Robert Walker: Strangers On a Train

“Criss-cross…” whispers Robert Walker, in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers On A Train”

WARNING TO THOSE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE: Spoilers abound – in the post as well as comments. Know this before you proceed.

It’s been a Robert Walker theme over the past couple of weeks. Coincidentally, after seeing The Clock last week (post about it here) – the next film on the queue was Strangers On A Train, one of Hitchcock’s best films. I’d seen it before, but it was years ago, so it was great – to leapfrog from The Clock, where Walker is sweet, funny, gentle … to Strangers On a Train, where Walker is also sweet, funny, gentle … only in this context, quite different, all of those qualities begin to seem quite sinister. Almost mad. Walker, famously, had had a nervous breakdown in real life – and was institutionalized for a couple of months – a year or so before the filming of Strangers On A Train. Walker has never been better (why is this actor so forgotten?) – and if you want an object lesson in how good he is as an actor – watch The Clock and Strangers On a Train back to back. It’s almost unrecognizable, so hard to believe that it’s the same guy – and he hasn’t put on a funny nose, or glasses, or made himself appear different. He’s put on weight, this is true … but the real difference is what’s happening inside. Not to get too deep, but it seems that Walker has even a different soul in this picture, as compared to The Clock. How do you switch souls?? Well, Walker did. Walker is tapping into something inside of him in Bruno Anthony – a quality, a feeling, an experience that he obviously had not been asked to tap into in roles before – and that is his madness. Walker has an element of madness in him. But his career was mainly as a young leading man, one of Hollywood’s hot up-and-coming leads.

Here, though, Hitchcock – perhaps sensing the darkness behind the eyes, the damaged little boy looking out from the adult male face – uses Walker in a very interesting and unexpected way. Bruno is one of Hitchcock’s best villains. Any villain worth his salt is so compelling that you find yourself siding with him, regardless of his depravity. James Cagney made his entire career out of playing such “bad” guys – and Walker’s character in Strangers On a Train reminds me of Cody Jarrett, Cagney’s baby-faced villain from White Heat who also has this strange psychosexual relationship with his mother – that has somehow stunted and blunted his personality. Bruno is obviously insane, there’s something wrong with the guy – he’s dominated by his mother, he despises his father – who emasculates him and talks about him as though he is not there … I would say, from my early 21st century perspective, that Bruno is obviously gay. The first scene between Farley Granger and Walker, on the train, is – to quote Roger Ebert – more like a “pickup” than anything else – that is how it is played. Walker doesn’t queen it up, I don’t find his performance offensive (like the horrible gay character in Adam’s Rib who almost makes that film unwatchable to me. It’s like watching hate propaganda or something!!) – it’s subtle. It’s creepy. Bruno has a line later in the film when he returns to the carnival. He’s sitting, waiting, biding his time – and a carnival worker comes over and starts shooting the shit with him. “Business dropped since the murder … nobody wants to go on the boats … and nobody goes over to that field to smooch no more…” and Bruno kind of laughs and says, “I don’t know anything about smooching.” Movies of that time had to speak in code about certain “unspeakable” things. You can see it all over movies like Compulsion (my post about it here) which is about a gay relationship – but you couldn’t say that. The same is going on here. Bruno saying he doesn’t know anything about smooching is a code. Walker doesn’t need the code, though – his brilliance as an actor has led to him playing, all along, his seduction of Farley Granger. He is overly intimate, inappropriately so. He croons, he sidles up close, he stands too close, it’s … too much. Bruno is “too much”. And yet – somehow we only want to watch him. Farley Granger is in a helluva predicament, it is true – and I do feel bad for him … but I would rather watch Robert Walker. That’s the mark of a great screen villain!

