Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Farley Granger, Robert Walker
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“Your wife. My father. Criss cross.” It sounds simple – and that’s the devilish allure of Strangers on a Train, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best. Often overlooked in the face of classics Rear Window, Psycho and Vertigo, the Master of Suspense’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel sees him at his most suspenseful. And a lot of that stems from the deceptive simplicity of his elegant game of morality and duality.
The film announces its theme from the off, as it begins with a low-level shot of train tracks running into and diverging from each other – a typically elegant visual clue for what’s to come. But Hitch is already at work, overlaying the tracks with the sight of two men’s feet: Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker). Only once they accidentally brush into each other on the carriage floor do we see their faces: then, after we’ve already been told all we need to know, the game begins.
It’s a straightforward swap: Guy kills Robert’s unfaithful wife, to help him get the divorce he wants, while Robert bumps off Guy’s father, to free him from his parental control. Tit for tat. Corpse for corpse. Murder for murder. And, best of all, alibi for alibi – who could ever trace back the motives for these unconnected homicides to a chance encounter between two strangers on a train?
The idea comes not from Robert, a tennis star with ambitions (and a girlfriend whose father is an important politician), but from Guy, the sardonic loner with a smile to match his sinister suggestion. It’s a superb performance from Robert Walker, who makes their dinner on the train a borderline seduction, as he flatters, teases, cajoles and smarms his way into Robert’s affections – or, rather, his tolerance of Guy’s continued, creepy presence. Farley Granger is just as good, as he generously allows Walker to walk away with the whole show: Granger should be the odd one out, but he effortlessly slinks into Robert’s social circles, threatening him with knowing glances as he schmoozes the rich and glamorous. Robert, on the other hand, only becomes more awkward and uncertain. “You’ve got me acting like a criminal!” he splutters at one point.
It’s that blurring boundary between innocence and complicity that makes Strangers on a Train such an interesting entry in Hitch’s oeuvre. The director’s love of the wrongfully accused man-on-the-run is given a wonderfully warped twist here, as the opening scene makes it clear that Robert is, in some way, partly responsible for what follows – if he didn’t humour Guy for the sake of politeness, he wouldn’t have strangled Miriam to death in a theme park. It’s that kind of detail that leaves people afraid to make eye contact on public transport – and reveals how much work goes into such a seemingly streamlined thriller. The first time we see Robert, he’s wearing black, while Guy is wearing a lighter colour, a polarity that’s eventually reversed, as Guy begins to pop up in the frame wearing an ominously dark suit. (One shot, which sees him on the steps of the Capitol building, is a delicious touch, given that the film came out in the middle of McCarthyism – the homosexual subtext surrounding Guy’s behaviour, played down from Highsmith’s novel, may well have fed into similar fears.)
At the same time, we’re very much on Robert’s side, as Hitch’s typically smart use of sound design restricts the audio at a crucial party scene to only what he can hear. Or are we? Tennis, a game played by two opponents, only reinforces the duality at play between the men – and it’s telling that Hitchcock saves one of the best shots in his career for Guy: as he strangles Miriam, we cut away to her glasses, which fall to the floor and reflect his grasping clutches. Later, as Guy sees Robert’s new girlfriend at that party scene, her bespectacled appearance causes him (and us) to have a flashback to the crime – by the halfway point, we’re as much in Guy’s shoes as Robert’s.
Before her death happens, Guy steps towards Miriam in the dark and it looks like they’re about to kiss – only for Hitch’s camera to change angles to reveal the truth. He and DoP Robert Burks never miss a chance to wrong-foot us like that, setting our expectations up for one thing, before delivering a surprise. Even the way the film presents time is designed to keep us unsteady, hurtling through its second half, as Robert rushes through a tennis match to find Guy at the finale. Meanwhile, at the theme park (where we return for that showdown), everything moves at a torturously slow speed, leaving Guy standing around wondering when it will get dark – the situation, it seems, is now out of both their hands.
The ensuing carousel confrontation is another stunning set piece, which Hitch and Burks construct by using miniatures and mirrors to project onto a background – the same trick used in Blackmail to make it look like the film was taking place inside the British Museum (although, worryingly, the shot of a fairground worker crawling underneath a moving carousel really did happen). Even at the movie’s most chaotic moment, with the situation literally spinning out of control, Strangers on a Train sees the filmmaker at his most precise, unafraid to go the extra mile to stuff the simplest story full of suspense. A remake has been talked about before by David Fincher and Ben Affleck, but it’s hard to imagine them ever matching Hitch’s remarkably efficient classic, which manages to find nail-biting tension in the basic coincidence of two paths colliding. Criss cross.