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
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.