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Blu-ray Review: Strangers On A Train

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Strangers On A Train is a 1951 thriller by Alfred Hitchcock starring Farley Granger and Robert Walker. The story follows a tennis pro who on a chance meeting on the train, becomes unknowingly caught up in a murder pact with a charming psychopath. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Black and White Cinematography, as well as a spot on the AFI’s list for “100 Years… 100 Thrills.”

The Movie

The lesson here is not to talk to strangers. Or maybe it’s not to travel by train… Regardless, there is definitely a lesson, and once Robert Walker’s character Bruno begins talking, you’ll want to learn the lesson as quickly as you can in order to get away from him.

Tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is traveling home by train when he accidentally bumps into Bruno (Robert Walker). Bruno recognizes Guy and strikes up a conversation, which increasingly turns more and more strange. At some point Bruno navigates the discussion to his ideas on staging the perfect murder and casually suggesting that they could swap victims. He reveals an eerie intimacy of details regarding Guy’s marital difficulties and desire to be rid of his cheating wife. Bruno proposes the idea of murdering Guy’s wife in exchange for Guy taking care of his father for him. He believes the genius of his “criss-cross” theory is that by performing a stranger’s murder for them, and the other doing likewise, neither could be linked to the crime. Zero motive. Guy assumes this is simply a troubled individual he will never have to actually deal with again, and both hurriedly and cordially excuses himself from the conversation and train.

But Bruno believes that they reached some kind of formal arrangement in their talk, and proceeds with murdering Guy’s wife. He then begins following Guy around and reminding him of their gentlemen’s agreement. Not only is Guy now a suspect in his wife’s murder, but he can’t go to the police with info on Bruno because he has no evidence (and Bruno is right, there is no motive to peg him to the crime). But Bruno does have something he could use against Guy if he decides not to cooperate with the exchange. And if things don’t go his way, he has already proved himself crazy enough to go through with it.

Strangers On A Train is so successful because it creates a thoroughly creepy character that is regrettably believable. Bruno is a pure psychopath with just enough charisma and charm about him to blend into the crowd. His good looks and gregarious personality allow him to strike up a conversation at will, and it’s only through the course of the conversation that you realize how distorted is his thinking. Is he joking? Does he just have a warped “what if” mode of conversing about murder? No, he is literally deadly serious. And it’s this singular performance by Walker that continues to captivate long after the specifics of the story have ended.

This can’t be said of all thrillers, but Strangers On A Train is certainly one that absolutely becomes better with repeated viewing. It’s not about a twist or a reveal that can be spoiled, but rather it’s a character study of the most troubled kind. In some ways Farley Granger’s often dry performance is perfect here, because at heart he is playing the unwitting everyman, helplessly trapped by the machinations of someone far more calculating and charismatic. He’s the opposite of Bruno in every way, and thankfully so.

Walker steals the show, but it would be a mistake to think that the rest of the film doesn’t stand on its own, because overall it’s one of Hitchcock’s strongest. This is some of his tightest directing, contains a superb ensemble cast, and, as lensed by director of photography Robert Burks, displays some of his most striking black and white cinematography. But if we’re honest, it’s not the goodness and the heroes of Hitchcock’s films that leave the biggest impression, it’s the badness and the villains. And here we have one of Hitchcock’s most skin-crawlingly complex villains, expertly delivered by Walker.

Video / Audio

Warner gives the film an excellent upgrade to high-definition. Detail is crisp and clean, and reveals a more pronounced level of film grain in the process. Closeup shots reveal excellent fine detail, and the print seems to have received some tasteful cleaning of debris as well. In addition the color levels within this black and white film are just excellent, showing detailed but deep blacks in several of the night scenes, as well as strong definition and contrast elsewhere. Flicker is only slightly present; mainly in the opening credits, but hardly pronounced the rest of the time. A very satisfying upgrade.

If the DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track isn’t quite as impressive, it’s simply a victim of its time. Dialogue is handled crisply and ably, but the music score gets a bit stuck in the mix, never feeling particularly open. But it’s also not far off from other audio offerings from the time. Surprisingly, though, environmental sounds are handled quite effectively, with both the carnival and tennis match scenes striking quite a good balance between dialogue and surroundings. Overall the audio here is mostly strong, and even where it dips a bit, things feel about as good as probably can be expected.

Bonus Material

Warner packs in an excellent array of bonus items, starting with a commentary track featuring a collection of people – including Hitch himself – commenting on the film. The track is pasted together from various interviews and recordings, but offers a broad perspective on not only the film and its source novel, but also Hitchcock’s working style and process. The “Preview Version” of the film (SD, 1:42:57) is also included, which mainly just offers slightly longer additions to a few scenes – as well as a briefer ending – but nothing of much consequence.

“A Hitchcock Classic” (SD, 36:44) is a mini-documentary, which features many of the people included in the commentary track, as well as a few others, remarking on the film. “The Victim’s P.O.V.” (SD, 7:22) is an interview with Kasey Rogers – billed as Laura Elliott in the film’s credits – who played Miriam in the film, sharing memories of the picture and working with Hitchcock. “An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan” (SD, 12:46) is just that, with the director expressing how much he admires Hitchcock’s work overall and this movie in particular for its approach to suspense.

“The Hitchcocks On Hitch” (SD, 11:20) features interviews with Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, as well as her three daughters, on memories of growing up around Hitchcock, both as a father and grandfather. “Alfred Hitchcock’s Historical Meeting” (SD, 1:08) is an odd little silent clip, showing the director with a couple of people in front of a train, apparently for a photo op. And finally the film’s theatrical trailer (SD, 2:34) is included.

Conclusion

Although not usually one of the first films mentioned when listing the director’s most popular works, Strangers On A Train nevertheless remains one of his strongest, and features perhaps his creepiest villain. There is a brisk efficiency in the storytelling that makes the journey feel effortlessly quick, but no less enjoyable. But it’s Robert Walker’s performance as the psychopathic Bruno that both unsettles and captivates, a performance that becomes only more fascinating with each viewing. Featuring a strong transfer and an excellent collection of extras, this is an absolutely essential disc for any fan of the director, as well as any fan of classic and well-done suspense films. Very highly recommended.

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