Hitchcock reviews Dial H for Hitchcock. Film reviews by Terrence Brady

Strangers on a Train has it all: suspense, dark comedy, crisp dialogue, dramatic cinematography and ... oh yes, a murder.

The tale begins when two complete strangers strike up a conversation on a train. A seemingly innocent "what if" scenario is brought up by Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) who mentions to Guy Haines (Farley Granger) a plot on how they could eliminate the other person’s problem. Guy, an up-an-coming tennis star, is experiencing marital problems and wishes to divorce his wife, Miram (Kasey Rogers), so he may marry a prominent senator's daughter -- Anne Morton (Ruth Roman). Bruno states he too wishes to be rid of someone (his father) and if they did each other’s murder, neither of them would be suspect, for they had no prior contact with their victim.

Guy takes the whole situation in stride and laughs it off but Bruno is quite serious about his fiendish suggestion. Bruno proceeds with his half of the pact by murdering Guy’s wife and then expects Guy to hold up his part of the deal. Guy is horrified by Bruno’s action and avoids him at all costs. Bruno, quite the manipulator, informs Guy (now a suspect in his wife’s death) that he must complete their arraignment or he'll make known an incriminating piece of evidence that would put him (Guy) at the scene of the murder. Thus begins a devilish game of cat and mouse where only one man may survive.

Academy Award nominated for "Best Cinematography for 1951," Strangers on a Train’s sinister-stylistic cinematography brings an additional element of agitation to the film. The death of Miram, at first a playful game of tag through an amusement park, ends in a horrific strangulation scene as we witness the gruesome event through the reflection of Miram’s strewn glasses. Shadows are also effectively employed. An example would be the stalker images of Bruno whose silhouette of gloom blemish the otherwise serene ivory buildings of the national’s capital.

The script is superb and dialogue very powerful; sprinkled with cynicism and dark humor. Hitch’s daughter (Patricia), at her best as Anne’s younger sister, has some of the film’s most whimsical lines. Miram’s own dialogue exudes her "devil-in-a-dress" persona whose callous and manipulative nature would drive many to wishing her dead. Of course, some of the most morbid dialogue comes from Bruno himself. Hitchcock’s old philosophy "the more debonair the villain, the more effective he is" was as if he had Bruno in mind all along. Methodical and wickedly charming, he could give lessons to the generic "bad boys" of today’s cinema. [SAD NOTE: Robert Walker died suddenly after a reaction to a prescription drug only two months after the release of this film. He was 33.].

Yes, the brilliance of Hitchcock is everywhere in this film - even in the editing. There’s an intense cross cutting sequence between Guy’s fast paced tennis match and Bruno's return to the crime scene. Guy desperately tries to finish off his opponent, before Bruno can finish him off by planting evidence (Guy’s lighter) at the murder site. When it appears Bruno will be the first to achieve his task, Hitch has him lose the lighter in a storm drain that only further drags out the audience’s anxiety.

The final sequence, set on the amusement park's merry-go-round, is a fast-paced finale as both men struggle for their livelihood. The ending, a bit too neat, is probably one of the few flaws of this film. Hitchcock created an alternate dénouement for the American release, perhaps in fear of British censors, though that remains a mystery.

RATING: 9.5 (of 10). A personal favorite of mine. Strangers on a Train incorporates all the elements that make a Hitchcock film a true cinematic event.

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