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You just met a stranger on the train. When you start talking, you find out that you have just one thing in common: you both want someone dead. The stranger hatches the perfect murder plan, a “double switch,” where you commit the other person's murder. There's no connection between you and the victim, so the police won't suspect you and there will be no evidence to connect the person with motive to the murder. Now you think the other person must be joking. After all, no sane person really wants to go all the way and commit murder for a complete stranger.
But that's where Alfred Hitchcock and novelist Patricia Highsmith throw in the wrench in 1951's Strangers on a Train. In the film, the stranger is Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) and he is not sane and doesn't get tennis player Guy Haines' (Farley Granger) joke. Bruno goes off and kills Guy's scheming wife (Kasey Rogers) after he finds out that she won't divorce Guy, who hopes to marry a senator's daughter Ann Morton (Ruth Roman). Now Bruno expects that Guy will follow through with killing his father. Guy, of course, has no intention of doing so.
Strangers on a Train sets up Hitchcock's amazing run of masterpieces in the 1950s, coming before Vertigo and North By Northwest. Hitchcock already established himself as a master of the medium even before those, but Strangers on a Train shows Hitchcock going in a new direction. The love interest in this film is not integral to the central conflict between Guy and Bruno, unlike many other Hitchcock women. This film moves at the pace of a high-speed train, so every scene is pushing the plot forward.
While there's no playful love scene, like in North By Northwest or To Catch A Thief, Hitchcock does give himself a chance to flex his technical muscles, inserting some fantastic shots. There is the jaw-dropping shot of Bruno's murder of Guy's wife seen through the reflection of the scene in her glasses. We see him strangle her and when she dies, Bruno looks at the glasses, picks it up and pockets it.
Hitchcock was also a director who relied on editing, showing that what makes a film good is how you put it together. He effortlessly keeps the audience on its toes during the final act, when Guy has to get to his hometown before Bruno, who plans to plant evidence to show that Guy did the murder, does. We're constantly going between a tennis match and Bruno's trip, keeping us wondering how Guy could possibly get there first.
I love the performances by Farley Granger and Robert Walker in this film. Walker gets a fantastic part in Bruno, playing an effeminate psychopath with a desire to kill anyone who annoys him. This was Walker's last completed film before his death at age 32 (he was working on Leo McCarey's anti-Communism propaganda movie My Son John at the time of his death) and it is easily his best-known performance for all the right reasons. It's completely against type and makes it hard to believe that this is the same guy who played Jerome Kern in Til The Clouds Roll By or starred in the super-sentimental Since You Went Away.
That's really one of the underrated aspects of Hitchcock's career. He really knew how to cast his films. Without Granger or Walker, this would be a very different film and Hitchcock couldn't possibly have gotten what he wanted from other stars.
While North By Northwest may be the quintessential Hitchcock in the mind of this writer, Strangers on a Train comes in a very close second. This is the way a thriller was meant to be made. It keeps you on the edge of your seat and remains one of Hitchcock's best.
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