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This underrated Hitchcock thriller gets a helluva facelift on its Blu-ray debut....
Warner / 101 Minutes / 1951 / Rated PG / Street Date: October 9, 2012
In 1936, British director Alfred Hitchcock wrote an essay called Why I Make Melodramas. Of all the filmmakers of his era, Hitchcock had the most well-formed theories as to what makes film work as an experience that is at once communal and intensely personal. From the article comes the following quote:
"Realism on the screen would be impossible. Actual life would be dull, in all but its more exceptional aspects, such as crime. Realism, faithfully represented, would be unreal, because there is in the minds of the cinema or theatre audience what I would call the "habit of drama." This habit causes the audience to prefer on the screen things that are outside their own, real-life experience."
For anyone wanting a perfect example of an act that would (or should) be outside our own, real-life experience, pick up Strangers on a Train. The film begins with a great premise, and it never lets its potential go to waste. Guy (Farley Granger) is a professional tennis player traveling by train. He is recognized and approached by Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), an unctuous fellow who knows way too much about Guy’s career and wants nothing more than to be in his company. Bruno insinuates himself into the pleasant solitude of Guy’s rail journey and eventually gets Guy to admit he very much hates his wife.
Bruno, as luck wouldn’t have it, hates his father. Seizing the moment, Bruno makes Guy a proposition that will enable both men to eliminate the two people they so dislike. Wouldn’t it be grand, Bruno wonders, if they could trade murders? Or, as Bruno puts it, "I’ll do your murder and you do my murder." Bruno figures the police will never find a murderer who has no connection to the victim. As their train journey ends, Guy politely rebuffs Bruno’s seemingly airtight plan. However, when Bruno goes ahead and murders Guy’s wife anyway, he expects the tennis star to live up to his end of the deal.
Strangers on a Train works on all levels: the villain is a socially awkward, sexually ambiguous schemer who may be frayed at the seams, but he doesn’t behave like a handwringing monster. Like a classic film noir hero, Guy is innocent of the crime, but he feels the law closing in on him. If only he knew how to extricate himself without implicating himself. The sexual overtones are pure Hitchcock, a level of twisted sophistication that he rarely gets credit for as a writer or a director. The merry-go-round climax is absurd, but it makes sense. A county fair filled with sexual imagery explodes in a smear of dead bodies and the capture of a sexually ambiguous villain. All the performances are great, but Robert Walker is the revelation. He’s so slimy as Bruno, a man using all his charm in an effort to hide his pure hatred.
Director Alfred Hitchcock considered Strangers on a Train his first truly American picture, even though Rebecca (which won the 1940 Oscar for Best Picture), Notorious and Rope had made serious cinematic impact the previous decade. There are layers to the film that can only be discovered upon repeated viewing. At first, it’s a catchy crime thriller. Then, it’s an exploration of guilt transference and, to a lesser extent, misogyny. And finally, it’s one of Hitchcock’s great achievements, one that sticks to your ribs better than The Birds, Psycho or North by Northwest.