Film: Strangers on a Train
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass DVD player.
Alfred Hitchcock was best known, and rightfully so, for his tight direction and his interesting and intricate plots. What makes many of his best films so good is that the plots are deceptively simple, or at least come from an extremely simple premise. Strangers on a Train, for instance, starts with the idea of a chance meeting on (naturally) a train and a chance conversation between two men.
In this case, the two men are Guy Haines (Farley Granger), an amateur tennis player with his eye on a political career and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a dilettante with too much money. Bruno recognizes Guy Haines from his picture in the newspapers. In addition to being a well-known tennis player, Guy has also appeared in society and gossip columns. It seems that despite being married, he’s been spending a lot of time with Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll). Of course, no one blames Guy in this case because his wife Miriam (Laura Elliott) is known to go a-stepping with anyone wearing pants.
Bruno has an idea. He’d like to get rid of his father, and he’s pretty sure that Guy would like to be rid of his wife. His suggestion is to trade killings; he’ll kill Guy’s wife and Guy will kill his father. Since there’d be no motive for either man, there’d be no suspicion on either man. Guy, naturally, thinks this is nothing more than a flight of fancy until Miriam is killed and Bruno starts showing up in Guy’s life.
As I said, the plot is deceptively simple. What it needs is complications, and it gets them almost entirely through the actions of Bruno. Part of the interest here, though, comes from the fact that Hitchcock allowed this script to get pretty racy for 1951. We learn that Miriam Haines, for instance, is pregnant with another man’s child. Then, in the scenes leading up to her murder, we see her essentially dating two men at the same time. And she’s a vicious woman—now that Guy’s tennis career is really taking off, she refuses to divorce him and threatens to derail anything he attempts simply so she can get what she wants.
Bruno, it quickly becomes evident, is a sociopath. He can’t leave Guy alone, and as Guy continues to resist his half of the plot, Bruno gets more and more brazen. Guy holds off as long as he can, but finally has to admit to Anne what is going on. A big part of this is the fact that Bruno seems to get completely wiggy every time he sees Anne’s sister Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock), who looks quite a bit like the now-dead Miriam.
It’s a solid enough plot that it’s been remade a couple of times—both as comedies. Throw Mama from the Train and Horrible Bosses cover the same basic territory. What those films lack is some of the really artistic touches included here. The murder, for instance, is filmed by giving us a view of the scene as the reflection in Miriam’s glasses, which have fallen to the ground. It’s an incredible shot, one worth watching again and again, and quite possibly good enough to justify the entire film.
Where this one falls down is toward the end. While the wrap-up of this film is sufficiently Hitchcockian, it simply takes too long. Guy has a tennis match and knows that he can’t forfeit or throw it—he has to win quickly, but naturally his opponent fights back. Later, Guy and Bruno finally confront one another on a speeding carousel that has gone out of control. Both of these sequences go far too long—long enough that in both cases I was more than ready for them to end about halfway through. Any tension that has been created by the situation and the knowledge that Bruno is ready to force Guy’s hand is lost by these scenes that simply don’t end when they should.
It’s not my favorite Hitchcock, and not in my top five for Hitchcock. It’s not a bad film, and certainly not the worst of Hitch’s 18(!) films on The List. It’s just not that great, and I wish it lived up to its simple but compelling premise.
Why to watch Strangers on a Train: A plot truly worthy of Hitchcock.
Why not to watch: Some parts trade tension for simply being too long.