I was supposed to want. There were a few characters I was intrigued by, mainly Barbara who was played by Hitchcock’s daughter, but they weren’t usually afforded anything more than a cursory glance. All in all, Strangers on a Train is more interesting to me as a piece of film history and a statement on sexual politics at the time than it is an enjoyable movie-watching experience for me.