Though undoubtedly effective as a classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Strangers on a Train is also nothing more complicated than one elongated gay cruising joke. Based on a Patricia Highsmith story (enough said), the film opens with a cross-cut montage of two sets of walking shoes, framed in medium shots, as the men wearning them get nearer to their train berths. Eventually, the sequence culminates in a flirtatious game of footsy. Bruno Anthony’s two-tone saddles are juxtaposed with Guy Haines’s monochromatically “sensible” shoes, saying in essence all that one needs to know about the politics of their impending liaison: Bruno is the flamboyant aggressor, the fire lit under Guy’s prudent ass.
Bruno (Robert Walker, in a performance that carefully juggles pussy-whipped nelliness and misogynistic wrath) casually suggests that they exchange murders to rid themselves of their own worst enemies. Guy (Farley Granger) is married to an inconvenient woman, Miriam (Kasey Rogers), who’s carrying someone else’s baby, while Bruno is engaged to his stunted, Oedipal sexual impulses. Naturally, that translates to getting rid of Daddy (Jonathan Hale), who seems to be the only one in the Anthony household willing to entertain the notion that Bruno ought to be institutionalized. (Given the sexual nature of Bruno’s condition, one wouldn’t be surprised if Dad defined institutionalization as a trip to the whorehouse.)
Bruno keeps up his end of the bargain and murders Guy’s wife, in a spectacular, nearly dialogue-free sequence that, in its combination of voyeurism, prowler instinct, and violent eroticism, seems to be the primary influence on Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill’s museum pick-up. Unfortunately, Guy reactively pulls out when the reality of his bargain hits home, leaving Bruno hanging out to dry. What’s a spurned confidante (closet lover) to do? Integrate himself into Guy’s social circle and carry with him the threat of exposure and public shame.
It’s debatable how much of this queer subtext Hitchcock intended Strangers on a Train to hold—especially taking into consideration the rumor that many of the coded elements of Raymond Chandler’s original script were reportedly neutered in Czenzi Ormonde’s final one. Still, it’s worth noting that it does in some small measure validate one of Hitchcock’s most dubious motifs: his stock characterizations of aged women as nothing more than hideously plump, turkey-necked, gossip-addicted pension leeches, already embalmed with their own plumage.
But to ignore the subtext during the runaway carousel climax is to be absolutely blind. As Guy and Bruno’s erotic one-upmanship reaches its breaking point, they’re surrounded by contorted petrified horses whose pinions look like they’re angrily violating their sockets. It’s downright pornographic, and the force of the scene almost seems to emanate from the sense that the erotic power between the two was out of even Hitchcock’s control.