Movie Review: Strangers on a Train (1951)

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STRANGERS ON A TRAIN MOVIE POSTER
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, 1951
Classic Movie Review

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker
Review by Steven Painter

SYNOPSIS:

Psychotic mother’s boy Bruno Anthony meets famous tennis professional Guy Haines on a train. Guy wants to move into a career in politics and has been dating a senator’s daughter (Ann Morton) while awaiting a divorce from his wife. Bruno wants to kill his father but knows he will be caught because he has a motive. Bruno dreams up a crazy scheme in which he and Guy exchange murders. Guy takes this as a joke, but Bruno is serious and takes things into his own hands

REVIEW:

Put Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler together and you figure you have a pretty good mystery. Replace those two with Alfred Hitchcock and you have a great suspense picture.

Patricia Highsmith wrote the novel Strangers on a Train. Her story struck something in Hitchcock, so he decided to make it. Since Hitch was more concerned with visualizes as opposed to dialogue, he brought in Raymond Chandler to write the script. Chandler was a great mystery writer, but just an okay screenwriter. Hitch didn’t like what Chandler had written so he turned the project over to Ben Hecht protégée Czeni Ormonde. Hecht was a talented screenwriter and one of Hitchcock’s favorite to work with. The changes Hitchcock and Ormonde made to Highsmith’s novel turned it into a completely different story, although the basic idea in Strangers on a Train (1951) is still the same.

The idea of exchanging murders is presented by playboy Bruno Anthony to tennis star Guy Haines when the two strangers meet on a train. Bruno appears to know everything about Guy — he is a famous tennis player who happens to be in love with a senator’s daughter. The only problem is that Guy is currently married to a woman he hates. Of course this woman, Miriam, won’t leave Guy because he brings her status and money. So Bruno proposes that the two exchange murders. Bruno would kill Miriam and Guy would kill Bruno’s tyrannical father.

Guy dismisses it as nothing when the two depart from the train after eating lunch together. Unfortunately for him, he leaves a lighter given to him by Ann Morton, the senator’s daughter, on the table. Bruno pockets the lighter and goes off looking for Miriam.

He finds her ready for a night out of on the town. She is escorted by two boys, neither of them named Guy. The trio heads to the carnival. Bruno follows closely behind. We know what it going to happen once Miriam and Bruno arrive at the carnival and Hitchcock takes delight in playing with our expectations of murder.

After Hitchcock has his fun on the carnival grounds, we are taken to a deserted island where the tunnel of love boats dock. Using the privacy of the darkness for something other than love, Bruno finds Miriam and strangles her. Of course this being Hitchcock the murder can’t be done without a touch of art. Miriam’s face is illuminated by Guy’s lighter. We then see Bruno’s arms close over Miriam’s throat. Her glasses fall and crack on the grass in homage to Eisenstein’s Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin (1925). The rest of the strangulation is witnessed on the reflection of Miriam’s glasses. The scene has been mocked and imitated many times throughout the years.

With his part of the bargain done, Bruno makes his way to Washington D.C. to see how Guy is doing. Being the sane one in this agreement, Guy has done nothing but roam around Senator Morton’s house. Upon hearing from Bruno that his wife is murdered, Guy calls him crazy and threatens to go to the police. Little does he know, but the police are already on his own trail, not Bruno’s. Being a friend of a powerful senator has its perks and the only thing the police are really able to do is shadow Guy with a private detective. This is the second shadow for Guy. The first is Bruno, who constantly follows Guy and reminds him of their bargain.

One scene sticks out in this part of the movie because it was imitated in Taxi Driver (1976). Guy has a training session for his upcoming tennis tournament. Everyone it seems who is in the crowd watching the session is following the ball. We see their heads turn left and then right. All except for Bruno. He sits with a smile on his face staring at Guy. Robert De Niro would enact the same stance during the political rally in Taxi Driver.

Patricia Hitchcock appears in this movie. She adds some of her father’s trademark dark humor as Ann Morton’s younger sister. She also happens to wear glasses. These get the attention of Bruno when he crashes a dinner party thrown by Senator Morton. He is discussing the art of murder with two old stuffy guests when he sees the glasses. His mock strangulation of one of the guests becomes the real thing as he remembers his murder of Miriam.

Bruno and Guy go back and forth about the murder agreement. Finally Bruno figures that Guy won’t make good on his part of the bargain and decides to frame him for the murder by placing his lighter at the scene of the murder. Guy gets wind of this plot, but is unable to do anything as he has been slatted to play at the tennis tournament.

Hitchcock does a great job of cutting between the intensity of Guy trying his best to finish the match as quickly as possible and the laidback posture of Bruno on the train. The suspense is ratcheted up and leads to a thrilling climax that involves an out-of-control carousel.

The movie is well worth watching for those fans of Alfred Hitchcock. It is one of the most studied and imitated of his films. Robert Walker is great as Bruno. Farley Granger comes off well, but I prefer him in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). At the very least this movie warns you to be careful when joking with strangers, because you never know who might take you literally.

 

 

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