David Thomson in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film has this to say about Robert Walker in Strangers On a Train:

The unease lurking behind faded boyishness was recognized by Alfred Hitchcock in Strangers On A Train (51). His Bruno Anthony in that film was not only his best performance but a landmark among villains – a man of piercing ideas transformed by crossing lines into a smiling psychopath. Walker manages to be very disturbing and yet never loses our sympathy. See how much he suggests in the first meeting: the inactive man who dominates the athlete Granger, the subtle notes of homosexuality, and that beautiful moment when he leans back, sighs, and tells how he “puts himself to sleep” scheming up plans. Bruno is one of Hitchcock’s greatest creations and a sign of how seriously Walker was cramped by wholesomeness. He so monopolizes the film that he may even have led Hitchcock to appreciate its underground meanings. This demonic vitality is the key to the film and one of Hitchcock’s cleverest confusions of our involvement. Touched and intrigued by his gestures – the boyish pleasure at the fairground, the mischievous bursting of the little boy’s balloon, the evident superiority of his mind to that of Guy’s brassy wife – we become accomplices to the murder he commits. Thus he hands the dead body down to us, distorted by the spectacles that have fallen from the victim’s goggling head.


Robert Walker was Hitchcock’s only choice for the role of Bruno Anthony.


Strangers On A Train came out in 1951, the same year of Robert Walker’s death – from what appears to be an accidental overdose (prescribed by a doctor – so let’s add “incompetence” to the list of factors here). He had been on a self-destructive path for many years, a bitter sad man, whose divorce from Jennifer Jones was pretty much something he never recovered from. But, selfishly, how lucky we are that Walker was given a part, in Bruno Anthony in Strangers On a Train that let him tap into at least some of that stuff … because it lives forever now.

Great performance.

UPDATE: Found an article online by David Thomson about Robert Walker, from 1999. I re-print it here in full. It appeared in The Independent on August 15, 1999:

“Robert Walker, A Great Lost Star” By David Thomson – Film Studies – The Independent – (London) Sunday August 15, 1999

That moment has arrived when Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday – it would have been his 100th this year – can be celebrated. And since just about everything, from his lugubrious wisdom to his teddy bear collection, has been noted, there remains nothing but a film to honour. The birthday, 13 August, has been marked with the re-release of Strangers on a Train. Which brings me to Robert Walker, and his uncanny character, Bruno Anthony.

Walker died in 1951, aged 32, only a few months after the film opened. The death was untidy; for several years the actor had been unstable and a drinker. He was given drugs to reduce one more emotional outburst, and he never regained consciousness. Was the dose wrong, or had Walker brought it all on himself in some suicidal mood? No one really knows. But it was said that he had never recovered from the divorce from his wife, Phyllis.

They had married, when young actors, in 1939. They had two sons. But then, as Walker began to make his way as a naïve romantic lead, Phyllis was discovered by producer David O. Selznick. He changed her name to Jennifer Jones, made a star of her, and let his first marriage collapse so that he could marry her.

There was nothing Walker could do to stop it; no matter that he was close to a star himself – with Judy Garland in the film, The Clock. He broke down. He married again, and that union failed. He was in an institution for several months. And he came back “better” and laughing, but in ways that alarmed his friends.

That’s when Hitchcock noticed him. Now, it’s easy for us to conclude that Hitch was always a success. Not so. In 1950, he had four flops in a row – The Paradine Case, Rope, Under Capricorn, and Stage Fright – and he was anxious to put an end to that run. He had a novel by Patricia Highsmith that contained this superb idea; two men, strangers Bruno and Guy, meet on a train and are drawn together discussing their vexing kin. A plot is hatched, and Walker’s eyes come alive with the sheer intellectual excitement of the idea – they have the kind of shine that the eyes of physicists on the Manhattan Project gave off when the beauty of certain mathematical equations was realized.

Guy laughs this passionate idea away; he thinks Bruno is weird. But Bruno’s so much more than that. He’s inspired by craziness, and he believes that a contract has been entered into. And then, in one of Hitch’s finest sustained sequences, with the sinister married to the comedy – since we long for the disagreeable wife of Guy to be dispatched – he has Bruno track the female victim to a fairground, pursue her, half charm her, and then strangle her. Gently he lowers the corpse into our lap, as the prize we have earned.

