There is an old saying in Hollywood. Even a bad Hitchcock film is better than most films. But when his films are great, they are far superior to other films. Narrative, acting, pacing, technical work all excel in Hitchcock's films and "Strangers on A Train", made in 1951, is one of his best effects. Less an icon than "Vertigo", "Rear Window" or "Psycho", "Strangers" is a rare combination of brilliant character study, moody atmospheric story and advanced technical achievement (at least for the period).
Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a rising star on the tennis scene, takes a train to Metcalf, New York. On the train, he meets Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) who recognizes Guy and begins a conversation, inviting the tennis player to lunch. Bruno soon reveals he knows a lot about Guy's life, including the story of his wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers), who still lives in Metcalf and refuses to divorce Guy so he can marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a Senator (Leo G. Carroll). Bruno is an unhappy man and would love nothing more than to have his father killed. But of course, he can't kill his father, he would be put away for life. But if a stranger committed the murder, the problem would be solved. Bruno offers to kill Miriam if Guy will kill his father. Neither has a connection to their victims, they would never be found out. Thinking his companion unhinged, Guy laughs off the suggestion and leaves to meet Miriam. However, Miriam soon ends up murdered on an island in the middle of an amusement park and Bruno begins to get testy that Guy is not holding up his end of the bargain.
So begins Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train", based loosely on a book by Patricia Highsmith, who would go on to write "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and it's many sequels. Hitchcock based many of his films on books, taking intriguing ideas and changing them to meet his cinematic needs and making them memorable. I doubt many would remember the book "Psycho" without the memorable film.
"Strangers" is classic Hitchcock featuring many of his trademark touches. Shot in black and white, the film begins with the now classic sequence showing two separate pairs of shoes traveling through a train station from different directions. As they finally meet, in the lounge car of the train, the camera shifts up and we see the faces of the two main characters for the first time. Bruno quickly proves to be the living embodiment of every gossip columnist, reciting every detail about Guy's life, revealing he is the tennis star's number one fan. What is so brilliant about this relationship is the hint of a threat. Even as Bruno details the plan to the disbelieving Guy, we know Bruno will carry through with the plot, but Guy doesn't. This is classic Hitchcock. From his earliest films, Hitchcock has created suspense by telling the audience more than the central characters. If we know they are walking into a trap, we want to yell at the screen "Watch out!', but of course, they can't hear us and walk blissfully into danger. Throughout their conversation, Bruno talks about various theories and plans he has, giving Guy the impression that he is crazy. Bruno talks about taking a trip to the moon (remember, its 1951) and other crazy ideas, leading Guy to believe Bruno's plans for them to switch murders is just crazy talk. As he leaves Bruno's compartment, he says "Sure, Bruno. Sure," completely discounting the sociopathic tendencies of his new friend.
Of course, Bruno is serious and sets off to fulfill his end of the bargain. He travels out to Metcalf and quickly finds Miriam, follows her and two boyfriends, as they travel to the local carnival. As Miriam flirts with her two friends, her thick glasses quickly spot the following Bruno and she begins to size him up. Could he be a better suitor than the other two? He follows them throughout and Miriam can't take her eyes off of him. As the threesome make their way out to an island in the middle of the carnival, a "sordid place. A sort of lover's lane" as the Senator (Carroll) later comments, Bruno quickly confronts Miriam. Sensing that he is just making a move, she is caught completely off guard as he begins to strangle her, her thick glasses falling to the ground, showing us the murder in the reflection of the eyewear.
After Guy learns the news, he becomes horrified, but he finds he can't turn to many people. A rising tennis star and his relationship with Anne, a Senator's daughter, already make him the focus of the gossip columns, he eventually enlists the aid of Anne and her sister, to help prove his innocence. Two police officers begin to tail Guy, throwing a wrench into the works. Guy soon realizes he will have to do something as he spots Bruno sitting in the stands at a Tennis match, staring at him, as the rest of the spectators are turning right and left watching the ball. The sociopath begins to further insinuate his way into Guy's life, introducing himself to friends, showing up at a party and more.
As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent the police will soon just pull Guy in, preventing him from exposing Bruno. He has to take action, but if he doesn't show up for a tennis match, he will raise everyone's suspicions. As Guy rushes to finish the match and race to Metcalf, Bruno rushes to get to Metcalf and plant a piece of incriminating evidence. They eventually meet at the carnival and the police, still suspecting Guy, put their lives and the lives of many others in peril during the exciting climax.
If you are even just slightly familiar with Hitchcock's films, you will probably recognize some of the many themes prevalent in his works. The wrong man accused of the crime, the two men chasing each other, the veiled relationship fraught with sexual intrigue and more. "Strangers" is worthy of discussion in any conversation about "Vertigo", "Rear Window" or "Psycho". It has all of the same elements, touches and style of these later acknowledged classics.
Warner Bros. has given the film the deluxe DVD treatment is deserves. The two disc set contains two different versions of the film; the "American" version and the "preview" or "British" version. The "American" version is the film we have all come to know and love. A few years ago, a preview version of the film was discovered and screened at the British Film Theater. Living in London at the time, I sped to the South bank and watched the film. It was not entirely different, but the extra few minutes of screen time allowed for a couple of significant moments. Many of the more veiled allusions to the homosexual nature of the friendship between Bruno and Guy are just slightly more overt, sometimes laughably so, but it gives the film a deeper feeling. Hitchcock was a powerful force in Hollywood and had ways of getting around the censors. But even he had his limits. In "Rope", based on the story of Leopold and Loeb, a gay couple murders a fellow student for the thrill of it, we barely ever see any mention of the couple's relationship. Three years later, in 1951, America still wasn't ready for "Brokeback Mountain", so Hitchcock resorts to veiled comments and moments. In the `Preview' version, these are just slightly more overt. The ending is also a little different, and less satisfying. The "American" version trimmed these moments down, to appease the censors. The difference between the two films is noticeable and interesting.
As with most Hitchcock DVDs, the obligatory "Making Of..." documentary is a cut above the rest; the studios really went all out for these DVD releases. Featuring interviews with Farley Granger (who also appeared in "Rope"), Robert Walker's son, Pat Hitchcock O'Connell (the director's daughter and an actress in many of his films), Peter Bogdanovich and others, we get a more complete view of what went into the making of this classic. Using new interviews, clips, production photos, deleted scenes and behind the scenes footage, this documentary walks us step by step through the production of the film.
Perhaps most interesting is a documentary called "The Hitchcocks on Hitch". Pat Hitchcock O'Connell relates stories of her childhood and working with her father on this film. There are also interviews with Pat's three daughters, Hitch's granddaughters, who talk about life with their famous grandfather. Naturally, these stories occur many years after "Strangers", but they are still interesting. As they talk about their grandparents, we see family photos and home movies, giving us a glimpse into the life of the director.
There is also a short interview with director M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense", "Unbreakable") who talks about how great the film is and how it influenced his career. This curio offers little except the opportunity to see some clips from the film.
There is also a new interview with Kasey Rogers, who played Miriam Haynes, Bruno's victim. During the interview, she describes what it was like to work with Hitchcock, describes how the studio system worked for a young actress and talks about her career after the film.
"Strangers on a Train" is a Hitchcock classic, worthy of being mentioned in the same conversations as the director's more widely recognized classics. It has everything from interesting performances to intriguing killers, from intriguing set pieces to interesting locations.
This DVD is a must have for any collection.