Overview: A socialite tennis star (Farley Granger) is approached by a psychopath (Robert Walker) who has a plan for the two to “swap murders,” each offing the other’s source of trouble. Warner Bros., 1951, Rated PG, 103 Minutes
Now Boarding: For some reason, I always thought this film took place entirely on a train, so when those titular strangers disembarked I was thrown for a bit of a loop. The film may not be set entirely on rails, but there’s certainly a comparison to be made. Strangers on a Train gains speed slowly, slow enough that you don’t even realize it’s doing so until it’s rocketing full-bore into its climax. Maybe a better comparison is to the carousel at the end, but Strangers on a Merry-Go-Round doesn’t have the same ring to it. It’s not Hitchcock’s most thrilling film, but it’s one of the best displays of his talent as a filmmaker. It’s densely packed with visual rhymes and symmetry, underscoring themes of double-crossing and duplicates. Hitchcock himself remarked that “one could study it forever,” and even if that’s ego talking, it’s on point.
Smile and Smile and Be a Villain: I expected all of that going in, though. What really caught me off guard was Robert Walker’s performance as Bruno Anthony, the smiling maniac who tries to trick Guy Haines (Farley Granger) into killing his father in return for Anthony killing Haines’ wife. Walker is gloriously campy; his every word is covered in slimy, sour glee. That campiness does nothing to dull the terror of his presence, however. Hitchcock shoots him as though he’s Satan in the flesh. He’s always lurking in the shadows, forcing Haines to walk into the darkness to speak with him. What makes it such a great performance is that it’s such a bad “performance.” Walker’s manic energy and comic sensibility make for a jarring counterpoint to Granger’s stoic and subdued presence. They’re perfect foils.
Master Manipulator: It hardly needs to be repeated, but Hitchcock was a filmmaking master in every sense of the word. Despite his prickly reputation, he clearly respected his audience. Strangers on a Train is a lean, tight film, never pausing for excess explanation. He uses the camera to communicate information, a technique which should be inherent to the filmmaking process but seems to have fallen out of favor today. Consider the brilliant moment where Anthony sees the lighter reflected in Barbara Morton’s (Patricia Hitchcock) glasses. The timing of the shot is sublime, with Hitchcock pushing slowly in on her face and revealing the lighter at the exact instant that the audience understands why Anthony is looking at her. Hitchcock had an innate understanding of how his films would affect and connect with people, a clear mark of cinematic genius.
Wrap-Up: Deliberate pacing, clever direction, and a stellar turn from Robert Walker make Strangers on a Train one of Hitchcock’s most satisfying thrillers.