This sequence was vital in Hitchcock’s progress. Never before had he so grasped the way action on screen could be the expression of the audience’s voyeuristic desires. Never again would he lose that barbed innuendo – it is the vital mechanism in Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho, and depends upon the unconventional insight that we may like a villainous character sufficiently for the achievement of a stealthy ambivalence. And it was Walker who helped Hitchcock to learn this lesson. For his killer is so much more beguiling and compelling that Guy, the stooge, who is played by Farley Granger.

I wonder how much of this the actor and director understood, or discussed, at the time. Walker had always been the soul of kindness, sweetness even. He had a high hushed voice which Hitch turned into eloquence. The seed lay in Highsmith’s searching novel. And Walker was well aware of how much Hitch had done for him.

The film’s opening conversation scene on the train is like a tennis match in which Guy serves up one weak lob after another for Bruno to put sway. I suspect the things we might see so plainly now – the homosexual longing in Bruno, the wicked contrast of the man of action and the man of ideas, the superficiality of Guy and the hungry depth in Bruno – were never mentioned.

For Bruno was so far ahead of his time. No censor jumped up and said the guy’s a fruit – as equally, in 1960, on the release of Psycho, no one saw how subversive a figure was its central character, Norman Bates. Everyone settled for Bates being a killer, as if that got anywhere near the real intelligence, the terrible charm of him, or Bruno.

So it is a landmark performance. You see it now, and feel the vibrancy of the modernity. But back in 1951, Bruno was politely ignored.

What might have happened to Walker had he not died then? It’s not that movies were well-stocked with parts like Bruno. And Walker was putting on weight. He might have taken up the silky load of master villain Sydney Greenstreet, who died in 1954. Yet he was likely headed for some bad ending. Even so, he had had that one chance – so that, decades later, we just can’t get him out of our heads.


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19 Responses to Robert Walker: Strangers On a Train

  1. This is one of my favorite movies OF ALL TIME! And Robert Walker is ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT!!! I think it’s one of the most under appreciated performances of all time. And I think this movie, even though it is praised and even hailed by most cinephiles, is still underrated in Hitchcock’s canon.

    And the fact that at the end (SPOILER WARNING), even as he lay dying, he STILL won’t get Guy off the hook – Wow! It speaks to a bitter resentment at being dismissed, abandoned, ignored. It’s a great movie and a powerful statement on fan adulation (and I’m freaked out because just before coming here this morning I put up a post on fan adulation at my site so seeing this post knocked me back).

    Favorite Walker moments (SPOILERS AGAIN):

    * The “choking” at the party
    * Every scene with his mother, especially when he sees the painting she has completed
    * Him in bed waiting for Guy to kill dear old dad
    * The shot at the tennis match, with his focused unmoving stare

    Thanks for writing up this movie. Now I have to watch it again soon.

  2. red says:

    Jonathan – who knew that a tennis match could be so ominous?? That one shot of all the heads going back and forth – and his head remaining still – is absolutely terrifying – so so good!!

    I love the way Walker says the name “Guy” … every time he says the name, it’s different. It comes out as a croon, a whisper – sort of a caressing of the name … and yet somehow it always sounds like a threat. Brilliant!!!

  3. It does! The way that Walker feels rejected because Guy won’t kill his dad after he’s killed Guy’s wife – it’s like he can’t believe he did something so kind and generous and loving and it’s not being recipricated.

    And the whole climax is about his anger at being rejected. You can imagine him delivering an alternate version of that famous Alex Forrest line, “I won’t be ignored Guy!”

