I’ve mentioned before my puzzling relationship to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I think he’s overrated, until I notice that I am a part of the problem. I’ve given three of his films my highest 10/10 rating, including Vertigo at #16 on my list of favorite films. I’ve also given Hitchcock two 9/10 ratings and five 8/10.
The reasoning behind my sense that he’s overrated … well, “reasoning” is a bit of a stretch. He made popular movies, and his techniques were easy for casual film buffs to spot. That “obvious” technique is part of what made his films popular, that and his skill at eliciting specific responses from audiences. And really, it’s nothing but snobbery for me to argue this makes him overrated. He pleased people, he knew how to please people, he was a master of using film to please people, and he did all of this while managing to make us feel unsettled. Also, in his best films, there is plenty of subtext to dig around in once you get past the so-called obvious stuff.
In other words, my take on Hitchcock is largely nonsense, and it’s time I changed it.
Strangers on a Train is one of his very best movies. Many of the elements that made his films of the 1950s good are at their peak here: the ordinary man caught in circumstances beyond his control, the many clever set pieces, the perfect cinematography, not to mention the strangling of a female character. The homosexual subtext is pretty close to the surface for a 1951 movie. Robert Walker’s Bruno is subtextually gay, while on the surface he’s a charming psychopath. Walker’s charm means we don’t necessarily make the clichéd connection between being gay and being psycho. In fact, his charm means Walker steals the movie from everyone else, most of whom are bland in that typical Hitchcock way. (Kael wrote, in the context of Dial M for Murder, “Why did Hitchcock persist in using actors as unattractively untalented as Robert Cummings?”) Farley Granger’s tennis-playing Guy Haines is effectively ambiguous … he’s pretty, he’s bland, but he is believable in the way he manages to never really convince Bruno not to kill Guy’s wife.
I can’t overstate the importance of Robert Walker here. It’s not that every actor in every Hitchcock movie was weak. But what Walker does is different from the way a Cary Grant just grabs the screen by being Cary Grant. Walker’s intensely likable psycho draws us in, and in the process he implicates us in his deviltry. Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo is an ordinary man who gradually becomes a crazed obsessive … Walker in Strangers suggests that he has always been over the edge. #395 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10. Rope might be the best match for this movie, but it’s not nearly as good as Hitchcock’s best, so just watch Vertigo again.