*Author’s note: this post contains spoilers*
“You do my murder, I’ll do yours.”
This line uttered by Robert Walker in his finest hour as Bruno Anthony in “Strangers on a Train” sets the tone for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s wildest rides. The film, which was released in 1951, is a Hitchcock masterpiece that is often overshadowed by the technicolor films of the director’s later years. “Strangers on a Train” begins by following two very different men. Hitchcock’s lens shows two different men walking toward a train station to get on board but you only see their feet. One is a pair of ordinary dress shoes, the other is a gaudy pair. The two eventually take their seats when one of the feet wearing the boring dress shoe hits one of the gaudy ones. Here’s where our two lead characters meet.
The boring dress shoes belong to Guy Haines, the gaudy ones belong to Bruno Anthony. Guy apologizes but Bruno initiates conversation because he recognizes him from the newspaper. Guy is a famous tennis player. Bruno appears to be a nice guy at first with respect for Guy’s talent but it soon creeps into an uncomfortable territory when he offers up a lot more details of Guy’s life. Bruno speaks to Guy very closely in the train car, his charm becomes abrasive when he reveals he knows about Guy’s complicated love life. When he notices Guy is disturbed, Bruno gets upset with himself apologizing that he’s coming off too strong again meeting someone he admires by “opening his mouth too much.” We learn that Guy is in love with the daughter of a D.C. Senator but is still married. After the two get lunch in Bruno’s dining car, Bruno tells Guy how his father hates him and then entertains him with his idea of the perfect murder. His plan is that two strangers swap murders that way neither is made a suspect in either crime because they have no attachment to the victims. He points to his father and Guy’s wife as examples and dubs the swappings as “criss cross”, which we later hear throughout the film. Guy laughs the idea off but the audience can tell that Bruno has thought this through and stands by the idea. From there we have the proposition of a mad man.
Bruno Anthony is a psychopath but he isn’t some loon. This is a man who has mastered the art of manipulation; he’s not just villain but a dangerous one. He is a suave socialite with an extravagant lifestyle: his dress shoes, a silk robe, a tie clip that bears his first name. Bruno gets pampered by his mother with manicures. He knows how to get what he wants. When he tracks down Guy’s despicable wife to murder her, we see she’s a two timer. She is at a carnival with two different men shamelessly flirting with both. Bruno stalks her throughout the evening and flirts with her knowing this attention is what she likes. At one point during a carnival game, Bruno tries to impress her by showing off his strength. Miriam looks both scared and intrigued. When he finally does get her, he does what he wants with her and carries out her murder. After the murder, we see that Bruno is relieved. The horrific act gives him a rush of adrenaline. He feels no remorse and we’re in turn shocked by his behavior. Even more shocking is Bruno helping a blind man cross the street immediately after.
There is a homosexual undercurrent in Bruno’s relationship with Guy.During their initial meeting on the train we see that Bruno is obsessed with the fame and glamour he believes makes up Guy’s life. He positions himself very close to Guy on the train and in his dining car he becomes more relaxed lounging his feet out. He tells Guy he is his friend and declares devotion to him by telling Guy “he’d do anything for him”. After he strangles Miriam to death, he presents Guy with her glasses as some sort of gift and assures him that there’s no way authorities would be able to find out. Throughout the film Bruno stalks Guy and when he comes face to face with him, Bruno woos him by saying “criss cross” in hopes that Guy will keep his end of the bargain he thinks they made. Bruno’s attraction to Guy is very subtle but their moments add another layer to his character. In turn (and in some twisted way) Guy desires Bruno’s madness. Deep down inside him, he has the urge to kill Miriam but would never have the guts to do it. This is evidenced by his reaction to her death, he is somewhat relieved as well as horrified. As with the theme of “criss cross,” Bruno is an alter ego for Guy.
Guy’s end of the perfect murder is killing Bruno’s father. Bruno loathes his father. He tells Guy that his father hates him and goes on to say that “some people are better off dead.” Like other Hitchcock villians, Bruno has mommy issues. When you see Bruno and his mother, it’s a twist on the Oedipal Complex. Bruno is very much a momma’s boy still living in the family home and being spoken to like a child by her. He wears the tie clip she gave him as a way of pleasing her even though he’s a grown man who can do what he wants. Bruno wants all of his mother’s attention.
What makes the character of Bruno Anthony such a legendary villain is Robert Walker’s performance. He brings this character with all of his complexities to life and in some scenes you find yourself rooting for his character. The psychopathic creep! There’s a scene where he drops Guy’s cigarette lighter (a piece of “evidence” Bruno can use against Guy) down a drain and your heart races because you want him to retrieve it. You are also charmed by his darkness. When he (with a stonefaced look) pops the kid’s balloon at the carnival, you find yourself laughing with him. When he kills the Miriam, you’re actually kind of happy because you wanted her to die and you’re also left horrified by that.
“Strangers on a Train” is an electrifying thriller but it’s Walker’s performance that makes it a memorable piece of work. The role was expected to be a sort of comeback for the young actor but it didn’t happen. Tragically after filming wrapped Walker was found dead from an averse reaction to a prescription drug.
While we’ll always wonder what could have been, we’re fortunate that Hitchcock gave him a chance to shine and create one of the greatest film villains of all time.
This post was a contribution to the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy Shadows and Satin Silver Screenings.