  4. red says:

    Yes! Bruno seems truly hurt that Guy doesn’t love him for what he did for him … it all seemed perfectly clear to Bruno: I do this for you, you do this for me, it’s perfect, right?? Of course, when we watch that first scene – it is not at ALL obvious that Guy “agrees” to Bruno’s plan, but that’s part of the genius of the film. I mean, I haven’t murdered anyone – but I have been in Bruno’s position – where I THINK something is a done deal … I have taken something from a conversation and thought: “Well, it’s obvious what is going on HERE, right??” – only to find that I have been totally mistaken. It doesn’t happen often – my instincts are pretty good – but when I am “off”, boy – does it sting. I relate to Bruno’s confusion and hurt in the film – even though he’s nuts, and a murderer.

    It’s such a complex experience for a viewer.

  5. I agree. I feel for Bruno in this movie. I almost want Guy to find Bruno’s dad and pay him off to fake his own death so Bruno will think Guy did his part. Of course, I realize that Bruno would still have to be put under arrest and psychiatric care for killing Guy’s wife but at least he could live out his days thinking Guy understood him.

    And yes, when that feeling of “Wow, I didn’t see that coming” happens in real life, where you misread a situation or understanding, it’s jolting. I hate trying to defend myself with the words, “But I thought we agreed…”

  6. red says:

    And can we talk for just a second about the heinous woman who plays Guy’s wife?? What a disgusting character. The way she licks that ice cream cone and says she wants a hot dog because that’s the only way she can satisfy her craving … But instead of having it be a coy representation of a tramp – she really IS a tramp … and not a Barbara Stanwyck kind of tramp, with redeeming qualities – she’s just horrible. Doesn’t mean she deserves to die – but I thought that character was fascinating. You can see why someone like Guy – a glittery ambitious kind of shallow person – would drive her insane. No way could she fit into the life he wanted. I don’t know – I was very interested in the fact that Guy’s wife is not portrayed as an innocent – no, she is pretty terrible. Which, again, implicates the viewer …

    There’s that great scene later when Guy is at the Senator’s house – and Barbara (the daughter, played by Hitchcock’s daughter) says something like, “She was a tramp.” And the senator interjects, “She was a human being, Barbara.”

    Nobody “deserves” to be murdered.

    I don’t know – I just love how that character (awful as she was) was drawn, and played. It added so much to the tension.

  7. red says:

    And in case I haven’t told you, Jonathan – I absolutely love talking about movies with you.

    Carry on!

  8. red says:

    Just added an article to the post that I found online by David Thomson about this performance – you might have already read it, but just in case!

  9. JFH says:

    The tennis match scene has always scared me.

    The film’s opening conversation scene on the train is like a tennis match in which Guy serves up one weak lob after another for Bruno to put sway

    Ya think, David Thomson isn’t thinking that this is foreshadowing that event.

    BTW, Am I the only one that thought the merry-go-round climax was a little bit cheesy? Then again, I first watched this movie with my Dad who actually ran a merry-go-round when he was in high school and told me that if the ride was going that fast that everyone would fly off the ride…

  10. I agree, Guy’s wife is another fascinating aspect of this movie. It was very brave on the part of the writer to make her so awful because you’re right, it complicates things further by implicating the viewer in the whole situation. Were she a Donna Reed-esque wife then the viewer would feel an instant repugnance towards Bruno but instead the viewer kind of understands, if still not condoning.

    I think it once again goes back to Bruno’s “love” or whatever you want to call it for Guy. I don’t think for Bruno it was ever just about hating his father and seeing an opportunity to work out a tit for tat deal with someone on a train. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but judging from his intensity about killing Guy’s wife (both before and after the act) it seems that he is doing it as well as an act of “kindness.” That is to say, he doesn’t want to see Guy humiliated anymore.

    God, Robert Walker was good! So much of this comes from how superbly he played that role.

  11. red says:

    Jonathan – Yes! Remember how he reassures Guy how quickly it went, how she felt no pain … it was almost like a mercy killing. SO creepy the way he does that monologue – totally believable.

