Monday, August 22, 2011

Chance Encounter

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.


  1. Plan on watching this soon - ever since it was referenced in "Horrible Bosses" of all places, this sounded very interesting.

    Hope all is going well Steve!

    By the way, any news on your podcast?

  2. Lots of similarities between the films, really. No surprise that this one would be mentioned in Horrible Bosses.

    As for podcasting news, give a listen to LAMBcast #80 on The Long Kiss Goodnight.

  3. 18 Hitchcock films on the 1001 List? Wow, I hadn't counted them up. Crazy! He must be the best represented director on the list?

  4. He is. Bergman has about a dozen, I think. There's also nine or ten Kubrick films.

    Honestly, I think Hitchcock is a bit over-represented here. There are probably half a dozen that could be cut without much loss.

  5. I totally agree with everything you said in this review. I said basically the same things in my own review about a month ago (it seems much longer ago, though...).

  6. It's kind of a shame, really. It feels like there's so much more that could have been done with the premise instead of making us watch Farley Granger play tennis.

  7. Yeah, there's some fair-to-middlin' Hitchcock on The List, and yet they left out "Suspicion."

    "Suspicion" is my favorite one. (Unless I've seen "The Birds" recently. I saw it a few weeks ago and it's on TCM in a few hours. I may watch it again.)

    1. I think pretty much anyone who's spent any time with The List will agree that there is too much love for some directors. If I recall correctly, 19 Hitchcock movies have appeared at least once. That's at least half a dozen more than are needed...or warranted.

  8. I watched The Birds again tonight. The Birds and Suspicion are the two Hitchcock films that I seem to want to watch all the time. I've seen North by Northwest twice in 35 years and it seems like plenty. I've seen The Birds about ten times just since 1995.

    I've only seen Dial M for Murder once but I've watched segments from it lately and it makes me want to see the whole thing again soon.

    Also, I haven't seen Psycho for a long time, and I feel like I'm ready to watch it again.

    1. North by Northwest stands at the top for me. I watch it at least once a year. Lately, every time I watch Psycho, I wonder why I'm not watching Peeping Tom instead.

  9. I get your point about the tennis match. That one is just too long, but as soon as it is over I feel the movie is back on track. In fact the carousel ride is just wild with screaming children and what not. Did you see the British release?

    1. Probably not.

      That's really my biggest beef with the film--parts of it just go on too long. Making a scene longer doesn't specifically increase the tension, which is something Hitchcock forgot on this film.