“I have the perfect weapon right here: these two hands.”
In my opinion, Hitchcock’s Golden Age was definitely the 50’s when he released some of his most beloved classic films: Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Vertigo. I’d include Psycho on that list as well which was released in 1960. But in 1951, the Master of Suspense directed a wonderful thriller which could’ve very well been considered among that group if it weren’t for some minor flaws near the end. Strangers on a Train hooks you from the very beginning as the camera follows the footsteps of two separate men getting on a train. Their feet bump into each other and the camera reveals who they are: Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). Bruno instantly recognizes Guy, an up and coming tennis player who is currently dating Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), a Senator’s daughter. We hear this from Bruno’s mouth who tells Guy everything he’s read about him in the papers. Bruno introduces himself as a wealthy socialite and despite his psychotic behavior, Guy listens to him patiently while he waits for his next stop. The conversation serves as a very practical way to introduce us to the backstory of these characters. He claims to know that Guy is married to Miriam (Kasey Rogers) who has been unfaithful to him many times over the past and is waiting for a divorce settlement to be able to marry his new love. Bruno goes on saying that it would be much easier to simply murder his wife and he gives him the perfect solution: they can cross murders. Bruno wants his millionaire father out of the picture and believes Guy could do him the favor. Guy thinks Bruno is simply kidding and gets off at the next stop, but what he doesn’t know is that Bruno is serious about his offer and plans to stick with his own made up plan.
Watching the film today, the plot sounds very familiar to dozens of thrillers that have been released since, but I can’t say with certainty if in 1951 this was a unique idea. The screenplay was adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel and it is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the film. What I can say is that Hitchcock handles the suspense in a very engaging way, building interesting characters and tense situations. Farley Granger and Ruth Roman play a believable and likable couple who the audience easily can identify with, but it is Robert Walker who steals the show. Walker plays his psychotic character to perfection, and during the first half of the film he is portrayed as a very clever and disturbed person that will keep you guessing as to what he might do next. His proposal during the beginning of the film is delivered in a very tempting way and he succeeded at creating an uncomfortable atmosphere on that train alongside Granger. The scene where he follows Miriam through a fair ground is also very memorable. Hitchcock set the perfect thriller during the first half of the film, but unfortunately he put too much effort in the climax making some of the suspense feel forced at times instead of letting the story unfold naturally. It is a shame that Walker passed away shortly after the film was released because it would’ve been interesting to see what he could do next working alongside Hitchcock. Bruno is one of the best psychotic characters I’ve seen on screen, but the ending did leave me unsatisfied.
Strangers on a Train doesn’t only deliver clever thrills, but it also has several moments of dark humor as well. His daughter, Patricia Hitchcock, plays Anne’s sister and she has some of the funniest scenes of the movie. The relationship between Bruno and his mother, played by Marion Lorne, is also full of dark humor especially during the first scene in which they are shown together. That is what I enjoyed the most during the first half of the film which managed to set an interesting (although familiar by now) premise and balance the suspense with Hitchcock’s sense of humor. That dark humor disappears during the second half and everything centers exclusively on the suspense where I believe Hitchcock tried a bit too hard to force things. Even Walker’s character loses some of his psychotic charm here and the film takes a much more predictable turn. Strangers on a Train is a very entertaining movie, but that first half had so much potential that this could’ve been one of Hitchcock’s greatest films if that balance weren’t lost in the second half.