Strangers on a Train

I really haven’t been exposed to enough Hitchcock. I’ve seen most of the influential ones everyone talks about – North by Northwest, Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho – but I haven’t seen many else beyond those. So seeing Strangers on a Train (1951) for the first time was a real treat.

The film opens by following the feet of two different men. We watch as they exit their cabs, get on the train, and take their seats in an observation car. By accident, one man kicks the other. When he apologizes, he realizes that he stepped on the foot of famous tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger). The man, Bruno Antony (Robert Walker – who looks a bit like a sinister Jack Lemmon), introduces himself and starts an awkward conversation about Guy’s personal life – which Bruno has read about in the papers.

Murder, blackmail, assault - all because this happened.

Guy has a difficult love life – he’s waiting to get divorce papers signed from his unfaithful wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) so he can marry his girlfriend, Anne (Ruth Roman). Bruno also has his own problems – he’s mentally unhinged and hates his father. All of this is revealed in a lengthy conversation aboard the train that Guy grows increasingly uncomfortable with (he tries to get out of eating dinner in Bruno’s compartment by eating in the dining car, but all the seats are taken). And then Bruno comes up with a theory: they both have people that they want to murder (figuratively in Guy’s case), so why not “swap” murders? That way, neither man would go to jail and both their problems would be solved. Guy nods politely and says that it’s an interesting idea as he hurriedly backs out of Bruno’s compartment and leaves the train. Bruno starts planning how to kill Miriam, believing that Guy has committed to the plan.

I always like films that you can trace back to one central idea. It’s generally a “what if?” question that I imagine is tossed around in a conversation over a dinner table that snowballs into a feature-length film. In this case, the conversation probably started with planning the perfect murder and the answer was: “What if two complete strangers swapped murders?” There would be no motive (the murderer would be a perfect stranger to the victim, after all) and the most likely suspect would have an airtight alibi. It would be the perfect crime. But there’s a not a feature-length film there, so the next question becomes: “What if one of the strangers doesn’t want to go through with it, but the other one already has?” And presto, the resulting film is how that scenario plays out.

There was only one minor problem I had with the film, and that was the character Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock), Anne’s sister. She’s a bit of a grating character because she’s giddy about murder investigations and detective stories (she practically erupts with enthusiasm that Guy is a suspect in a murder case and gives him tips on how to deal with the police gleaned from reading hard-boiled detective novels). Her presence is a distracting one because she’s a broadly-drawn cartoon in an otherwise dark film. The other problem with her character is that she spends the latter half of the film looking fearfully at the camera with a quivering lower lip whenever she’s in a scene with Bruno (he looks at her menacingly because she reminds him of Miriam). But this is only a minor quibble.

Hitchcock makes intelligent genre pictures that are rightfully declared to be masterpieces. I definitely need to see more of them.

A-

Note: This film contains a suspenseful tennis match (yes, tennis), a battle to the death on an out-of-control merry-go-round (not even kidding), and a gun that is introduced but never fired (Chekhov would not be proud).

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2 Responses to Strangers on a Train

  1. Joe says:

    Great review dude – I remember seeing this when I was a kid and it totally blew my mind. Not sure if you read that Farley Granger died last week but I really rate his performance here. Although he was a somewhat limited actor and never a huge star he brings a certain sexual ambiguity to Guy that makes his relationship with the amazing Robert Walker even more fraught. Props too to Patricia Highsmith for the source novel – a seriously clever lady.

    • Modest Movie says:

      I didn’t know that Farley Granger died last week – sad. I didn’t really notice the sexual ambiguity of his performance the first time – I may have to re-watch the movie to see if I catch it. I would think that Robert Walker’s performance was more sexually ambiguous though – he has a bit of an Oedipus complex and his hero-worship of Guy verges on lechery.

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