“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.
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 naÃ¯ve 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.