With the exception of Rope, the last five years hadn’t been kind to Hitchcock either financially or critically. But Hitch had a habit of popping out a big hit just as he reached a rut. Strangers on a Train was a box office smash and, though it received mixed reviews at the time, has since been remembered as one of his All Time Greats. Rightly so.
Renowned tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) means a flamboyant young man, Bruno (Robert Walker), a on a train. Over a couple of drinks Bruno outlines a *cough* totally hypothetical scheme in which Guy murders Bruno’s hated father and in exchange Bruno murders Guy’s gold-digging wife (Kasey Rogers, credited as Laura Elliott). “Criss-cross.” The deaths would appear motiveless.
Guy dismisses Bruno as a harmless loon, but it quickly becomes clear that his hypothetical scheme isn’t hypothetical at all…
After Hitchcock’s first attempt at a blackmail story, he’d learned that the suspense works best if the pressure from villain piles over time. The tension becomes so thick you could scoop it into ice-cream cones. It’s hard not to shiver at the sight of Bruno’s stationary head staring out from the middle of nodding tennis crowd or his ominous shadow as he stalks Guy’s wife through a fairground.
Hitchcock was famed for his eye for his obsessive perfectionism and Strangers on a Train is perhaps one of clearest example of this. He oversaw every detail from Bruno’s tacky lobster tie to the food he orders in the train restaurant. Combined with the pitch-perfect casting of Granger and Walker, Hitchcock believed these details saved “a reel of storytelling time” since they conveyed key character qualities that would otherwise need to be spelled out to the audience.
There’s a dapper, homoerotic subtext to Bruno that gives him a menacing charm. In a way, he represents Guy’s own darkest desires which he will not (or cannot) act upon. “I like a guy who does things,” schmoozes Bruno. So do we. But we also fear them.
Much like Shadow of Doubt, Hitchcock packed Strangers on a Train full of visual references to this sense of good/evil duality. In the film’s opening moments we see two sets of feet, matching each other in movements, but they establish the contrast between the two men: one pair garish and the other sensible. From the off we know to expect contrast.
But, really, there’s far too many great moments to mention in a short blog post. Go and see it for yourselves. Or, if you’ve already seen it, watch it again. It only gets better with repeat screenings.