[box cover]

Strangers on a Train: Special Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker
and Leo G. Carroll

Written by Patricia Highsmith (novel), Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

Two pairs of shoes alight from two Diamond Cabs at a train station in Washington, D.C. — one a sensible black, the other a flamboyant white. As the camera tracks their progress to the platform, their gaits reveal nothing particular about their characters, but their trousers (plain black versus a more distinctive black arrayed with charcoal pinstripes) and luggage (a suitcase apiece, though the more conservatively dressed gentleman is also hauling a pair of tennis rackets) add a tease of shading to their personalities. And the camera hasn't even risen from ground level yet. The tale of these four shoes continues on board the train, where they congregate in the bar car. First to the rendezvous is the white pair; second is the black pair, which, as one leg is raised to cross the other, acknowledges its outlandish counterpart with a knowing kick.

The shoes' errand of predestination is complete. Now, the matter turns strictly existential as Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a young, All-American tennis star with burgeoning political aspirations, meets the significantly monikered Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), an effete mental defective with mother issues, who, in an effort to alleviate the poor lad's burden, derails his carefully charted trajectory from small-town drudgery to big-time achievement in the nation's capital with a simple spot of murder. Of course, Guy may continue unimpeded down his manifest path to glory if he simply, "criss-cross," commits a murder for Bruno in kind.

That's the breakneck first act of Strangers on a Train (1951), directed with typically efficient, fetishistic flourish by Alfred Hitchcock, who also 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 (1958), Rear Window (1954), or Notorious (1946), 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.

*          *          *

Emboldened by that terse bit of business that opens the film, Strangers on a Train takes off at a narrative sprint, getting its lurid hooks into the viewer as Walker's fey Bruno insinuates himself into the promising life of Granger's fresh-faced Guy via tawdry slivers of gossip gleaned from the scandal sheets. Bruno knows all about Guy's poor marriage, and the societal faux pas he's committing by dating the well-to-do Anne without having extricated himself from his corroded, yet still sacred, bond of holy matrimony with the promiscuous Miriam (who's currently knocked up with another man's child). But Bruno is hardly turned off by these character failings; indeed, he admires "people who do things," and views Guy as a fellow traveler in moral decay whose misery could be wiped away with one seemingly innocuous murder. Since Bruno also has an oppressive figure dogging his pursuit of happiness in his domineering father, he instantly, over lunch in a private car (the opulence of the meal is made explicit, and, thus, more sexually suggestive in the "Preview Version" included on Disc Two of this DVD set), hits upon the obvious solution: They should swap murders. Guy takes this as his cue to exit Bruno's company, but not before facetiously validating Bruno's swell ideas — a mistake that his disturbed companion translates as tacit approval.

Further (and, again, inadvertently) exacerbating matters, Guy implicates himself in the inevitable murder by engaging in a public row with Miriam at her place of employment as he attempts to finalize the terms of their divorce. Getting a whiff of the wealthy circle into which her husband has been accepted, Miriam abruptly changes her mind and refuses to grant Guy his freedom. After jostling her in full view of her customers, Guy storms out to a public phone and vents to Anne, going so far in his rage as to confess that he'd like to "strangle" Miriam.

How prescient, that Guy! Assuming their plot is in motion, Bruno arrives in Guy's hometown to do just that. In a classic sequence that presages to a degree Jimmy Stewart's obsessive trailing of Kim Novak in Vertigo, Bruno stalks Miriam and two amorous young men (one wonders how this evening was supposed to end) as they gallivant around a county fair. Realizing her weakness for the man she isn't with, Bruno makes his presence well known to Miriam, and, after outdoing her competing paramours in a test of strength (Bruno's cocking of his eyebrows as he breaks the contraption is a wonderfully subversive suggestion of, um… superior manhood), she all but invites him, through a series of lascivious glances, to bear witness to her defilement and perhaps take part in it. What she gets instead is asphyxiation, hold the eroticism, to completion — captured indelibly by Hitchcock through the lens of her dark-rimmed glasses.

The deadly ball has now been volleyed into Guy's court, and he's duly horrified at the lengths to which his acquaintance has gone. Guy has absolutely no plans to make good on his end of the bargain because, in his mind, the bargain was never officially struck. That said, he's now intractably mired as the prime suspect in the murder of his wife, stinking of motive and stranded without a usable alibi (a drunk professor he encountered on — where else? — a train while Bruno did his worst is unable to recall their meeting). Nonetheless, believing they know all of which he is capable, Anne and her family, including her younger sister Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock), whose frivolously diabolical thoughts recall the ghoulish banter between Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn in Shadow of a Doubt, stand behind Guy as he fights to prove his innocence, all the while keeping his undesired relationship with Bruno a secret.

