"Strangers on a Train" comes about midway in the Hitchcock pantheon. By the beginning of the fifties, the maestro had already made such timeless classics as "The 39 Steps", "The Lady Vanishes", "Rebbeca", "Shadow of a Doubt" and "Spellbound" in a career spanning nearly thirty years. It must be sobering for any modern filmmaker, knowing that at this point Hitchcock still had many of his best films to come -- some of which, were not only to be equally admired as the very best examples of what the cinema can achieve, but also, were to play a part in shaping (for better or worse) the modern horror and action genres.
Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, and with a screenplay partly written by Raymond Chandler (although it was mostly rewritten by Czenzi Ormonde) "Strangers on a Train" was to start off a run of bona fide classics from Hitchcock, and is considered by some of his fans to be his very best film. It certainly has all the ingredients of his favoured recipe for creating a suspense classic: The plot device of having a wrongly accused man trying to prove his innocence against heavy odds; sharp, witty dialogue and skillfully edited "suspense" set pieces. It is also notable for Robert Burks' effective black & white cinematography, which earned the film it's one and only Oscar nomination. Burks went on to photograph most of Hitchcock's most famous films. Actually, this movie represented Hitchcock returning to a tried and tested "formula" after a number of his experiments like "Rope" and "Under Capricorn" had failed to live up to audience expectations. Despite the apparent superficiality of the plot, Hitch was still able to slip some weightier themes underneath the audience's radar.
Farley Granger plays Guy Haines, a famous tennis player trapped in an unhappy marriage to his conniving and adulterous wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers). Guy takes a train to visit Miriam, hoping to arrange divorce proceedings so that he can marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a prominent senator. On the train he has a chance meeting and gets into conversation with Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), who turns out to be very aware of all the troubles in Guy's life because he is an avid reader of the New York gossip columns. Bruno reveals that he too has problems: His rich father expects him to work for a living instead of allowing him the freedom to pursue his own interests, among which are plans for concocting "the perfect murder". Bruno suggests that since they both have people who they would like to get rid of, it would make sense if they swapped murders, since then there would be nothing to connect either of them to the crimes. Guy thinks Bruno is just an eccentric and doesn't take him too seriously; he humours his travelling companion until they reach Guy's station stop, but he leaves his initialed cigarette lighter behind.
Guy's meeting with Miriam doesn't go according to plan. She takes the money he offers her for a lawyer, but then out of spite tells him she won’t divorce him after all and that she is moving to New York to have another man's baby! Any thought that he will be able to marry the senator's daughter is slipping away. Lots of people witness their violent argument and when he later phones Anne, he angrily tells her that he could strangle Miriam!
Unfortunately, the same idea has also occurred to Bruno Antony, who is under the impression that Guy has agreed to his "criss-cross" murder plan. He stalks Miriam through a fairground and eventually strangles her. Guy returns home to be accosted by Bruno, who now expects him to fulfil his side of their "pact". The police are soon convinced that Guy has committed the murder, and Bruno puts more and more pressure on him to follow through with the plan -- eventually hinting that he will plant evidence (the cigarette lighter) at the scene of Miriams murder, if he doesn't comply! Somehow, Guy has to avoid his police "tail" and get to the fairground before Bruno, to stop him planting the fake evidence.
The film features several strong performances, but strangely the two lead characters (Guy and Anne) are rather bland and faceless. Guy Haines is a handsome but shallow character who doesn't hesitate to lie to his girlfriend and her family to avoid a scandal. Anne Morton is respectable but dull -- not one of Hitchcock's more inspired leading ladies. But it's not really the fault of Farley Granger — who later in his career, appeared in the classic giallo "Amuck" — and Ruth Roman, their characters are meant to come across as rather anemic in contrast to Walker's flamboyant and unpredictable villain. They gain our sympathy through our identifying with the tenseness of the situation they find themselves in, rather than engaging us emotionally. Patricia Hitchcock, as Anne's younger sister Barbara, is the strongest of the sympathetic characters — apart from the film's villain, she gets most of the best lines.
The standout performance though comes from Robert Walker as the strangely camp psychopathic Bruno Antony. The man is by turns amusing and sinister, and is able to charm and manipulate almost every other character in the film. The full range of his personality is portrayed in a scene where Bruno turns up at a party thrown by Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll). He charms a couple of old ladies with his witty banter ... and then almost throttles one of them in front of everybody!
There is a subtle hint of homo-eroticism in the relationship between Bruno and Guy, which was toned down for the Hollywood version of the film. The Warner Brothers DVD is a double sided disc, which gives the viewer the chance to compare the Hollywood cut with the longer "uncensored" British version of the film.
The film contains some classic Hitchcock touches. The scene where Bruno follows Miriam through the fairground is a classic suspense set-piece where we, the audience, know that Bruno intends to kill Miriam, but she thinks he is an admirer and flirts with him. The scene is drawn out for several minutes and every time we think Miriam is just about to meet her maker, it turns out to be a false alarm. Then when the murder finally comes it takes us by surprise and is actually incredibly eerie. We see the killing reflected in Miriam's fallen glasses ... in total silence!
Other standout scenes include Guy having to win a tennis match before setting out to stop Bruno planting the cigarette lighter, inter-cut with Bruno trying to retrieve the lighter from a storm drain.
The final showdown on an out of control merry-go-round is a typical Hitchcock climax and while the ending could be seen as a little too neat, this film definitely deserves to be included in everyone's Hitchcock DVD collection.
The film is presented in the original 4:3 aspect ratio and so doesn't require anamorphic enhancement; the image is not in absolutely mint condition, but is certainly nothing to complain about. It is quite sharp, and there is good definition of blacks and grays. The only extra is a theatrical trailer but Hitchcock fans will be interested to compare the two different cuts of the film — although they aren't all that different. The Hollywood version has a different ending to the British — finishing the film on a more light-hearted note.