    There were depths of horror and depression in Robert Walker – apparently he thought he was ugly (hard to believe) and had a lot of insecurity about his appearance. Self-hatred. the fact that his wife had left him not for another young stud – but an older fatherly figure – seemed to devastate his self-confidence.

    Yet he was able to take those demons and USE them in this part … you know, the casual self-loathing he exhibits in the first scene: “I don’t DO anything … I’m fascinated by those who actually DO things …” and he makes it all sound so benign and friendly … but God, what’s going on underneath!

    especially when you meet the smothering silliness of his mother. Wow.

    I was absolutely terrified by the scene where Farley Granger goes to the house at night – with the dog – and then going into the father’s room – I first saw this on the big screen, in Chicago – and the audience literally gasped when Bruno sat up in the bed.

    That is proof positive that whatever Walker had been working on in the film up to that point totally has been effective … he seems so friendly, so kind – yet damn, he’s frightening!!

  12. Isn’t that incredible! It’s clear he never wants to kill Guy and yet you feel he can or will at any moment, especially in that bedroom scene. Like an abusive husband or a scorned lover you feel he can snap at any second even though the script itself has given us little to no evidence of any of that kind of behavior.

    By the way, did you ever see his son in the Star Trek episode where he has destructive powers? It’s odd watching it because he has the same looks and impulsive flashes of his father in Strangers.

  13. … but I should add – without the charm. He was playing an impulsive youth so it was a completely different role but I think because of the physical resemblence I always found it unnerving.

  14. red says:

    Jonathan – I did not see that episode! His sons do look uncannily like him – Michael, was it?? One of them just passed away last year – but yeah, spittin’ image of his father.

  15. red says:

    Also, sorry – I know I’m so obsessive and I’m describing 2.3 seconds of film, but bear with me: The screenshot below the jump is the moment I am talking about. He’s standing in line to get on the boats at the carnival – this is the SECOND time he’s there … and the cops are converging (but he doesn’t know that) … and he’s standing in line, and then he sees the carnival worker scanning the crowd – and suddenly his eyes land on him. And you can tell the worker is like: hmmm, I have SEEN that guy before …

    It has already taken me far longer to describe this moment than it would take to SEE the moment …

    but when Robert Walker notices that he has been noticed – the most interesting succession of expressions flash across his face – and NONE of it seems “planned” or “acted” by Walker -it appears totally real, organic – and also, though, unexpected – he looks up quickly, looks down, and then skulks into himself, looking out from the brim of his hat.

    He never seems more insane and yet also SANE in that moment … he knows he’s been spotted, he knows he’s been caught … I just love that 2.3 seconds of reaction from him.

    It looks unplanned. Yet every second of it makes sense.

    It’s a vision of insanity that is chilling. Insanity is not acting “crazy” and illogical … Robert Walker is a psychopath, and yet his actions along the way are methodical, and make total sense. It’s very scary.

    Also – weird moment: when he drops the lighter down the grate – I, as an audience member, gasped – disappointed for him – even though he was going to use that lighter to frame an innocent man!!

    The movie works so well on those multiple levels. I am rooting for a psychopath. Then I catch myself …

  16. I know the scene you’re talking about but now I’ll have to watch it again and pay close attention.

    And yes – amazingly I also (and I think everyone) kind of, sort of wants him to retrieve the lighter. How weird! To actually root for him. I think people read an actor and whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy they bring to the character what they see in the actor and with Walker I always bring tons of sympathy no matter what the role.

    And the son in Star Trek was Robert jr.

  17. red says:

    I think it was Michael who just passed away. hmmmm

    And yes – didn’t Hitchcock say something like as a director all you need to do is cast well, that saves you so much time in the editing room later … the actor can do half the work of the film for you. You can cut a whole reel of exposition out of the movie if you have the right actor in the part! That is definitely true here with Walker – who – all you need to do is hear him say in the first scene, ‘I know my tie is corny, but my mother gave it to me, and I have to wear it to please her …’ You don’t even need to MEET the mother after that line because of how Walker plays it! It says it all.

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