I know Hitchcock is a bit of a one-trick pony and that if you try long enough eventually you will get it right, but there is just no way around it, ”Strangers on a Train” is the most effective suspense thriller on the List so far. No exaggerations are needed in describing this movie, it is literally a film that finds me at the edge of my seat, a film that forces me to look away when the suspense is peaking, a film that is daring me to continue. This is a film from a Hitchcock in top shape.
Farley Granger, the accomplish with second thoughts in “Rope”, is back as a professional tennis player, Guy Haines, who again is faced with a lunatic dreaming of perfect murders. This time it is not a facistoid student with ideas of superior beings but a true and very entertaining nutcase, Bruno Anthony in the shape of Robert Walker. Guy is riding on a train when he is approached by Bruno. Bruno seems to know all about his private life and the particular predicament he is in. Guy is having a not so secret relationship with Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), a senator’s daughter while being unhappily married to the promiscuous Miriam Haines (Laura Elliott). Bruno is presenting him with a fantastic plan where he kill Miriam in return for which Guy will kill Bruno’s father. Guy is laughing it off as a (tasteless) joke and thinks no further of it until Miriam is found dead and Bruno seeks him out to fulfill his part of the deal.
Bruno Walker is a great character. Imagine Bill Murray transplanted back to 1951 being his usual underplayed crazy self. Something like “What about Bob?”. Robert Walker is so similar to Bill Murray that I would not be surprised if somebody told me they were somehow related. And Bill Murray is my favorite actor ever. End. Bruno Anthony is clearly a mental case, but with rich parents he is also privileged and does more or less what he feels like. He is charming and fun and very clever but also a total psychopath. In a scene we see his loving mother deriding him for his funny ideas like blowing up the White House, so we know he has a history of mad stuff before this round. When Guy does not follow through with his end of Bruno’s brilliant plan he first decides to remind him a bit and when that is not enough he starts pestering him and keeps showing up at the most inconvenient moments.
From Guy Haines end this is a nightmare. Yes, he hated his wife, but he would never have killed her. Or would he? That is what people around him are starting to think. And the fact that he did have that conversation with Bruno. Does that not make him an accomplish? That is what Bruno is trying to impress on him and he half think it himself. With one hand he is a public figure about to be married into an even more public family and with public aspirations in politics. On the other hand he is being stalked by this mad person who is trying to drag him into some crazy murder scheme. Suddenly he is very much alone.
Hitchcock has created a very clever movie where he balances the very morbid suspense theme with a very dark comedic theme. He has certainly done this before, numerous times, so often in fact that you could blame him for making the same movie over and over and with some right. In the case of “Strangers on a Train” he just manages to get that balance exactly right so that we feel the nightmare of Guy Haines and still can be amused of that lunatic Bruno Anthony. This could so easily have gone over the top and become an outright comedy. Not just because of Robert Walker’s character, but also because of the crazy stunts this forces the Anne Morton and her sister Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock, Alfred’s daughter) into. In a less expert hand it probably would, but Hitchcock manages to maintain the balance, even in the final and almost ridiculous showdown on the carousel. That is no simple feat.
At first I was a bit disappointed that Hitchcock had gone back to black and white considering how well he made the colors work in “Rope”, but in fact “Strangers on a Train” has so many noir elements going that this movie just had to be made with lots of dark shadows. Guy Haines has to feel that Bruno is some sort of dark alter ego, a crazy child within himself that is haunting him. That just would not work half as well in color.
My DVD comes with a British release version that should make Bruno even more of a lunatic and one of these days I will try that version. Certainly this is a movie that can handle a re-watch.