Strangers on a Train (1951)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde

The wonder of Alfred Hitchcock is the quality of his tiers. Heck, let alone that he has tiers. Not only was he such a prolific director with over 50 titles, but his filmography is at such a high level of quality that there are often discussion about top tier, second tier, etc. And while “second tier” by its very nature has a less attractive connotation, a lack of quality in its meaning, when it comes to Alfred Hitchcock, “second tier” often means some of the best films in movie history. Strangers on a Train is what I would categorize as one of those titles, both in reputation and my own opinion. It doesn’t get mentioned in the top tier, but it is one of his very best and belongs in that conversation right at the top of that famed, incredible, impressive “second tier”.

Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is a tennis star in a marriage he wishes he could get out of. He and his wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) have grown apart thanks in part to her promiscuity, and in the meantime, Guy has fallen for a Senator’s daughter, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman). When Guy has a chance encounter with Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) on a train, Bruno suggests they trade murders, as Bruno’s father has been a burden on his for a while as well. Guy takes this theoretical discussion of the perfect murder as the jest most would, but when Miriam turns up dead and Bruno begins pestering Guy, it soon becomes apparent that Bruno was more serious than originally thought, and now Guy is being suspected of Miriam’s murder.

There seems to have been quite a bit of exploration of the perfect murder in Hitchcock’s films, with this scenario hearkening back to Shadow of a Doubt where two characters spent most of the movie coming up with scenarios for the perfect murder. To spend a whole movie testing one of those scenarios is the perfect tapestry on which Hitchcock is able to concentrate on his strengths. Great suspense, great tension, plenty of questions to engage the viewer throughout as we root for Guy and against Bruno. And on that I want to applaud Farley Granger, he of the disdain thrown at him by me in my review of Rope. Here, Granger seems much more up to the task in the lead role than I’ve seen him previously, and that’s crucial to the success of the film. It helps that Guy fits his acting style quite well. Perhaps, too, Granger’s abilities are buoyed by the poor performance from Alfred’s daughter Pat Hitchcock, who plays the sister of Anne very broadly and very load and acting-y. It’s too much performance and the character clearly serves to help with exposition.

Another bit I wanted to explore with this discussion is how much this felt like a precursor to the noir classic Cape Fear. There are obvious differences, but Robert Walker gave off really strong Robert Mitchum vibes as the creepy and clearly demented Bruno Antony, stalking Guy with vengeance. He even looks a little bit like Mitchum. And his unhinged performance is appropriately muted, not going over the top as the maniac, but creating an even more unnerving portrait with his restraint. The one reservation I have is when the murder is pinned on Guy, he doesn’t oust Bruno for the conversation they had, knowing him to be the culprit. At first, burying this seems like a mistake since he was clearly involved, and he can get the heat off by outing the true culprit. But upon some thought, Bruno would obviously not be the best ally to corroborate the story Guy would tell authorities. I can go either way with this, and the film is obviously much more interesting playing out the way it did.

The last thing I’d like to highlight is just the visual flair of Hitchcock. It gets mentioned quite often, but he’s great at so many different things in filmmaking, that sometimes it goes without saying. Strangers on a Train features some of the most visual arresting, interesting, and thrilling sequences in his oeuvre. The tennis scene really sticks out as something that shouldn’t work nearly as much as it does, but is truly suspenseful, and includes a startling shot of the crowd following the action back and forth, Bruno sticking out like a sore thumb staring at Guy. There are shots utilizing the reflection off Miriam’s glasses, an exciting carousel scene, and all that not to mention the quintessential noir lighting. The shadows, the spurts of light across faces. Menace. Strangers on a Train is an incredible experience of a movie, and one I would highly recommend to all. One of Hitchcock’s best.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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