Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" from 1951 may not be among the director's most well-known films, but it is certainly a good representative of everything that was best about the director. It contains all the typical Hitchcock ingredients--the innocent man, the wrong man, the wry humor, the moral ambiguity of good and bad in each of us, and, most important, the suspense.
Another good reason for watching the film is that it's a superb example of Hitchcock at his darkest, noir-mystery best. Not that most of the master director's films aren't dark, but this one stands out. In fact, it came at a time when he probably most needed it. Hitchcock had been enormously popular in England in the 1930s, and then came to Hollywood in 1940 for the Academy Award-winning "Rebecca." For next few years he was quite successful on a worldwide front, but by the late forties, things like "The Paradine Case," "Rope," and "Under Capricorn" had people wondering if he hadn't lost his touch. "Strangers on a Train" turned that around, and he went on to enjoy a period of about a dozen years where he could do no wrong: "Rear Window," "Vertigo," "North by Northwest," "Psycho," "The Birds."
In "Strangers on a Train" we not only see some of Hitchcock's typical obsessions, we see one of the best pieces of acting in any of Hitch's film. Robert Walker co-stars as a fellow named Bruno Anthony, a creepy but utterly charming liar and psychopathic killer. If you've seen or read any of the stories by Patricia Highsmith, whose novel was here adapted by celebrated crime writer Raymond Chandler (with the help of Czenzi Ormonde and an uncredited Ben Hecht and Whitfield Cook), you'll recognize the Bruno character type. He's Tom Ripley from "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Ripley's Game," and "Ripley Under Ground." Bruno is totally amoral, unscrupulous, and treacherous, yet he doesn't seem to recognize it or doesn't care. He is able to talk his way into or out of any situation, which is what he does so well in "Strangers."
Bruno, you see, is a rich, pampered, momma's boy who hates his father. He despises him so much he wants him dead. So he concocts a scheme for killing the old man. Bruno connives to meet another fellow, a stranger, on a train and strike up a conversation with him. The other fellow is Guy Haines (Farley Granger), an amateur tennis star who is in love with the daughter, Anne (Ruth Roman), of a U.S. Senator, but who is himself married to an unfaithful wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott), pregnant by another man. During their supposed casual conversation, prearranged by Bruno, of course, Bruno announces that "you should do everything before you die." He then goes on to suggest, just hypothetically, that "everybody is a potential murderer." Guy just takes it all in, half amused by the man's notions.
Then, Bruno reveals his idea. Bruno knows from the newspapers that Guy is involved with a Senator's daughter and infers that Guy would like his wife out of the way so he can marry the other girl. What if each of the two strangers performed a murder for the other person? Since they are completely unknown to one another, nobody could possibly see a motive for either murder, and the persons who wanted the murders committed could arrange to have a perfect alibi at the time of the crime. "They swap murders," as Bruno says, each one murdering a total stranger. "You do my murder, and I do yours."
Ingenious. But will Guy go for it? That's the question Hitchcock asks throughout most of the film, and he keeps us guessing to the end. And how evil is Bruno? He pops a kid's balloon for kicks. Everything becomes sinister in the story, even something so outwardly innocent as an amusement park and, ironically, a Tunnel of Love. As the plot develops, Bruno pesters Guy continuously, pushing him further and further into doing the dirty deed, culminating in murder itself. Meanwhile, Guy's girlfriend begins to suspect that something is up, and at about the same time, so do the police.
In "Strangers on a Train" we do not find an abundance of physical action and certainly not a lot of blood. Yet Hitchcock has a singular knack for keeping the viewer's eyes glued to the screen every minute. It is only a tennis game near the end of the movie that seems to go on too long, but it's immediately made up for by a climactic ride on a merry-go-round. Most of the film is a journey through pure Hitchcockian irony and suspense, and well worth the trip.
The picture is presented in something near its original Academy Ratio 1.37:1 dimensions, here rendered at 1.33:1 to accommodate the size of a standard television. The black-and-white print Warner Bros. transferred to disc appears to have been in very good condition and was probably cleaned up a bit for public consumption on DVD. It does not appear to be a complete frame-by-frame restoration, however, as there are still occasional age marks noticeable, minor image blurring, and only average B&W contrasts. Still, with its general absence of grain, the picture looks good from any angle.
There's not much to say about the sound. It is reproduced via Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, and it appears to be about as good as it can be. The dialogue is well balanced with Dimitri Tiomkin's musical soundtrack, so every word the actors speak is clear and distinct, and any background noise that might have been inherent to the master print has been effectively quelled. In other words, it's very good mono.
Warner Bros. offer "Strangers on a Train in a two-disc, special-edition set, but I'm not sure of the necessity for two discs. The main reason for the two discs is the discovery in 1991 of a preview version of the movie, which was subsequently re-released in 1996 and is presented in this new set along with the regular theatrical version. But there is only a two-minute difference between the two versions, and Warner Bros. do not bother to inform the viewer what the differences are or where they occur. So, it seems a bit of a stretch to issue two discs when one disc would have sufficed, if the two minutes had simply been appended among the extras.
Anyway, disc one contains the theatrical version of the movie and an audio commentary with director Peter Bogdanovich, "Psycho" screenwriter Joseph Stefano, Patricia Highsmith biographer Andrew Wilson, and several Hitchcock colleagues, aficionados, and family members. There are also excerpts of interviews with Hitchcock himself included in the commentary. The disc wraps up with English and French spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; a theatrical trailer; and thirty-three scene selections.
Disc two contains the preview version of the movie and several documentaries. The most important is a new, thirty-six-minute, making-of documentary, "Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic," with Farley Granger, Pat Hitchcock O'Connell, film historian Richard Schickel, and other Hitchcock family members, colleagues, and aficionados. They reminisce and recall the making of the film, with plenty of accompanying clips from the film as examples. Then, there are three shorter documentary featurettes. The first is "Strangers on a Train: An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan," twelve minutes of the modern suspense director speaking about his older colleague. The next is "Strangers on a Train: The Victim's P.O.V.," seven minutes, wherein actress Kasey Rogers, a.k.a. Laura Elliott, who played the part of Miriam in the movie talks about her role. Third is "The Hitchcocks on Hitch," an eleven-minute segment with Hitchcock's daughter and granddaughters remembering the director. The second disc concludes with a one-minute vintage newsreel "Alfred Hitchcock's Historical Meeting," present without sound.
There are many critics who think "Strangers on a Train" may be Hitchcock's greatest film, but I won't go quite that far, not when there are things like "Vertigo," "Rear Window," and "Psycho" to consider. But "Strangers" is clearly a film that presents as many or more psychological overtones as anything else the master director did. And if the intellectual games, the fancy camera work, and the outright suspense don't get to you, there is always the superb performance of Robert Walker to consider. In all, the movie is worth a look by any film fan and worth a purchase by any mystery buff. The Hitchcock enthusiast will have to own it in any case.
Warner Bros. have made "Strangers on a Train" available individually or in a big boxed set, "The Hitchcock Signature Collection," which also includes "Dial M for Murder" "The Wrong Man," "Suspicion," "Stage Fright," "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," "I Confess," "Foreign Correspondent," and "North By Northwest."