Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train: adapted by Ben Hecht, Whitfield Cook, Czenzi Ormonde, and Raymond Chandler from the novel by Patricia Highsmith; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Farley Granger (Guy Haines), Robert Walker (Bruno Antony), Ruth Roman (Anne Morton) and Patricia Hitchcock (Barbara Morton) (1951): At the very least, Strangers on a Train is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s ten greatest films. And maybe it’s top five. It’s a terrific thriller that holds up beautifully and which contains an absolutely terrific performance from the tragic Robert Walker, who would die at the age of 32 the same year Strangers on a Train came to theatres.

Farley Granger’s Guy Haines is a tennis player with a marital problem. His wife’s been unfaithful. He wants to get a divorce so he can marry the daughter of the United States Senator for whom he’ll be working full time once his tennis career ends. But his wife, now carrying someone else’s child, no longer wants a divorce.

A seemingly random conversation with a stranger Guy meets in the club car of a train rapidly becomes sinister: Robert Walker’s Bruno Antony is a superficially charming psychopath who seems to know an awful lot about Guy’s marital problems, and indeed his entire personal life.

While spit-balling various theories on how to murder someone and get away with it, Bruno suggests that potential murderers should swap victims so as to eliminate motive. Guy thinks the creepy guy on the train is just indulging in a lurid fantasy (or mentally goofing around the way that the father and the Hume Cronyn character spin out perfect murder theories in Hitchcock’s earlier Shadow of a Doubt).  But then Mrs. Haines ends up murdered at an amusement park. And now Bruno wants Guy to hold up his side of a bargain Guy didn’t realize he’d made.

Funny, thrilling, and creepy, Strangers on a Train contains a number of shots and sequences that have been discussed in film schools and film criticism for decades. I’ll let you experience them for yourself. Farley Granger does solid work as the slightly dense Mr. Haines, as does Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia as the smart-aleck sister of Guy’s new love interest. But it’s Walker who steals the movie with his insinuating, creepy, hyper-intelligent psychopath. It’s an absolutely marvelous performance made tragic by the reality of his death. Highly recommended.

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