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Strangers on a Train

Everybody has secret urges and desires, some of them dark and, perhaps, violent.

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Strangers on a Train

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

At the Charles Theatre on Nov. 24, 26, and 29

As we withdraw into the screens of our devices and the artifice of social media, it seems less plausible that we encounter, and become intertwined with, perfect strangers. We limit our interactions to friends and associates and people we meet online but are unlikely to ever meet in person.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film Strangers on a Train, set in an era long before the internet, where railcar seats brought people face-to-face, such a chance meeting turns the life of Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a tennis player of some renown, upside down.

Haines—tall, athletic, a bit doe-eyed—is en route to seek a divorce from his cheating wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott). On this train ride he is greeted by Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), an overly eager man who tries warming Haines up with tabloid gossip items related to Haines’ desire to marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator.

Despite the awkward introduction, Haines and Antony end up sharing a meal in a private compartment. Antony casually suggests a “criss-cross” murder plot. He would kill Haines’s wife in exchange for the slaying of his father, and both would more than likely get away with the crimes without a recognizable motive. Haines reads this as no more than a morbid joke gone too far but leaves hurriedly.

Miriam, in a callous confrontation, denies Haines a divorce. As Haines rides the rails to Washington, D.C., Antony—thinking he has struck a deal—slowly tracks Miriam at a carnival and strangles her in one of the movie’s most iconic shots, just offshore of the Tunnel of Love ride. This enables Haines to pursue his new marital ambitions, but burdens him with a sense of upheaval. Antony begins to stalk him, insisting he fulfill his part of the bargain, and after repeated refusals, he threatens to frame Haines.

Is Haines’ torment reason enough for 21st century viewers to take comfort in our self-inflicted isolationism? Hardly. Hitchcock’s deliberately paced psychological thriller makes perfectly clear, through thematic and editing cues, that Haines and Antony are linked beyond the narrative of the plot; the latter merely acts on the former’s sinister desires. After Haines has a nasty confrontation with his wife, he phones Morton and, in a fit of rage, says, “I could strangle her.” It’s one of those empty threats you hear all the time, but Antony, quite literally, makes it so.

Our personalities are duplicitous. Everybody has secret urges and desires, some of them dark and, perhaps, violent. Even in a time when we use social media tools to curate or project an image of what we want people to think we are, this part of our human nature can’t be suppressed.

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