Strangers on a Train

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 03/19/05 01:28:18

"Warning: Never travel anywhere by yourself."
5 stars (Awesome)

I've had a couple of bad experiences travelling by train, involving strange people striking up conversations with me. The worst probably involved a recently released convict talking to me and explaining just how he got the huge scar across his forehead (someone smashed a snooker cue across it. "How lovely" I thought). But thankfully he did nothing worse than offer me a half-eaten sandwich that he'd found left on the table, and try to chat up a couple of French exchange students unlucky enough to be seated opposite us. My train journey from hell is thankfully nowhere near as bad as Farley Grangers.

Farley Granger plays Guy Haines, an amateur tennis player who is on his way to see his estranged wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers) to ask for a divorce so he can marry his new love, Anne (Ruth Roman). On the journey a stranger, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) strikes up a conversation with him. Bruno knows all about Guy's and Anne's romance and how difficult Miriam is being, because he's read about in the society magazines. He also knows that Guy's life would be much easier if Miriam was out of the picture full stop. He knows it would be easier because he has a similiar problem with his domineering father, and this leads to his suggestion to Guy: if Bruno killed Miriam, then Guy could kill Bruno's father, and they would each have perfect alibis. After all, why would either kill a perfect stranger? Guy laughs this off, but doesn't realise just how seriously Bruno is taking this idea until it's too late...

Go on then, name the best Hitchcock films. 'Psycho'. 'Foreign Correspondent'. 'Vertigo'. 'North By Northwest'...the list would go on and on, and the chances are it would go on for quite a while before 'Strangers On A Train' would be named. More fool on anyone who doesn't however, as it's one of his absolute finest.

'Strangers On A Train' is the perfect distillation of just what made Hitchcock such a magnificent director. His economy of storytelling is terrific, with the films central conceit set up within the first ten minutes. There's no pointless exposition or wandering around, it just gets straight to the heart of the matter, but without feeling forced. And this smashingly effective start, lets Hitchcock ramp up the tension and get us chewing away on our fingernails. 'Strangers On A Train' is a thriller with not an ounce of fat on it. It's lean, stripped down and just damn scary in places.

Hitchcock's skill at drawing out nerve-jangling set-pieces has never been more effective than it is here, particularly in the scene where Bruno disposes of Miriam. Set at night, it has virtually no dialogue, with Bruno trailing after Miriam in a fairground, closing in on her slowly, with her having no idea as to his true purpose. It's a tremendous sequence, pulled as taut as piano wire as Hitchcock throws in several red herrings using shadows and screams, before finally cutting to the punch with a horribly brutal execution. And then to top it all, Hitchcock ends it with a blacker-than-black visual punchline that is the perfect summation of his ghoulish sense of humour. This black humour runs strongly throughout, with Bruno's uncanny knack of turning up anywhere that Guy tries to go being both darkly funny and chillingly creepy.

But this isn't a Hitchcock film renowned for just one scene. The climax is furious and quite literally dizzying with a small boy providing yet another black joke, while a dropped lighter has never been as crucial or tense as it is here. It's a film that is littered with many superb touches that just blow you away, while you always get the sense that Hitchcock was having a chuckle at all the nasty jokes that he could get away with.

Robert Walker died aged 33 just 8 months after 'Strangers On A Train' and it's a real tragedy as his performance is astonishing. A volatile mixture of queasy over-friendliness, barely contained lust after Guy, and flickers of homicidal rage, Walker is extraordinary. From the way he sneaks himself into Guy's social circle whilst lecturing two old ladies on the joys of murder, to his motionless appearance in the crowd at a tennis match, Walker dominates and haunts every frame of the film, portraying a madman every bit as scary as Hannibal Lecter, John Doe or Jack Torrance. If Farley Granger has more than a few touches of the Keanu about him, he still manages to inject a panicked energy into his performance and wisely lets Walker take control of any scene they have together.

The aforementioned fairground scene is a wonderful example of Walker at work, as he trails Miriam with a playful smile on his lips that she interprets as silent flirting. But we're noticing the coldness in his eyes, and the wait for him to pounce into action is stretched out brilliantly by Hitchcock. It's a terrific example of an actor saying absolutely everything by saying nothing at all.

'Strangers On A Train' is quintessential Hitchcock. It's a jet-black storyline, yet it manages to be horribly funny at the same time. It's about an innocent man caught up in a terrible situation, yet we're almost rooting for the killer at times. It's one of Hitchcock's less talked about films, yet it's one of his masterpieces. So why don't you just buy a ticket and get on board? But when you do, you see the guy sitting alone smiling strangely to himself? Just don't talk to him.

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