Strangers on a Train (1951) is one of the first movies in this batch that I had not seen before it came up as a movie of the month so I went out on a limb to pair it with Darjeeling Limited (2007). It was a natural pairing because I didn’t know anything about Strangers aside its use of at least one train and because of my love of one of Wes Anderson’s more underrated movies, Darjeeling Limited, a film named after a train line.
In Strangers, two men meet on a train, both realizing they have that one certain person in their own lives that seem to be a key impediment to their happiness, one of the men comes up with a hypothetical where they swap murders in order to take away motive from any investigation. One of the men, a tennis player with a wife who is pregnant by another man and a girlfriend he wishes to marry, saw this as just that. A hypothetical. The other man, a grown mamma’s boy with a grudge against his father, considered it as a binding contract when he followed the tennis player’s wife to a lover’s lane to kill her. He goes back to the tennis player asking for his end of the bargain who does not want to go through with a murder. In the end, the tennis player tracks down the other stranger at the amusement park of the scene of the crime, they fight on a carousel spinning out of control culminating in the death of the murderer and the exoneration of the tennis player.
Darjeeling also opens on a train, this time with three men meeting. They are no strangers, they’re brothers played by Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrian Brody, although they don’t feel they really know each other. They are on a train journey through India to find their relationship while all three of them are at turning points in their lives. Ultimately it it revealed that it is not just a journey to connect after the death of their father, it is a chance to reconnect with their estranged mother who is now working in a convent in the Himalayan foothills, in an echo of The Archer’s Black Narcissus. They’re childish and bickering, but through the events of the film they come to understand the turning points of their lives as individuals and come together as family.
I didn’t realize that I had known a key aspect of the Strangers plot for quite some time, the criss-cross murder plot, where two strangers trade murders so that neither of them can get pinned for the motive of the other. It was mentioned in a joke from the animated show Home Movies, and I have to admit that I had that story point pegged for a different classic thriller. Strangers is a fun Hitchcock thriller, where he uses Farley Granger as the lead as the tennis player, an actor I had only known fro Rope, and producers had him use love interest actresses that did not fit his aesthetic mold of graceful blonde starlets. He seemed to get a bit of revenge on casting by adding a character that was not in the source material and casting her with his daughter Pat.
While watching Strangers, I realized there were parallels with another Wes Anderson movie, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), as well. Granger’s character, like Luke Wilson’s Richie Tenenbaum, is a tennis star whose matches, and the people viewing his matches are major story points. Granger’s character continues to practice and play his matches after his wife has been killed in order to allay suspicion. Robert Walker’s “Bruno” character watches him from the stands, the only spectator whose eyes are not following the back and forth of the ball on the court.
The Royal Tenenbaums is the story of a family that has fallen from public prominence under the weight of their personal traumas. Wes Anderson was inspired by the Orson Welles movie The Magnificent Ambersons (that in comparison barely has a story to it), and the Louis Malle film The Fire Within. The estranged father of a family of child geniuses comes back into their lives as he is going broke and his ex-wife is getting remarried. It’s the story of coming to terms with expectation and the flaws of the past.
Luke Wilson’s character’s tennis career is seen in flashback, as part of a melt down on the court where he has taken off both of his shoes and one of his socks before sitting on the court despondent. Looking on is his sister (adopted… but still, I’m pretty sure it’s frowned upon), Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, and her new husband played by Bill Murray.
Later in the film, a love sick Richie attempts suicide while “Needle in the Hay” by Elliott Smith plays on the soundtrack. Two years later in real life, the musician Elliott Smith would kill himself. This is one of the darkest connections between the movies. One of the reasons that Darjeeling Limited was not heavily marketed and not much of a theatrical success is that Owen Wilson, Luke’s real life brother, had attempted suicide between filming and release of the movie after he had played a Darjeeling character that had attempted self harm by crashing a motorcycle into a hill. Sadly, there is an additional connection with Strangers on a Train as the actor Robert Walker whose character dies at the end of the movie and became good friends with Granger on set, died less than two months after the release of the movie. A heavy drinker, Walker had an emotional outburst so extreme that a psychiatrist was called to his home and administered a sedative that did not react well with the alcohol already in his system. He stopped breathing and died at the age of 32.
Trains are main settings of Strangers and Darjeeling and they are much more than just commuter trainers. Strangers has an elaborate dining car and a luxurious observation car at the rear of the train, where Granger’s character meets a rather intoxicated professor. The Darjeeling car has a range of accommodations running from steerage with bunk beds to the incredible suite of the brothers. These are glorifying films for trains, a motif in film that is as constant as cigarettes and guns on the wall. They bring motion to films, the movement to movies, and they can’t help but reference back to one of the first moving pictures the human race ever saw, Train Coming Into the Station.
Strangers isn’t as constantly set on a train as Darjeeling or even another Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes, but the characters keep coming back to trains throughout the movie. The brothers in Darjeeling end up getting kicked off of their train because of their antics and it acts as a reset for them to break from their conflicts and their egos. And just like Strangers, they come back to the train and it is nearly as it was before, this time with a different faces in the places of the conductor and the concessions woman, almost like a dream where the faces change. This time they understand the routine of the train and they have a comfortability with the confinement and movement of a train, something that got away from Granger’s Strangers character until the very last film when he is free to move on with his life and ignore a new stranger who recognizes him.