Strangers on a Train is subversively ghoulish even by director Alfred Hitchcock's standards. The film, taken from an early novel by Patricia Highsmith, has an irresistibly pragmatic hook: Two men, both of whom are tormented by respective intimate persons they wish to off, will trade murders so as to properly prepare much-needed alibis. And thus two murders with two obvious suspects become two unsolved crimes of questionable circumstances.
The men are Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker), the titular strangers who happen to bump symbolically contrasting pairs of shoes while sitting across from one another in a train car. At Bruno's insistence, they indulge in a game of what-if that will prove to have considerable consequences for several parties. The screenplay, credited to mystery novelist Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde, but worked on by a number of others, is a model of setting plot in motion while tending to (disturbing) subtleties of character. Just a few minutes in we know that Guy's a cuckolded tennis pro being manipulated by a wife who's spitefully preventing him from marrying the love of his life, and that Bruno is a cunning, devious layabout, a toxic rich boy about to be cut off from his trust fund by his powerful, mysterious father.
By 1951, Hitchcock had already directed an impressively large number of films that could arguably be called masterpieces with little fear of hyperbole, but Strangers on a Train, one of his richest and most daring works, marks a notable shift in his career. Up until the early 1940s, Hitchcock had made a number of sleek, inventive thrillers—such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes—that were black-comedic entertainments with deeper suggestions of class hypocrisy and despair. But films such as Suspicion, Notorious, and Rope saw an evolution in Hitchcock's interests, and the subtext of his films became the text, with the plots, which were still often expertly handled, functioning as through line. One is more likely to come away from Notorious or Rope remembering less of the “bits” and more of the overriding atmosphere of guilt and contemptuous societal decay.
Strangers on a Train is the first Hitchcock film that fully, equally merges text and subtext in a fashion that will largely characterize the remainder of the filmmaker's career. On the surface, Hitchcock fashioned Highsmith's characteristically bleak, mean-spirited novel into one of his wrong-man narratives. Bruno mistakes Guy's politeness for complicity and kills his wife with the expectation that Guy kill his father in return. Rebuffed, Bruno sets about framing Guy for the murder, which sends Guy scurrying about in an effort to keep his name clean.
But Bruno is obviously meant to be read as a manifestation of Guy's desires, and if this film were made in the late 1990s, there would probably be a third-act twist revealing them to be the same person. Guy, as his name suggests, is purposefully a laughably exact embodiment of the upstanding American male ideal as defined in the 1950s: clean-cut, handsome, well-mannered, and resolutely dull as a doornail. Guy's also a man who's worked himself up to the first-class only to find that status unfairly challenged. Bruno's stylish and lazy, a theoretical gent grandfathered into the upper class who'll think nothing of taking extreme measures to preserve his existence. Bruno's self-entitlement is understandably inviting and attractive (in more ways than one, there's a clear latent sexual chemistry between the men) to Guy, a man who's been taught to at least feign a sense of genteel, courtly selflessness.
Highsmith was frank about Guy's complicity, as she had him fulfill his end of the bargain. Hitchcock, adhering to a superficially black-and-white scenario that pits a clear good guy against a clear baddie, must be craftier, and his subterfuge transforms the story into something more disturbing and ambiguous. The scenes of each man in his respective domain are particularly suggestive in their similarity. Guy, with his girlfriend, Anne (Ruth Roman), and her senator father (Leo G. Carroll), and Bruno, with his enabling, faintly insane mother (Marion Lorne, suggesting Mrs. Bates had she lived), are both clearly stifled by a society that stresses a rigid devotion to decorum above simpler concerns of human decency. These moments, often composed in claustrophobic close-ups of faces, have an air of dread as well as of dank, blossoming sickness. Strangers on a Train and Bigger Than Life would make a hell of a double feature, as both seemingly casually satirize and deconstruct 1950s American social mores.
Strangers on a Train is also simply a great thriller, yet another illustration of Hitchcock's awe-inspiring ability to convey more with a single image than most directors can with minutes upon minutes of belabored set pieces. The iconic image of Bruno rigidly staring at Guy among a crowd of rotating heads might represent the pinnacle of American cinema's exploration of the collective nightmare of a stalker. The close-up of Bruno's hand as it seizes upon a damning piece of evidence is so artfully timed it tricks you into rooting for Bruno, who reveals himself to be the true protagonist of the film anyway—a perverse embodiment of a steadfast hero accomplishing a mission at all costs. And there's that famed merry-go-round climax, ridiculous yet perfect, an exhilarating fulfillment of Hitchcock's vision of his adopted country as a barely functioning contraption that's one slip from going completely off the rails.
This Blu-ray boasts strong image quality that distinguishes it from a number of the other older film reissues released by Warner Home Video. The deep rich blacks contrast superbly with the crisp whites, the grain levels are natural looking, and there are little if any transfer or restoration issues. The sound is flat at times, as you can sometimes expect of mono mixes, but the presentation is generally solid, or, in the case of the sonically detailed carnival scenes, even excellent.
The extras have all been seen before on prior DVD releases of the film, but most of them are legitimately worthwhile. The audio commentary, as the amount of participants of varying generations suggests, isn't a traditional recording of people watching the film, but an assemblage of snippets taken from other interviews (some of which are included here) and contexts. The result is a detailed and coherent portrait of the film's legacy that cinephiles and casual fans should enjoy. "Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic" is a making-of piece that repeats much of the information included on the commentary, but it's engaging and offers considerably more substance than the usual glorified advertisements that often constitute this sort of feature. "The Hitchcocks on Hitch" featurette is a collection of family testimonials and home movies that offers a tantalizing glimpse of Hitchcock's personal life, and "Strangers on a Train: The Victim's P.O.V." allows the often under-acknowledged Laura Elliott to discuss her experiences playing Guy's doomed wife. There's also a preview version of the film (which is most notable for the softer, more sentimental original ending), an appreciation by filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, and the theatrical trailer.
A brilliant black comedy, Strangers on a Train marks the true beginning of Hitchcock's impressive run of subversively obsessive American horror films.