Strangers on a Train - 1951
Director(s): Alfred Hitchcock
Writer(s): Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde and Whitfield Cook (screenplay) / Patricia Highsmith (novel)
Cinematography by: Robert Burks
Editor(s): William H. Ziegler
Cast: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Leo G. Carroll, Kasey Rogers and Patricia Hitchcock
Last week I tackled a hidden gem in the resume of Alfred Hitchcock, 1936's Sabotage, and while it is very well-made film, with a few signature moments of tension that the director would become known for, it pales in comparison to the close to perfection film of this week, 1951's Strangers on a Train.
The story starts with a chance encounter on a train between a tennis star, Guy Haines (Granger), and a psychopath, Bruno Antony (Walker). Bruno recognizes Guy from the papers and strikes up a conversation around his career, and his personal life. Guy is currently going through a divorce and has been linked in the papers with a senators' daughter. Bruno shares with Guy that he is also having troubles at home, due to his abusive father. While Guy is visibly uncomfortable with the situation, Bruno continues to talk undeterred and comes up with the idea that will solve both their problems; they kill off each other’s sources of problem (Guy's wife, Bruno's father). Since they are strangers, they would never be suspected in the murders of people they do not know. While Guy laughs this off as a insane idea from a crazy stranger, Bruno follows through with the plan and kills Guy's wife. The problem is, outside of the police zeroing in on Guy as the suspect, Bruno expects Guy to follow through with his end of the deal, or he will frame him for murder.
Quick note: This story is the go-to for Hitchcock, guy framed for a crime he didn't commit, and it is interesting considering all the things he was accused and claimed to never commit during his time in Hollywood.
The story is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name, and while they took some liberties with the characters, mainly Bruno, the spirit of the story stays intact; what happens when a man with motives (divorce) is framed for murder? The desperation of Guy, as he is met with an unmovable force in Bruno is palpable and makes it easy for the audience to connect with him as a protagonist. Sure, one can argue that Guy should've shot down Bruno instead of brushing him off with a smile, but how often does one run across a disarmingly charming psychopath hell-bent on "solving" your problems. Bruno is suave, soft-spoken, and gets comfortable with Guy way too quickly giving off homoerotic vibes behind each smile and stare as if he is picking up Guy for a date and not a murder plot, adding an unspoken subplot to the entire film behind Bruno’s motives. The progression of the story never feels forced, as it is dictated through character decisions that make sense for the dilemma they are currently facing.
This film is ripe with mesmerizing visuals and sequences; calling card of Hitchcock and why he is considered one of the greatest directors of all time. This film also marks the beginning of Hitchcock and Robert Burks (Rear Window, Vertigo, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest and Marnie) working relationship and you can see why Hitchcock kept hiring him for his movies. The opening sequence of the shoes of Guy and Bruno, and how the bump into each other is a staple of this film, along with Bruno staring at Guy during the tennis match as the rest of the crowd is following the volleys of the tennis ball. Bruno is perfectly centered on the frame as he doesn't move a muscle, while the rest of the crowd is eager to follow the back and forth movement of the ball. The use of light and shadows, when Bruno is following Guy's wife down a tunnel, and when he is revealed to be sitting in the darkness waiting for Guy to enter the room, are both scenes that stick in your brain. I do love the use of glasses as both a tool for unique visuals, reflection of the murder in the glasses, and a plot tool as the glasses remind Bruno of his actions.
Strangers on a Train works because of its simplicity, and that simplicity lures the audience in as it is close to impossible not to place yourself in Guy’s shoes. It also helps that Robert Walker is effortlessly charming even well after he is revealed to be an unhinged psychopath - with a smile just as deadly has his hands. The film is incredibly well acted, fast pace, with crisp editing and filled with visuals that make you want to hit pause and drink every inch of the black and white frame. Strangers on a Train is currently streaming on Netflix, and you should seek it out before it is gone.
Strangers on a Train is Why I Love Movies.
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