Strangers on a Train, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is more than 60 years old and is as energetic, smart and fresh as anything released this year. Catching it on TV recently, I was impressed all over again with the film—one I haven’t seen straight through in too many years. Released in 1951, it was overshadowed then and still is by that year’s A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire, both black-and-white dramatic classics. Those films are a delight to revisit, but watching them has something of a museum visit to the experience, whereas Strangers is a jazzed-up joy from beginning to end. It has the power to surprise, stop your heart, and put you on the edge of your seat as much as the best of today’s thrillers.
The greatest joy I received is the sheer delight of watching a master in complete control of his craft. I recently saw three Hitchcock films on a train ride—his first talkie Blackmail (1929) the regrettable Rich and Strange (1931) and his early classic The Lady Vanishes (1938). Blackmail shows a successful silent film director showing his genius by how he approached the new sound capabilities. Rich and Strange is mostly the latter, and could best be described in current language as lame. The Lady Vanishes is light years ahead of Rich and Strange, and shows a director growing in confidence and style.
But Strangers is something else again. It’s beautifully shot by Hitch’s frequent collaborator Robert Burks (who received the film’s only Oscar nomination) with a rich, unusually dark and deep noir-ish palette. The acting by leads Farley Granger and Ruth Roman is classic Hollywood studio acting—clear, clean and solid, if not particularly interesting in any way. Even with thoughts of nepotism floating over the casting, and with her slightly distracting speech impediment, Patricia Hitchcock is a breath of fresh air, bringing intelligence and comic relief in nearly ever scene she’s in. But this film belongs to Robert Walker as Bruno Antony, one of the great screen creations. Walker’s performance doesn’t belong to the ‘50s, but to the ages. Bruno is probably gay, definitely a Mama’s boy struggling with an Oedipal urge, and a stylish psychopath. There is more to discuss about his character and possible motivations than could fill many a master’s thesis. Suffice it to say that Walker gave his greatest performance here and completely re-started his career artistically. Tragically, he died shortly after the film’s release at the early age of 32. What a loss for film. We can only be grateful that we have at least this one performance to enjoy.
There are shots and scenes that simply need to be experienced: Bruno NOT watching the tennis game, Bruno reaching for a lighter, the murder on the fairgrounds, reflected in a pair of glasses. Then there is the incredible carousel scene near the end. No spoilers here—just enjoy a sequence full of suspense and energy, and enjoy a director who knows exactly what he wants to do and is able to do it. And who else but Hitchcock could make a man simply standing on stairs so chilling and gut-wrenching at once?
There are plenty of Hitchcock motifs and themes to go around. His views of marriage are there in all their confused glory. Critics and fans of Freud—plenty for you here. Knock yourselves out. But his themes of guilt and transferred guilt, generally more subtle, resonate so loudly that they almost reach the level of the carousel music in the climax of the film. That is, if you’re looking for them. Otherwise, it’s an intelligent thriller of the first order, with one brilliant performance, done by a film master at the top of his game. With all the film’s other strengths, Hitchcock’s artistic confidence and skill may well be the film’s greatest source of enjoyment.