Warner Bros. // 1951 // 101 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 15th, 2012
It starts with the shriek of a train whistle...and ends with a shriek of excitement!
"I admire people who do things."
Guy Haines (Farley Granger, Senso) is a professional tennis star who finds himself in a romantic fix. He's separated from his adulterous wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers, Peyton Place) and is currently in a relationship with Anne Morton (Ruth Roman, The Far Country), daughter of the esteemed Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll, North by Northwest). Alas, Miriam feels particularly spiteful towards Guy and won't grant him a divorce under any circumstances.
One day, Guy shares a train ride with a peculiar fellow named Bruno Antony (Robert Walker, The Sea of Grass). Bruno has heard about Guy's troubles, and casually outlines an ingenious solution: Bruno could kill Guy's wife, and in exchange Guy could kill Bruno's overbearing father. Both could establish concrete alibis and clear themselves of any suspicion. Guy nervously laughs off the idea and assumes that Bruno simply has a dark sense of humor, but Bruno is convinced that he's found a partner in crime. Just a few days later, Guy makes the chilling discovery that Miriam has been murdered and that Bruno is fully expecting him to live up to his end of the bargain. To make matters worse, Guy is now the lead suspect in the investigation of Miriam's death. Is there any hope of clearing his name and avoiding Bruno's increasingly insistent demands?
An innocent man wrongly accused is generally a reliable starting point for a thriller, and no director returned to that idea as often or as enthusiastically as Alfred Hitchcock. From The 39 Steps to The Wrong Man to North by Northwest, Hitchcock used that basic premise as a springboard for films containing a host of his innovative techniques, exhilarating set pieces, playful comedy, detailed character studies and dramatic tension. His 1951 effort Strangers on a Train is among the best of these, an immediately riveting and exceptionally subversive film that delivers on every level.
Guy may be exiting a relationship with one woman and entering a relationship with another, but the film is primarily concerned with the relationship between Guy and Bruno. We aren't dealing with the noble hero and purposeful villain of something like Cape Fear, but rather with two flawed individuals locked into a one-sided courtship. Guy is weak-willed and lacking conviction; even his angry rants about his villainous wife seem laughably limp. He's incapable of standing up for himself or making his position clear when confronted by a man as forceful as Bruno. He's not a particularly likable protagonist; squirming, sweating and mumbling his way through the movie as Bruno circles him like a vulture. Alternately, Bruno seems immediately enthralled with Guy, as this ineffectual man seems like the perfect pushover for Bruno's savage scheme. Even when it's clear that Guy has absolutely no intention of going through with his side of the bargain, Bruno regards him with a certain patronizing affection, as if he knows that his new friend will come around eventually.
Farley Granger was never a particularly good actor, but his screen presence was used well by other directors on numerous occasions (Hitchcock had employed him previously in Rope as another nervous pushover in a relationship with a strong homosexual subtext). Guy is clearly meant to be consistently overmatched, and Granger fits the bill perfectly. Robert Walker gets the juicier role and delivers in a big way; offering a psychopath worthy of comparison with Joseph Cotten's Uncle Charlie and Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates. Walker owns every scene he appears in and commands our attention right off the bat during the first conversation Guy and Bruno share on the train. Walker plays the proposal as a forceful seduction; smoothly shutting down any of Guy's attempts to evade him, change the subject or even leave the room. It's a masterful performance from an actor hitting his stride. Tragically, Walker died shortly after the film was completed -- who knows what other great roles he might have received in the wake of his brilliant turn in Strangers on a Train?
Hitchcock was also in full command of his powers as a director by the time he helmed Strangers on a Train, and there are numerous set pieces that rank among his best. Aside from the opening train sequence (which is practically a master class on how to direct a dialogue scene), we have the thrilling race-against-the-clock tennis match (preceded by a marvelous shot in which a host of fans follow the ball back and forth across the court...except for Bruno, who levels his gaze at Guy and never looks away) and the nail-biting sequence on a frenzied carousel (which brings a deviously playful, carnival-themed musical piece running through the film to a blazing head). It's another of Hitchcock's efforts which has a little bit of everything: comedy, suspense, action, romance -- and it's still a blast over sixty years after its initial release.
Strangers on a Train (Blu-ray) has received an exceptionally satisfying 1080p/Full Frame transfer that beautifully preserves the film's crisp black-and-white cinematography. Hitchcock employs shadows in creative and effective ways throughout the film, and it's much easier to appreciate what he does in hi-def than it was on DVD. Detail is superb throughout and depth is impressive. Black levels are consistently strong, too. There are a couple of faint scratches here and there, but for the most part the film looks terrific. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is less overwhelming, as there are a few moments where it sounds a bit flat. However, dialogue is clean and Dimitri Tiomkin's vigorous (if less-than-remarkable) score comes through with clarity. There isn't any hissing or crackling of note to worry about.
Supplements are generous and compelling, kicking off with a slightly longer "Preview Version" of the film that contains some different edits of certain scenes. It's not a dramatic difference, but it's nice to have. You also get a commentary featuring a host of cast members, crew members, film historians and others -- a blend of new and archival interview clips edited into a single track. It's a very satisfying listen. Next up is the 37-minute "Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic" making-of featurette, followed by the shorter and more specific pieces "Strangers on a Train: The Victim's P.O.V." (7 minutes), "Strangers on a Train: An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan" (12 minutes), "The Hitchcocks on Hitch" (11 minutes) and "Alfred Hitchcock's Historical Meeting" (1 minute). Finally, you get a theatrical trailer.
Strangers on a Train remains a riveting thriller and an essential part of any Hitchcock collection. Warner Bros. has done a stellar job with the Blu-ray release, making it very easy to recommend.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Preview Version