Strangers on a Train-1951
Starring-Farley Granger, Robert Walker
Top 100 Films-#27
Reviewed April 11, 2016
A thrill-ride per minute film, classic suspense story, filled with tension galore, Strangers On A Train is a great Alfred Hitchcock film from 1951, which began the onset of the “golden age of Hitchcock” lasting throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. Apparently a British version of the film exists somewhere, but I have yet to see it. The American version is a brilliant, fast-paced experience involving complex, interesting characters, including one of the greatest villains in screen history, and a plot that is riveting and heart-pounding. Who can forget the important ominous phrase “criss-cross”?
The film begins with a clever shot of two pairs of expensive shoes emerging from individual taxi cabs. Both are men, well-to-do, and stylish. They board a train and sit across from each other, accidentally bumping feet. We are then introduced to the two main characters- tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and wealthy Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). They engage in conversation and immediately we are aware that Bruno is assertive, Guy the more passive individual. Ultimately, Bruno manipulates Guy into thinking they will exchange murders- Bruno will kill Guy’s unfaithful wife Miriam, while Guy will murder Bruno’s hated father. While Bruno takes this dire “deal” seriously, Guy thinks that Bruno is joking.
An interesting psychological complexity of the film is the implied relationship between Guy and Bruno. Certainly there are sexual overtones as a flirtation and bonding immediately develops while they converse on the train. They are complete opposites, which makes the relationship compelling- the devil and the angel, if you will. The mysterious connection between these two men fascinates throughout the entire film.
Robert Walker makes Bruno a delicious villain- devious, clever, manipulative, and even comical at times. He is mesmerizing in his wickedness- so much so that the audience roots for him. The fact that Hitchcock wisely makes victim Miriam (wonderfully played by Laura Elliot) devious, only lends to the rooting value of Bruno during her death scene. His character, although dastardly and troubled, almost rivals Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter as a lovable, but evil, villain. Later in the film when Guy is playing tennis, he gazes into the stands to see the spectators turning left and turning right in tandem with the moving tennis ball, and the audience sees a staring straight ahead Bruno immersed in the sea of swaying heads. It is a highly effective, creepy scene.
The pairing of Guy and girlfriend Anne (a seemingly much older Ruth Roman and, interestingly despised by Hitchcock) does not really work. Could this be a result of the implied attraction between Bruno and Guy? Or is this a coincidence? The casting of Roman was forced upon Hitchcock by the studio, Warner Brothers.
Hitchcock reveals his “mommy complex”, a common theme in his films, as we learn that there is something off with Bruno’s mother, played by Marion Lorde, but the exact oddity is tough to pin down. She and Bruno comically joke about bombing the White House, which gives the scene a jarring, confusing edge. Is she the reason that Bruno is diabolical?
The theme of women’s glasses is used heavily in Strangers On A train. Miriam, an eyeglass wearer, is strangled while we, the audience, witnesses the murder through her dropped glasses. In black and white, the scene is gorgeous and cinematic and continues to be studied in film schools everywhere. Later, Anne’s younger sister Barbara (comically played by Hitchcock’s daughter Pat Hitchcock), who also wears glasses, becomes an important character as Bruno is mesmerized by her likeness to the deceased Miriam, as a mock strangulation game at a dinner party goes horribly wrong.
The concluding carnival scene is high intensity and contains impressive special effects for 1951. The spinning out of control carousel, panicked riders, combined with the cat and mouse chase scene leading to a deadly climax is an amazing end to the film. Strangers On A Train lines up as one of Hitchcock’s best classic thrill films.