Strangers on a Train is another thrilling Alfred Hitchcock classic and sits in its rightful place in the upper tier of his filmography.
Is there anything that the master of suspense cannot do? Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks are on command in every single frame of the film starting with the focus on the shoes. Burks earns an Oscar nomination for his cinematography and let me tell you, he absolutely deserves it.
This is Hitchcock’s first film during his contract with Warner Bros. He had been making films in America for over a decade since signing with David O. Selznick. However, Strangers on the Train is the film that really set the filmmaker on his path until his final film in 1976. The enclosed spaces on a train do not leave much room to play around with the camera. In any event, Hitchcock does his best with what’s available. The filmmaker manages to bring out some solid work from both Farley Granger and Robert Walker in the process. Walker had never played a villain until shortly before taking on the role. Meanwhile, there’s a universe where William Holden portrays Guy Haines instead of Granger.
The gist of the film is that two strangers, tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and psychopath Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), meet on the train. At the time of their meeting, Haines wants to divorce his wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott/Kasey Rogers), so that he can marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman). Bruno, ever the psychopath, suggest that they swap murders with Guy murdering Bruno’s father. Guy can’t leave quick enough from the situation and ends up leaving his lighter behind.
Bruno goes through with the job while Guy is on a train to Washington. Bruno’s strangulation of Miriam will go down as one of the iconic shots in Hitchcock’s filmography with its reflection on her glasses. This comes after Miriam tells Guy that he’s the father of her child, perhaps trying to avoid a divorce. As soon as Guy meets Anne in Washington, he finds out that Miriam is dead, having been strangled at an amusement park. Because Guy is having an affair, he’s immediately the prime suspect. What he doesn’t know is that Bruno followed him to Washington, becoming one of the earliest stalkers in cinema. As such, Guy heads over to warn Bruno’s father, only to find out that Bruno is already there. Anne informs Bruno’s mother, too, of her son being a murderer but it’s to no avail.
Guy has a tennis match and knowing of Bruno’s plans to incriminate him. he heads back as soon as possible. All chaos breaks loose at the amusement park with a merry-go-round going out of control. In the end, Guy is cleared of any wrongdoing. There’s some impressive filmmaking when it comes to the technical side. Sports are not easy but Hitchcock shoots some of the finest tennis to grace the screen in the 1950s. As for the merry-go-round sequence, it’s absolutely brilliant in terms of how Hitchcock shoots it.
Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, spent three minutes directing her father’s cameo in the film. The cameo is very noticeable around the 11-minute mark of the film. Hitchcock can be seen carrying a bass at the moment when Farley Granger gets off the train.
Dimitri Tiomkin scores his second of four Hitchcock films. It’s a fine score, mixing up pop music with the sinister subject at hand. The pop music is mostly on display at the amusement park. Tiomkin beautifully weaves between Guy and Bruno’s themes during the rest of the film, where it’s more sinister in tone. Meanwhile, “The Band Played On” appears a few times, including the final sequence at the end. All in all, it’s a fine score and ought to be up there with some of the best scores to accompany a Hitchcock film.
Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the novel, is every bit the equal of Hitchcock. Whitfield Cook had written a treatment without the dialogue before Raymond Chandler wrote the script. Czenzi Ormonde took over writing duties while Hitchcock had started filming. It’s amazing to think that they went into the film without knowing what the ending would be but here we are. In a perfect world, the writing credit should have gone to both Cook and Ormonde because none of Chandler’s work made it into the final release version. But because Chandler was a novelist, Warner Bros. insisted his name stay in the credits.
There were changes made between the novel and the film. One of which is the fact that Guy is a tennis player rather an architect. Another key change is Guy not killing Bruno’s father like he did in the novel. It goes back to the Production Code. What can they get away with doing? If they make Guy a murderer, he would have to pay the consequences. Instead, he doesn’t go through with it and professes his own innocence.
For the record, I watched the final release version that runs 101 minutes. The Blu-ray also includes the 103-minute preview version. There’s some spectacular Laurent Bouzereau documentaries about the film and Hitchcock in general. Anyway, the film explores quite a bit when it comes to guilt. Ultimately, what we have is a film in which in innocent man becomes guilty for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s not uncommon to watch a Hitchcock film that focuses on the wrong man. This is a theme that we see time and time again in so many Hitchcockian thrillers. Other themes playing a role in the film include doubles. It plays into the themes of light and dark that represented good and evil on screen.
Strangers on a Train is one of the best Alfred Hitchcock films.
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
SCREENWRITERS: Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde
CAST: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, with Leo G. Carroll, Patricia Hitchcock, Kasey Rogers aka Laura Elliott, Marion Lorne, Jonathan Hale, Howard St. John, John Brown, Norma Varden, Robert Gist
Warner Bros. released Strangers on a Train in theaters on June 30, 1951. Grade: 4.5/5
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