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Strangers on a Train: Special Edition

Strangers on a Train (1951) is directed with typically efficient, fetishistic flourish by Alfred Hitchcock, who happened to be working with some of the best material of his career in Patricia Highsmith's dark-hearted debut novel. Though less celebrated than the landmark likes of Vertigo, Rear Window or Notorious, conventional critical wisdom consistently places this strong concoction on the top-shelf with those classics. As a study in relatively quiet menace — i.e., until the merry-go-round-gone-mad finale — it is often brought up in the same breath as Shadow of a Doubt, which made evil an unsettling family affair as a young Teresa Wright discovers her uncle (and namesake) Joseph Cotten is a serial killer. As in that film, Hitchcock gleefully profanes Small Town U.S.A., this time as a hideaway of unabashed harlotry given a fleshy face in the gluttonous guise of Laura Elliott, who plays Miriam, Guy's philandering albatross of a wife from whom he longs to be free so that he can marry the presentable senator's daughter, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman). But what separates the accomplishment of Strangers on a Train from that earlier masterpiece is the late second-act detour Hitchcock takes from Highsmith's novel, which sends the deftly constructed yarn down a wholly different, and potentially less disturbing, thematic track that seems somewhat uncharacteristic of The Master. It's the difference between subjecting the audience to a bumpy ride and granting them safe passage, and, in the context of his oeuvre, this is Hitchcock taking the road less traveled. Many have registered disappointment that Hitchcock never adapted another Highsmith novel, but fans of her fearless forays into the suppressed, socially unacceptable reaches of the human psyche should rejoice. (For the record: The Hitchcock estate owns the film rights for Strangers on a Train, and, so far, have refused to approve a remake.) True, both artists shared a sense of cruel gamesmanship, remorselessly putting their characters through particularly gnarly wringers, but Hitchcock took better care of his audience than Highsmith ever bothered to. Perhaps it's because, no matter what haunted Hitch, he always had a loving family near to him. Highsmith had no such luxury, and it's reflected in her series of novels, including the Tom Ripley chronicles. Theirs were artistic temperaments as different as Guy's and Bruno's, which may be why their sole cinematic encounter works only as a crackling good thriller. Warner presents Strangers on a Train in an excellent full-frame (1.33:1) with crisp monaural Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras on the two-disc set begin with a so-so feature length commentary hosted by Laurent Bouzereau and featuring contributions from a diverse collection of folks including Peter Bogdanovich, Highsmith biographer Andrew Wilson, writer Whitfield Cook and, in a couple of instances, Hitchcock himself. Also on board is a behind-the-scenes documentary titled "Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic" (36 min.) and three featurettes: "The Hitchcocks on Hitch," "Strangers on a Train: The Victim's POV," and "Strangers on a Train: An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan." There's also a newsreel of "Alfred Hitchcock's Historical Meeting" and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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