Strangers on a Train

The Alaska Railroad bound for Whittier, Alaska.
The Alaska Railroad bringing a load of tourists into Whittier, Alaska.

By Judy Berman

Like the back lot of a run-down movie set, small towns appear and then vanish as our Montreal-bound train rumbles thru.

Unable to concentrate on my book, I turn my attention to the chatty, little man who sits in front of us. He peppers the conductor with questions about how close we are to the border and what papers he’ll need to cross it.

This train ride happened years ago. Fragments of that trip tumble over and over in my head. I recall that “Chatty” grew quiet as our train pulled into the last stop in northern New York before the Canadian border.

A woman, drenched from the rain, clambers aboard as she juggles several pieces of luggage.

“Where can I get a soda?” she asks.

“Chatty” leaps to his feet and eagerly gives her directions. She drops her duffel bag in an empty seat across the aisle from him.

Odd. The club car is the next one up. Something the conductor barks out when passengers board the train.

About 15 minutes later, she returns. The woman’s formerly tousled hair is now pulled back into a tidy French twist. Her rumpled, drenched duds have been replaced.

When U.S. Customs officials board, they quiz the woman about her change of clothing, and where she is headed. She explains that her clothes were sopping wet from the rain, and that she is on her way to visit a friend in Montreal.

“What is her name?”

Now her memory is sketchy. She can’t recall. Nor does she know her friend’s address or phone number. Customs officials quickly lose their patience with her ever-changing story. “Chatty” appears nervous and looks the other way as she’s escorted off the train.

Intriguing. What happens when strangers meet on a train? When their lives intersect? Hitchcock played on that dynamic in his movies, “Strangers on a Train” (1951) and “The Lady Vanishes” (1938).

Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" (1951)
Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (played by Robert Walker) in the dining car in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 “Strangers on a Train.”

Take “Strangers on a Train.” That’s where Robert Walker (as Bruno Anthony) first meets Farley Granger (as Guy Haines). Walker, a psychopath, learns that Granger wants to divorce his cheating wife and marry his girlfriend. Walker, who wants his father killed, suggests swapping murders. Granger thinks Walker is joking until Granger’s wife turns up dead.

Events are even more sinister in “The Lady Vanishes.”  An elderly lady, Miss Froy (played by Dame May Whitty), turns up missing on a train. She’d worked abroad for years as a governess. Now she’s gone and everyone denies that she even boarded the train. Margaret Lockwood (as Iris Henderson), a young socialite, aims to get to the bottom of the lies. She and Michael Redgrave (as Gilbert) rescue Miss Froy, who turns out to be an undercover agent.

As a Hitchcock fan, my suspicions grow about this drama that’s unfolding before us. Officials continue to weave their way down the narrow aisle, mechanically checking papers.

After they pass, I pretend to be engrossed in my book. But I see “Chatty’s” eyes dart around the compartment before he scoops up the bag she left behind on the empty seat. He places it next to him and smiles as the train pulls out of the station.

Curious. Was she a decoy?

Was there something sinister going on? Or had this long train ride kicked our imaginations into overdrive?

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider,, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Main Photo: The Alaska Railroad bringing a load of tourists into Whittier, Alaska. Taken July 2008 by Frank Kovalchek.,_Alaska.jpg

Photo: from the movie “Strangers on a Train,” Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (played by Robert Walker) in the dining car in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 “Strangers on a Train” (trailer).

Video clip: “Strangers on a Train” (1951)   

Video clip: “The Lady Vanishes” (1938)  

  1. Oh, loved this, Judy! I love train movies, and train scenes, and travelling on trains…and strangers on trains: they always somehow retain a romance for me. My personal favourite: ‘North By Northwest”, followed by “Murder on the Orient Express.” Your writing recaptures that romance wonderfully.

    1. Thank you, Kate. My grandfathers, who worked on trains, might be partly responsible for my love affair with trains. Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” is another favorite of mine. Hitchcock also loved trains and used them in several of his movies. I also love Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” and hope to ride that train one day.

  2. I am not sure if I have seen the Lady Vanishes….I know you have it, but I don’t remember it. I love Strangers on a Train and Murder on the Orient Express is also good. Good story Mom.

    1. Thanks, Jenn. I know we’ve enjoyed a few train rides together. This one remains a mystery. Check out “The Lady Vanishes.” It’s an excellent film, the last one Hitchcock made before he began making movies in America.

  3. Very nicely done, Judy! Loved the weaving of the story into the movies.

    I’m sure there was something nefarious going on there, right in front of you. Probably a ton of money in the bag, or drugs.

    On a side note, many years ago, I was told by a woman that I looked like Farley Granger. Hmm …

    1. Thank you, Michael. I’m glad you liked the story. I’ve been wanting to develop this into a longer story – take the real events and turn it into a fiction (novel). I never got very far with that. It’s still a possibility.

      Hmmm? Farley Granger? Now that you mention it …

  4. I recently saw Strangers on a Train. I love that show. Didn’t when I first saw it…too sinister. Especially with Robert Walker as the crazed murderer. Watching it now, I see how well he acted the part.

    As for Farley Granger, I read his autobiography not too long ago. Very interesting and enlightening. When I first saw this film, I’m sure I was quite taken with the handsome Granger. Knowing now that he’s gay, with a partner, and appearing like a distinguished, older man…puts my daydreaming…into perspective. Still…

    …he was a very nice-looking man. 🙂

    1. “Strangers on a Train” is an excellent psychological suspense thriller. I’m glad, hugmamma, that you gave the movie a second look.

      “In his book-length interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock told Truffaut that he originally wanted William Holden for the Guy Haines role, but Holden declined. “Holden would have been all wrong—too sturdy, too put off by Bruno”, writes critic Roger Ebert. “Granger is softer and more elusive, more convincing as he tries to slip out of Bruno’s conversational web instead of flatly rejecting him.”(“Strangers on a Train,” source: Wikipedia)

      Hitchcock also made great use of doubles in the film. Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) were doubles, but in many more ways they were opposites.

  5. I haven’t seen this, but we do share a love of trains. Something exciting always happens on a train. And I love the call of the whistle through the country side announcing adventure as it passes through. You just can’t beat a Hitchcock movie.

    1. I have lived close enough to the train tracks to hear that mournful whistle and the rumble of the train as it passes thru. You’re right, Barb, trains are an exciting way to reach your destination. Hitchcock’s use of trains in his movies has certainly added to their mystique.

  6. I too lived just 50 yards or so from a busy rail corridor as a child. Still amazes me to recall that we got used to it. Didn’t wake me at all. In fact, I woke if the 12:45 didn’t come through!

    1. A train’s whistle, the clatter on the tracks … Those really are soothing sounds. I imagine they would have lulled you to sleep, Tina. I now live about a mile from the train tracks and really miss those sounds.

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