It's no secret that Alfred Hitchcock treated many
(not all) of his actors poorly, or at the very least, regularly directed
their performances via off-camera manipulation. In Strangers on a Train, one of several films in which the director
made use of homoerotic undercurrents, the Master of Suspense cast a
gay actor (Farley Granger) as married straight athlete Guy, who is connived
into a murder plot by implicitly gay psychopath Bruno, portrayed
by a straight actor (Robert Walker). One can't help seeing Hitchcock's
perverse mind at work here, creating off-screen tension between
carefully chosen actors that would help create their on-screen dynamics.
Whatever the director's methods, the results remain
stunningly vivid sixty years later. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's
novel by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde, Strangers on a Train remains
one of Hitchcock's signature films, a story that could have easily
come from a pulp magazine or tabloid article garnished with mordant
wit. Hitchcock ratchets the suspense throughout the murder-switching
storyline, climaxing in a scene featuring a runaway carousel that remains
both technically and emotionally astonishing.
One of Hitchcock's darkest black-and-white films,
the opening is noticeable lighter than the conclusion, a handy visual
cue that reinforces the two main characters' journey from relative
innocence into really grotesque chicanery. As the fates of Guy and Bruno
grow more intertwined, Hitchcock's interest in camera position and
movement seem to increase, compounding the tension.
Both Granger's and Walker's performances are outstanding
features of Strangers
on a Train. Guy's passiveness and Bruno's psychosis leave
us constantly uncertain about what to expect from each; they
are both unstable in differing ways, and perhaps this is where the question
of sexual identity (real and fictional) becomes important. Guy wants
to divorce his wife and remarry; when Bruno makes good on his end of
their "bargain" to switch murders, he expects Guy to carry out his
part, which, as Bruno understands it, is to kill Bruno's oppressive
father. But Guy is not crazy; he never actually agreed to the bargain.
Bruno, in his disappointment over Guy's perceived betrayal, now has
a certain power over Guy: the power of sexual denial. Because, until
Guy holds up his end of the "bargain," Bruno has the ability to
frame him, preventing him from marrying his intended.
Here's where the story of Strangers on a Train runs into a little bit of trouble. The
power that Bruno has over Guy for much of the film hinges on a very
Hitchcockian device: an everyday object invested with unusual significance.
In this case, it's a silver cigarette lighter once given to Guy by
his fiancée, Anne, that Bruno took with him after first meeting Guy.
At first, the lighter seems unimportant, but once Guy makes it clear
that he has no intention of killing Bruno's father, Bruno realizes
this piece of "evidence" can be used to frame Guy for his wife's
murder. However, it's not exactly clear how or why the lighter would
be viewed by the authorities as the smoking gun that Bruno, and then
Guy, seems to imagine.
Hitchcock's pacing, his inventive visual technique,
and two excellent lead performances by Granger and Walker prevent this
question from becoming a distraction. Strangers on a Train calls for an evening of blood orange martinis
and delivers enormously sadistic fun.
Image and Sound
The only truly new feature on this catalog reissue of the previous
two-disc special edition DVD is the HD transfer, and it is a terrific
one. Detail is stunning here, from the subtle gradations of the film's
many shadows to the pockmarks on Robert Walker's face. The DTS-HD
MA mono soundtrack is well-balanced and crisp.
A complete port of the extras from the earlier two-disc DVD is
- Strangers on a Train: The Preview Version (103 min.) - A longer preview cut of
the film (not in HD) includes alternate scenes and lines of dialogue.
The two cuts differ in relatively minor ways throughout. Hitchcock is
said not to have necessarily preferred one over the other.
terrific commentary track is included with the final release version
of the film. Editor Laurent Bouzerau cobbles together comments from
a wide variety of participants, including Peter Bogdanovich with Alfred
Hitchcock, Patricia Hitchcock, Ruth Roman, and others.
- About 70 minutes
of featurettes round out the supplements, and they are worth viewing
although all told I think the commentary is a better use of one's
time. But fans of the film will enjoy the featurettes all the same.
One of Hitchcock's masterpieces, Strangers on a Train is thrilling, gripping, and twisted fun.
This enduring suspense classic looks wonderful on Blu-ray and is accompanied
by several worthwhile bonus features. Highly recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.