|STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951)|
Leo G. Carroll
|"My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer."|
|Time: 103 mins.|
Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is classic Hitchcock, placing you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. One of his more suspenseful and psychological thrillers, there's only one murder in this film, but it has more power than twelve. Mainly because you know it's going to happen from the first scene and you're forced to watch and wait. This film doesn't have the usual Hitchcock star power, but that's because it doesn't need it. The idea is more scary when you're watching two seemingly normal guys. The acting and the story are what make this movie engrossing. I'd heard this was one of Hitch's best films and the rumors are true. I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. Farley Granger gives his best performance as a man trapped in a nightmare of someone else's design. Robert Parker is dangerously charming as a normal man with evil intentions. The darkly stylistic cinematography brings as extra bit of danger and dementia to the film.
The basic premise is brilliant two total strangers swap murders in order to eliminate someone they hate without being blamed and expands from there. Guy Haines (Granger) pretends, like any normal person, that the suggestion put forth by Bruno Antony (Walker), a man he just met, is just a sick joke, part of a crazy conversation to pass the time. Guy is an up-an-coming tennis star, who's having some marital problems. He's separated from his wife Miriam and seeking a divorce so he can marry Anne Morton (Roman), a prominent senator's daughter. In fact, he's on his way to finalize the details with Miriam, a woman who's been less than faithful and is pregnant with someone else's child. Guy isn't in the habit of discussing the details of his personal life with strangers, but Bruno has a way of getting him to spill his story. What Bruno wants is his father killed before his wacky behavior gets him committed. His plan is perfect. They may be suspects, but since there's no evidence against them, they'll walk away scott free.
Little does Guy know, Bruno is serious about his fiendish suggestion. Guy has bigger problems to worry about. Now that he's becoming famous and is actually wanted by someone else, Miriam changes her mind and refuses to grant the divorce. He's furious with her. If he abandons her know, it could ruin his career. To make matters worse, Bruno refuses to leave him alone, trying to confirm that the plan is on. It's clear that Bruno is not playing with a full deck and to force Guy's complicity, he actually murders Miriam (in an extremely creepy sequence at an amusement park). Guy is horrified when he learns what happened. Bruno makes it quite clear that if Guy doesn't reciprocate, Bruno will be sure to give the police evidence that will slam the door on Guy's guilt. The final third of the film is a cat and mouse game between the two men where you're not very sure who's going to come out on top. Guy may be desperate, but Bruno is crazy and that's a trump card that's hard to beat.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is a perfect thriller about the lengths some men will go to to get what they want. There are several classic Hitchcock set pieces that make this film extra special. The murder of Miriam is so awful, not only because you know it's coming, but because she practically invites it to happen. A consummate flirt, she does nothing to discourage Bruno as he follows her and her male companions throughout the park. Any normal woman would call security or have her fellas beat up a stranger who sticks that closely. Miriam is a gal who's always looking for something better and in this instance it costs her her life. Hitchcock cranks the suspense up to 11 by cross cutting between Guy's US Open tennis match and Bruno's train ride to frame him. Guy is desperate to get through the match as quickly as possible, not caring whether he wins or loses. Bruno is trying to get back to the amusement park so he can leave Guy's lighter swiped on the initial train ride at the scene of the crime. At one point when it looks like Guy is going to finish the match, Bruno drops the lighter down a storm drain. Hitch makes sure to drag both scenes out to our anxious delight.
The final sequence on the park's merry-go-round is a masterpiece of cinema. It's rare to see a sequence so well designed and executed. In an out-and-out battle for their lives, Guy and Bruno battle among the people and the horses as the ride goes faster and faster. Everyone is in peril, all due to a madman who refuses to give up. While the men battle above, an elderly park worker crawls underneath the wildly spinning ride to try to bring it to a screaming hault. Needless to say, this is one ride that won't be up and running anytime soon. It careens off it's base, sending riders and horses flying in all directions. One of the most exciting finales on film. Nobody does it better.
Besides Granger and Walker, the other standout role in this film is by Patricia Hitchcock. For her only big part, she gives the film some wonderful bits of dark humor as well as some real emotion. I was a little skeptical when I read that she had a major role, but she really pulls it off. It's a wonder she didn't continue acting after such a solid performance. Hitchcock was forced to use Ruth Roman and though she's not horrible, she doesn't bring much flair to her role. Definitely not up to the standard of most Hitchcock leading ladies. It's a shame Robert Walker died so abruptly after making this film, I think it would have helped him to achieve much greater success in his career. He just oozes deceit and creepiness. It must have been a fun role to play. STRANGERS ON A TRAIN will never be as popular as Hitchcock's more star-driven vehicles, but it should be. This is first-class filmmaking all the way. If you're looking for a thriller that will knock your socks off, this is a must-see.