A chance encounter between two strangers on a train leads to murder in this classic suspense thriller.
(review contains spoilers)
Strangers on a Train (1951) is one of Alfred Hitchcock's most recognized and praised films and is considered one of the foremost suspense thrillers in cinematic history. The film is based on American author Patricia Highsmith's first novel of the same name. Famous detective novelist Raymond Chandler was one of the screenwriters who adapted Highsmith's novel for Hitchcock's film. The other writers involved on the screenplay were Czenzi Ormonde and Whitfield Cook.
Murder Swap Plan
The film begins with a chance meeting between two men on a train. Amateur tennis champ Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets rich, spoiled socialite Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) after the two men accidentally bump shoes. Bruno immediately recognizes Guy from his pictures in the paper. Right away Bruno becomes overly familiar with Guy, asking him personal questions about his rocky marriage to his trampy, adulterous wife Miriam and his romantic relationship with Anne Morton, the daughter of a U.S. senator.
The scene has clear homoerotic undertones as it feels like Bruno is hitting on Guy. At first Guy is wary of Bruno's forward behavior but feels he's harmless enough and is cordial to him. During their conversation, Bruno tells Guy about his domineering, hard-nosed father who has recently been putting pressure on him to get a job and make something of himself. Bruno feels going to work and punching a time clock is beneath him and doesn't want any part of it. Bruno no doubt was a problem child and continues to be a burden to his father as a young adult. Bruno's worried that his father will eventually cut him off if he doesn't attempt to get a job and try to do something with his life. Thus, he feels he has to do something drastic before this happens.
In a half-joking manner, Bruno hypothetically suggests that the two exchange murders: Guy kills Bruno's father, and Bruno kills Mariam, "Crisscross." Bruno believes that the murder-swapping plan is perfect because neither would have any motive for killing a complete stranger, so there would be no connection tying them to the murders. Guy assumes that Bruno is joking and humors him, telling him it's a good idea. Guy gets off the train and doesn't give what Bruno said a second thought. Later on, to Guy's horror, Bruno tells him that he has indeed murdered Miriam and is now demanding that Guy keep up his end of the bargain and murder his father. Bruno's homicidal action sets off a psychological and suspenseful game of wits between the two men. It's compelling how Bruno keeps pulling Guy deeper and deeper into his dark, murderous plan to the point where Guy feels like a trapped prey.
Hitchcock Keeps The Tension High throughout Film
One of the things that makes the film so entertaining is that Hitchcock manages to sustain a high level of tension and suspense throughout. He keeps the audience on its toes with a number of unexpected twists and turns. Another significant component is that Hitchcock infuses the film with his trademark morbid sense of humor. His gallows humor can be found in most of the scenes involving his daughter Patricia Hitchcock, who plays Anne's younger sister Barbara ("Babs"). Babs is a kind of a strange girl who apparently has no filter and blurts out whatever she's thinking, much to the annoyance of her stern and rigid senator father. Bab's character is oddly charming. You can't help but like her.
Film Boasts Great Cast
The cast is uniformly good. Ruth Roman does a terrific job as Guy's romantic interest Anne Morton. Her character is all cool sophistication and haughty elegance. She just oozes class and style. She's the polar opposite of Guy's trashy wife Miriam. Kasey Rogers plays the role of Miriam with raunchy sex appeal, a bespectacled Jezebel with a devilish grin. The standout of the cast is Robert Walker as Bruno. Walker does a tremendous job in his role as the psychopathic Bruno. He's alternately menacing, desperate and vulnerable in the role. And Farley Granger is top-notch in probably the least colorful role in the film as the straitlaced Guy. His character is a great foil for the unbalanced and homicidal Bruno.
There are also some nice subtle touches in the film, for instance, when Guy gently straightens Bruno's tie after punching him in the face. It's a great moment as it shows the type of person Guy is in that he could still show kindness to someone who's attempting to ruin his life. And the scene also brings attention to the homoerotic undercurrent of the film. Or the scene when Miriam is flirting with Bruno at the amusement park the night he murders her. She looks over her shoulder to see if he's still following her, and when she turns back around, he' standing right next to her, seeming to appear from nowhere like an apparition.
Additionally, there's an excellent scene in which a very angry Guy is talking to Anne on a phone from a phone booth about his wife Miriam, who refuses to give him a divorce now that he's made some money playing tennis. While he's venting about Miriam, the sound of a train grows louder and louder, and when he finally yells into the phone, "I said I could strangle her!" the train goes by him and nearly drowns his words out. The sound of the train is a reference to the conversation he had with Bruno earlier about exchanging murders, and it also foreshadows Bruno killing Miriam by strangulation.
The Master Of Suspense
This film illustrates why Hitchcock was such a highly respected and critically acclaimed director. He knew how to grab an audience's attention and hold it in a vice grip. He was a great at building tension and suspense and would always sprinkle ample doses of his twisted, dark humor in his films to help counterbalance their more gruesome and horrific moments. They didn't call him "The Master of Suspense" for nothing.
Strangers On A Train at Amazon