Guy's primary rationale for not ratting Bruno out is a practical issue: Bruno has the cigarette lighter given to him from Anne, which he could plant at the murder scene at any given time. But there's another facet to his reticence — an unmistakable shame at being associated with a man so outwardly effeminate. When Bruno finally reveals himself at a D.C. social gathering, Guy's worst fears are realized; after spitting out a succession of gibberish scientific ideas to Senator Morton, Bruno loses control while trying to demonstrate strangulation on a whimsical elderly woman. Transfixed by Barbara's resemblance to Miriam, he nearly finishes the deed. Guy whisks the overcome Bruno to an adjacent study, where Senator Morton skeptically asks his future son-in-law how he knows such a person. It's unclear to what extent the senator accepts Guy's explanation, but he's certainly not aloof on the subject of Bruno's sexual orientation. Worrying about the gossips picking up on this incident, the senator laments, "First thing you know, they'll be talking about orgies."

The scandal of homosexuality is a recurring subtext in Highsmith's work, and just when it appears Hitchcock is ready to address Guy's sexual confusion, he backs off. This is the crucial point of embarkation from Highsmith's novel, and it occurs when Guy decisively chooses to warn Bruno's father of his son's intentions rather than murder him as stipulated. It's important, however, to note that Hitchcock does not completely shy away from implying there's something ambiguous about Guy's nature; when Guy breaks into the Anthony mansion, he must first get by an imposing guard dog, which, after a tense approach, allows him passage, giving a slow-motion lick of the hand — he's one of the family. But if this confirms Guy's sexual ambiguity, suggesting he's at least akin to Bruno, what it says about the entire Anthony brood is even more ambiguous, and, potentially, far more troubling than anything worked out by Highsmith in her novel.

This sequence reaches a disturbing fever pitch in Mr. Anthony's bedroom when Bruno slides out from under the sheets. "My father isn't home tonight, Mr. Haines." At last, the two men are alone, bound by sin. But Guy wants no part of the guilt, and he has no intention of committing any further acts that may further tarnish his character. One might be tempted to read this as a pledge to remain closeted, but there's little suggestion, save for the episode with the dog and Guy fussing over Bruno's disheveled appearance before he shuffles him out of Senator Morton's house, that Guy is in denial.

Such thematic prickliness is all but abandoned as Hitchcock moves into the masterfully staged final act, which finds Guy racing against time to stop Bruno from planting his lighter on the island where Miriam was murdered. (Okay, so Guy does go against his nature by playing an aggressive tennis game in order to beat Bruno to the island — but, despite faltering, he nevertheless wins the match. One can make of that what they wish.) It's all wonderfully thrilling, culminating in a great piece of rear-projection mayhem that startles despite its old-school trickery. But if this all feels like a retreat from something darker and riskier… well, it is. 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 to 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. In the end, 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 Home Video has upgraded Strangers on a Train to first class with a two-disc special edition that's a vast improvement on its old double-sided release. The full-screen transfers (1.33:1 OAR) on both the Final Release and Preview versions are nearly flawless (there's a jittery establishing shot before Guy's climactic Forest Hills match that's undoubtedly a shortcoming of the source-print), while the Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is excellent.

Extras begin on Disc One with a hit-and-miss audio commentary hosted by the disc's producer, Laurent Bouzereau, who has spliced together relevant sound-bites from various interviews. The most enlightening contributor is, by far, Highsmith biographer Andrew Wilson, whose insights into the writer and her reaction to the film prove quite valuable. Also welcome are the recollections of screenwriters Whitfield Cook (who contributed to this film and Stage Fright) and Joseph Stefano (Psycho), as well as excerpts from Peter Bogdanovich's conversations with Hitch, who discloses that the old man crawling under the out-of-control carousel was a stunt that could've easily turned tragic. However, Bogdanovich by himself is, as usual, a bore, and he's matched in uselessness by the likes of Peter Benchley and Joe Alves.

Disc Two boasts a series of featurettes, beginning with the imaginatively titled "Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic" (36 min.), which, aside from the occasional interview overlap with the commentary, is a reasonably informative behind-the-scenes look at the film. "The Hitchcocks on Hitch" is enjoyable, with Patricia and his granddaughters sharing their mostly pleasant remembrances of The Master. Less interesting is "The Victim's P.O.V." (7 min.), an interview with Kasey Rogers (aka Laura Elliott), some of which can be found on the commentary. However, the most unforgivable inclusion is "An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan," which features the director enthusing over the most superficial of Hitchcock's accomplishments on this film. Finally, there's the inexplicable "Alfred Hitchcock's Historical Meeting," a very short newsreel in which the director hangs out with a wigged historical recreationist to baffling effect thanks to the complete lack of sound, and the original theatrical trailer.

— Clarence Beaks

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