Movie Review- Strangers on a Train (1951)

Alfred Hitchcock is a well-known name from the classic Hollywood era. The legendary filmmaker is known for his host of classic films throughout the run of his career. Strangers on a Train is lesser known than films like Notorious or North by Northwest. However, in combining a career performance from Robert Walker as well some well-crafted visuals Strangers on a Train is a must see for fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s work.

Strangers on a Train follows professional tennis player and man-about-town Guy Haines (Farley Granger). One day, he stumbles upon Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). Suddenly, Haines finds himself pulled into a web of murder, mystery and insanity. The film is directed by Alfred Hitchcock from a script by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde.

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Strangers on a Train comes from an under explored period in Alfred Hitchcock’s career. The movie sits neatly sandwiched between his well-received early work like Notorious and Suspense, and later popular darlings like North By Northwest and Vertigo. The films coming from the Master of Suspense during the early 1950s are much smaller in scale, but demonstrate some of his most interesting plots. Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man and Stage Fright are each fascinating movies which come from this under explored period.

Robert Walker gives an absolute career performance in Strangers on a Train as the unhinged rich boy Bruno Antony. Walker passed away just a year after this film, cutting his promising career short at the age of 32. His role in this film shows the scope of the work he was capable of as he was gradually growing out of the juvenile roles which had been his bread and butter in the early years of his career.

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While Walker’s performance is problematic through a contemporary lens, the complex layers he injects in his character are fascinating to watch. Bruno is the farthest thing from a traditional villain of this period. Instead, we start to see the psychologically complex Hitchcock villains beginning to take shape. Bruno shows a number of the same thinly veiled (and problematic) traits reminiscent later of someone like Norman Bates. Bruno is a momma’s boy, which is spelled out in an early scene as the doting elderly woman gives her son a manicure. Through this, he’s also thinly coded as homosexual, particularly of the evil and unhinged variety.

Meanwhile, the female characters in Strangers on a Train are largely of forgettable and boring variety. This is primarily represented through senator’s daughter Anne Morton (Ruth Roman).  Her main duties are to serve as love interest to Guy. She watches tennis, gives him the requisite amount of support, and shows a small amount of (always dignified) emotion. There is nothing truly interesting or original, separating her from the other of generic supportive wife characters during this era of cinema. Anyone could have played Anne and the film would have been largely identical.

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The supporting roles show more interesting characters taking shape in the performances of  Patricia Hitchcock as Anne’s sister Barbara and  Kasey Rogers as Guy’s unfaithful wife Miriam. The younger Hitchcock is responsible for alit of the movie’s personality. She injects a smart, wise-cracking persona into what could be a throw away role. As you watch this movie, just watch her work, you won’t be sorry. On the same front Rogers is having a lot of fun in the thankless role of a bitchy ex-wife. The role is a problematic take on villainous femininity, but Rogers is a heck of a lot of fun to watch. She shines in her penultimate scene as she effortlessly juggles two dates (while stringing a third along) at a bustling carnival. Her multi-tasking skills are on-point.

Like the struggles with Anne, Farley Granger feels dwarfed in his role as dashing, tennis-playing ladies man Guy Haines. Granger made his screen debut in the early 1940s, making a handful of films (including Hitchcock’s legendary Rope) during the decade. Granger is a tough read in this part. In Rope, he absolutely shines as the weak and jittery Phillip opposite John Dahl’s more self-assured Brandon. Leading roles were relatively slow in coming for the young actor, seeing him playing a solid juvenile opposite older actors in a number of roles. This youth an inexperience is notable in Granger’s performance in this movie. His charisma isn’t gelled and he doesn’t feel comfortable in the part.

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What was Hitchcock’s aim in casting Guy? Did he want the youth and uncertainty Granger brings to the role? It is said that Hitchcock’s first choice for the role was William Holden, and the part feels tailor-made for the youthful, charismatic and athletic Holden. Is Granger really believable as a once divorced man with enough of a temper to potentially be believed as a murderer? Tough call.

Hitchcock’s visual eye shows fascinating development throughout the shooting. There are a number of sequences which have become legendary in the more than sixty years since the film’s release. From the iconic shot of a fixated Bruno during a tennis game to the special effects laden final sequence on a merry-go-round, Strangers on a Train is packed with iconic imagery, showing the still young Alfred Hitchcock as a filmmaker already honed into his monumental skill.

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Strangers on a Train is a stellar film from a very quiet period in the legendary Alfred Hitchcock’s career. The movie shows Hitchcock’s growth and development as a filmmaker, telegraphing some of the now classic films which would come just a few years later.

Strangers on a Train is widely available on DVD.

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