The plot for Strangers on a Train is not totally unknown today but back in 1951 it was a new twist. Based on the first novel by Patricia Highsmith and directed by that master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, this movie casts Robert Walker as a psychopathic killer who engages a fellow train traveller in discussion about partnering for a criss-cross murder. That is to say, he will kill someone for fellow traveller, tennis champion Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger), and Guy in return will commit a murder for him. The premise is that since they are committing the murder of a person unknown to them, they will get away with it — neither of them will have an apparent motive.
The commentary for this movie includes Peter Bogdanovich, screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Psycho) and Patricia Highsmith’s biographer Andrew Wilson, as well as several Hitchcock colleagues and family members, and excerpts from an interview with Hitchcock himself. Well worth watching first the movie and then the movie with the commentary.
The tension is very high right from the beginning. The two main characters are confined together on a train. A favourite theme of Hitchcock’s. Guy is reluctantly pulled into a conversation, then a lunch, with Bruno who Guy does not in the least take seriously. Guy is trapped in an impossible marriage and wants a divorce. Bruno would like to be rid of his father. It isn’t until Bruno turns up outside Guy’s apartment building in the dead of night to tell him he no longer has to worry about his wife — Bruno has murdered her — that Guy realizes the man is insane and has made him an accessory and now expects him to murder his father. Guy is totally out of his depth. He can’t turn Bruno in without becoming implicated. Ignoring Bruno doesn’t work — he just keeps showing up. The clincher is that Bruno has lifted Guy’s monogrammed lighter from the train and it is the one piece of evidence the police need to convict him of his wife’s murder. He is the one with the motive, after all.
Robert Walker is incredibly convincing as the cold-blooded psychotic while Granger plays the distressed victim in a style very reminiscent of James Stewart. When Guy’s girlfriend (played by Ruth Roman) starts to piece the evidence together, she proves his point for him that nobody would believe he didn’t play a role in his wife’s murder. “How did you get him to kill her for you?” He is confused by the progression of events almost all the way through the movie. Character actor Leo G. Carroll plays the girlfriend’s senator father and her sister is played by Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia who begins with a rather morbid fascination with crime and police method until Bruno enters the picture and finds her similarity in appearance to Guy’s wife, Miriam, unsettling to the point that he frightens her half out of her wits with the sinister way he looks at her.
Hitchcock made a lot of changes from the book. The tennis player was originally an architect. The setting was changed to Washington. There is no wedding in the movie. The ending was changed but I can’t tell you how without spoiling both the movie and the book for you. Both, however, are chilling in their exploration of the seduction of the use of crime to solve problems and the ensuing guilt.
This movie is available from TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Hitchcock Thrillers (Suspicion / Strangers on a Train / The Wrong Man / I Confess). It’s an incredible deal. Four truly classic black and white thrillers with the added bonus that Strangers on a Train has the Highsmith touch as well. After seeing the movie, I do want to read the original novel. The movie has the genius of Hitchcock — the murder being seen through the victim’s glasses, the thread throughout of Guy’s monogrammed lighter, the tie clip worn by Bruno with his name on it, the train trips, the return to the merry-go-round — but having read some of Highsmith’s work and many reviews of her style and substance, I believe that her psychological descriptions will reveal another dimension to this twisted story of ordinary people becoming caught up in events that spin out of control and draw them into corruption. * * * * *
Strangers on a Train — kindle edition