Strangers on a Train (1951)
Strangers on a Train (1951)

Genre: Film Noir and Psychological Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 41 min.

Release Date: June 30th, 1951 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Alfred Hitchcock Actors: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Leo G. Carroll, Patricia Hitchcock, Laura Elliott, Marion Lorne, Jonathan Hale, Howard St. John

 


 

A

mateur tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is heading to Southampton for a doubles tournament. Boarding the same train to New York is Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), a man who humbly claims to do nothing much at all – except act a bit too friendly. Curiously, he’s quite informed about Haines’ personal life, particularly when it comes to his pending divorce from Miriam Joyce Haines (Laura Elliott), a shop clerk – and his love affair with Washington socialite Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator. As the two share a lunch, Bruno reveals that he’s something of a daredevil, going to extremes to do things no normal person would dream of (like driving a car at 150 mph while blindfolded). He also reveals that he’s not too happy with his father-in-law’s insistence that he secure a regular job.

In short time, Bruno discusses the perfect way to commit a murder; the perfect way to kill two people simultaneously. The one thing that always trips up criminals is the motive. But if two complete strangers were to swap murders, the authorities would have no way of sorting out the “why.” Haines is understandably skeptical of Antony’s sanity – until Miriam decides not to give Guy a divorce, instead opting to continue collecting money from him while she has another man’s baby. “I’d like to break her neck!”

The immediate problem is that even if there’s insufficient evidence to convict each murderer, the police would surely begin their respective investigations with the husband and the son-in-law. There would have to be airtight alibis and maybe even other suspects to take seriously. Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler, “Strangers on a Train” doesn’t forget to include just such twists and turns and unexpected details. But mistakes are also made, purposefully yet flimsily, so that this Production Code-era film noir can allow for justice-minded resolutions (occasionally narrated by sister Barbara, played by Patricia Hitchcock, reminiscent of Virginia Weidler’s precocious Dinah from “The Philadelphia Story”). Nevertheless, it still boasts some frightening moments and some exquisite deviousness – the kind of dark material befitting of an archetypal crime picture from the ’50s (and one directed by the inimitable Alfred Hitchcock, no less).

The opening sequence is notable, as it attempts – and succeeds – with character development solely through footwear, demonstrating both very different people (a clashing of classes) and the coincidence of similar actions leading to, perhaps, entirely prearranged meetings. And the imagery is reused throughout, to remind of the randomness (or the way in which seemingly innocuous events can spiral out of control). Though “Strangers on a Train” is a masterpiece of individual moments – such as a craftily lit Tunnel of Love sequence that teases at the first murder before it happens; Bruno popping up at inopportune times (the best of which involves the back-and-forth movements of a tennis audience, while Bruno’s visage remains transfixed on Guy); and a runaway merry-go-round finale – the overall murder plot is generally full of holes. It’s undoubtedly amusing, but the execution is so riddled with suspicious activities that Antony seems as if he’s routinely hoping to be caught. And when he begins inserting himself into Guy’s personal life, the entire notion of keeping the two crimes separate completely falls apart. One would think the premise could have been far cleverer if Bruno kept his distance, at least for a while longer.

But Robert Walker is sensational as the cool-headed maniac, being intelligently manipulative and uncontrollably unhinged in alternating seconds. He’s a stellar movie villain, akin to Robert Mitchum’s role in “The Night of the Hunter” (which would debut a few years later), driven at turns by revenge and psychosis. He’s also supplemented by plenty of humor, including discussing murder techniques with two elderly ladies, or bursting the balloon of a young carnival patron, or laughing hysterically at a pitiful painting by his batty mother. “I had a strenuous evening,” casually comments Antony, after admitting to strangling Miriam. Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough to counter the slowness of an anticlimactic tennis match (upsetting mainly because it has nothing to do with the predicament at hand), or the extreme coincidence of Antony’s last-minute clumsiness. Additionally, it’s the kind of crime setup that is unable to face scrutiny by even slightly more modern detective practices – and, by extension, modern audiences.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10