Strangers on a Train (1951, Alfred Hitchcock)

Strangers on a Train is many things, but it’s principally an action thriller. Director Hitchcock never quite ignores any of its other aspects; he’s just most enthusiastic about the action he and editor William H. Ziegler execute. For example, the third act is entirely action set pieces, one to another, with an occasional bit of light humor thrown in. The light comedy ought to be more complex because the stakes are high; Hitchcock pulls it off thanks to running with light humor throughout, even when it didn’t help a scene; it plays off later.

Train’s best action set piece is the finale, which involves a high-stakes fight scene on a merry-go-round. The film’s incredibly “small,” principally in a handful of locations, moving its cast between them as needed. Plus the train. If it weren’t for the New York to Washington train, there wouldn’t be a movie at all.

The film opens with stars Farley Granger and Robert Walker on such a train. They happen upon each other and become traveling pals for a meal, with wealthy Walker inserting himself into Granger’s day and, soon, affairs. Walker’s awkward but seemingly harmless, and Granger is used to placating the rich and powerful. Granger’s a proto-yuppie (the club tennis pro made good), Walker’s the defective blue blood. Walker knows all about Granger—married to an unfaithful wife (Kasey Rogers), while courting a senator’s daughter, Ruth Roman, on his way into politics. The only problem Walker’s got is dad Jonathan Hale being a pain in his ass. But wouldn’t it be great if both their problems could disappear? Walker’s even got a plan for it: swap murders to confound the police with no motive.

Granger placates Walker’s eccentricity—in for a penny, in for a pound when you’re trying to suck up to the rich—and thinks nothing more about it. Walker, on the other hand, is convinced he’s got all his problems solved. All he’s got to do is get rid of Granger’s problem, and Granger will return the favor.

The film will split its time between Walker, Granger, and Roman, with Roman being the nearest to a protagonist. Walker gets the spotlight, his villain transfixing and often inexplicable. Granger’s the straight man, a little too simple to navigate the resulting troubles on his own, but stoic enough to know he’s got to fix his own problems. Otherwise, he might disgrace Roman and the senator father (Leo G. Carroll); it’s unthinkable since they’re basically his patrons.

He needs patrons to get away from his small city hometown, where his wife Rogers cats around in public view, pregnant with another man’s baby but ready to move to D.C. just to ruin Granger’s life. Train’s got a problem with women, especially if they’re not rich, glamorous, or wear glasses. But thanks to the film’s detached and askew narrative distance, eventually, those characterizations align with the characters’ projections.

Though for a while, it’s just women in glasses—Rogers, for instance—are harpies put on Earth to torment good men trying to be upwardly mobile. The glasses turn out to be a device for set pieces, a fine example of Hitchcock ignoring or oblivious to certain connotations to later deliver on stylized action. It works. But mostly because when the glasses bit comes back, it’s with Patricia Hitchcock as Roman’s precious younger sister. Hitchcock’s a bobbysoxer goth outwardly, really just a cute blue blood, she’s obsessed with murders. One hundred percent, she’d have a true-crime podcast today.

But she also wears glasses, which becomes an issue for Walker, who’s got PTSD from his encounter with Rogers, specifically her glasses.

Hitchcock’s the film’s second most memorable character after Walker—arguably Granger comes in fourth, behind Roman, who’s invaluable in moving the plot forward. At the same time, Granger hems and haws so much it’s a plot point. No one can believe Granger is actually active, so it raises suspicion when he tries it.

Roman’s also more critical because she’s the most sympathetic perspective. The relationship between Granger and Walker is endlessly peculiar, the two men sharing an unspoken bond, but not a simple case of alter egos. They’re both deceptive, and their interactions together are the only times they’re willingly honest. They both will make exceptions, for Roman and Rogers, but not without significant hesitation. Though their respective uncertainties are for very different reasons.

There’s not a bad performance in the film; everyone’s able to find their own space as Walker dominates the screen. Walker’s got as many knockout scenes as the film’s got action set pieces. It’s hard to decide on the best scene; it might be a matter of personal preference—I’m partial to him and Rogers’s disturbing flirtation scene, as he woos her from a distance. It’s the only time Walker ever exhibits lust, and it’s bewitching stuff.

Roman starts as a stock girlfriend part, but it gets better, with her performance doing most of the work. Hitchcock’s great. Granger’s good. It’s his story but not his movie. Carroll’s fun as the senator, but he’s barely in it. He, Hitchcock, and Roman are a fine proto-sitcom family, full of warm and wry banter. Marion Lorne’s delightful as Walker’s confused mother.

Great cameo from John Brown.

Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde get the screenwriter credits—with Whitfield Cook doing the adaptation from the Patricia Highsmith novel. The writing’s the only place the film ever gets toothsome, but more because Hitchcock’s not interested in the scenes yet doesn’t rush them. Again, it’ll all inform the final payoff.

Robert Burks’s cinematography and Dimitri Tiomkin’s score are both excellent. Tiomkin’s got some great score; Burks has got some great lighting. Thanks to the Hitchcocks, Walker, Roman, Granger, and everyone really… Strangers on a Train is a singular, sensational motion picture.

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