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Film Noir Thursday #6: Strangers on a Train

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Now on the sixth film in this Film Noir Marathon, I'm taking a look at Strangers on a Train, a 1951 film by Alfred Hitchcock.

Sometimes a simple plot is best, and Strangers on a Train realizes this. It revolves around two men who meet on a train. One is a wealthy pro tennis player named Guy Haines (Farley Granger), the other an eccentric (and similarly wealthy) man called Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker). Despite Guy's attempts to brush off Bruno, he ends up having lunch with him and listening to all of Bruno's (rather strange) theories.

The conversation turns to murder and Bruno informs Guy of a great idea he has about how to murder people — a criss-cross as he calls it. Two strangers (like themselves) meet and swap murders; that way no one has a motive and it's viewed as simply a random killing. Bruno goes on to propose that he and Guy do exactly that. Bruno will kill the wife that Guy is currently trying to divorce, and Guy will knock off Bruno's father, whom Bruno hates for various reasons. Guy laughs him off, thinking it's a joke, but Bruno takes this as a sign of acceptance, and proceeds with his plan.

Both roles are difficult to play as each actor has to portray a wide range of emotions. Bruno feels Guy is truly his friend (in his own peculiar way), and when he finds out otherwise, Bruno appears to be sincerely hurt. Guy feels he's responsible for his ex-wife's death because he was not clear enough with Bruno on train. He also must continue on with his normal life while fending off increasing visits from Bruno who wants Guy to "fulfill" his end of the bargain — killing Bruno's father. Farley Granger and Robert Walker both give very good performances. They make the characters real, which is particularly tricky with Bruno Anthony. The side characters aren't as fleshed-out as one would like, but the actors playing them all perform well, making the characters a bit more believable.

The plot flows smoothly and Alfred Hitchcock directs the movie with his unique sense of pacing. It starts off slowly and builds up the tension notch by notch to the first murder. Afterwards, when everything has returned to normal, the atmosphere is low key. You are at first lulled into a false sense of security. But steadily the tension again starts to climb upward toward the next big plot point or twist. There's a reason Alfred Hitchcock is called "The Master of Suspense", and it's put on display in Strangers on a Train.

Another great aspect of this film is its cinematography. While there are some great set pieces and scenes during the movie, one stands out among the others. It's the second time that Bruno and Guy meet, after meeting each other on the train. Guy arrives at his house at night, and as he opens the door he hears his named called from across the street. Guy turns, and a man steps out from behind a gate across the street, calling to Guy again. When Guy gets there he hesitantly peers behind the gate, the only light coming from a single street lamp. Suddenly, Bruno steps out with the shadows from the gate streaming across his face. A heated argument ensues, with each character leaning back and forth, the light and dark shadows playing across them. It's a great scene, one that really captures the viewer's attention. The rest of the film is filled with similarly rich set pieces.

Strangers on a Train is a very satisfying film noir that excels in tone, acting, and direction. It isn't the best movie that's come up so far on the marathon, but it ranks among the top. For those who enjoy Hitchcock, film noir, or suspense movie, Strangers on a Train is worth seeing.

Note: this review pertains to the Two Disc Special Edition of Strangers on a Train.

Remaining Films

1) Kiss Me Deadly (MGM Vintage Classics) 1955
2) Rififi (Criterion Collection) 1955
3) The Killing (MGM DVD)
4) High And Low (Criterion Collection) 1963

About Cameron Graham

  • http://bacalar.blogspot.com Howard Dratch

    Simnple plot? Not really. Everything else you wrote. For sure.

    Worth seeing. Definitely. Seeing, studying, enjoying and seeing again. Hitchcock is the master. Some of the other choices are good enough but are like comparing Norman Mailer and Charles Dickens. Good but not perfect.

  • Scott Butki

    Re-watched this one last week. It’s a damn good movie. The “bad” guy is quite chilling but does an excellent performance.
    I agree this is far from a simple plot.