It's an ingenious plot device. Two men - total strangers - meet by chance on a train and strike up a conversation. A casual camaraderie develops and before long the talk turns to the unpleasant people mucking up their respective lives. One man must endure the brazen infidelities of his shrewish wife, while the other buckles under the strain of his domineering father's cruel nature. What if, one surmises, they agree to swap murders - each forcing the demise of the other's problem person? A stranger committing the killing would erase any motive and thus make the crime more difficult to solve. Without much effort, each would be free of the strangulating noose around their neck and able to pursue a more fulfilling, carefree life.
Criss-cross. It's as easy as that.
Novelist Patricia Highsmith ('The Talented Mr. Ripley') devised this delicious premise, and Alfred Hitchcock brilliantly depicts it in his exceptional adaptation of 'Strangers on a Train,' one of the director's finest films, yet one that often gets lost among the more high-profile jewels in his ornate cinematic crown. Tense, thrilling, superbly executed, and endlessly fascinating, this elegant yet slightly creepy drama subtly explores the twisted mind of a psychopath, and how a flippant idea can quickly become a reality and spiral out of control. It's also punctuated with latent homosexual and oedipal overtones and a gallery of quirky and disturbing characters, which lend the proceedings an intoxicating air of unease.
Robert Walker, in his finest role, turns his innocent, aw-shucks persona on its ear as the obsessive, single-minded, and delusional Bruno Anthony, who believes he has made a murderous pact with the affable professional tennis player, Guy Haines (Farley Granger). In exchange for bumping off Guy's philandering wife so he can marry the glamorous daughter (Ruth Roman) of a U.S. Senator, Bruno believes Guy will kill his monstrous father, paving the way for him to inherit his millions. Guy shrugs off the suggestion as fantastical banter, but when Bruno goes through with his half of the perceived bargain, Guy finds himself caught in a deceitful web - the prime suspect in his wife's murder and the victim of ceaseless stalking and overbearing pressure from Bruno to make good on the outlandish and nefarious deal.
From the opening shots of the two men's shoes walking into the train station, denoting their respective styles and personalities, 'Strangers on a Train' shows Hitchcock at the top of his game, innovatively teasing the viewer with an array of stunning imagery that weaves a tight fabric of psychological intensity. Off-kilter camera angles (a Hitchcock staple), the famous eyeglass shot (see below) that provides a warped perspective on the murder, an extreme close-up of Walker's fingers desperately trying to retrieve a vital cigarette lighter from beneath a sewer grating, the disarming starkness of Walker's figure against a barren Jefferson Memorial, and the equally unnerving image of a stationary Walker, his gaze fixed on Guy, amidst a sea of turning heads during a tennis rally - all of these artistic touches make the film as stimulating visually as it is intellectually.
Common Hitchcock themes are also present - the innocent man on the run, the train as a vessel of intrigue, the element of coincidence, the everyman caught up in extraordinary circumstances, real or perceived sexual deviance, and the all-important chase sequences. We even have a bizarre, codependent mother-son relationship that in many ways mirrors what Hitchcock would later explore with such brutal incisiveness in 'Psycho.' One could go so far as to term Bruno a Norman Bates-in-training, from his slightly effeminate mannerisms and abnormal maternal attachment to his warped belief his grisly acts are merely the result of obediently and benevolently carrying out the intended wishes of others.
There's no Hitchcock blonde this time out, and even the beautiful brunette is rather bland, but with such interesting male leads and a host of colorful supporting characters (led by Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia, as Roman's outspoken sister and Marion Lorne as Bruno's flighty mother) we don't even miss her. That just proves what a stunning exercise 'Strangers on a Train' really is.
What we do have, and what all the great Hitchcock pictures possess, is a classic set piece. 'Psycho' has the shower scene, 'North by Northwest' has the crop-dusting and Mount Rushmore sequences, 'Saboteur' has the Statue of Liberty finale. In 'Strangers on a Train,' it's the out-of-control carousel that dazzles us, a preposterous yet terrifying climax that's meticulously executed and provides a cathartic release from the rising degrees of tension that permeate the film. From the errant gunfire that sparks the commotion to the elderly technician crawling beneath the merry-go-round in an effort to stem its quickening speed to the exhilarated face of a young boy oblivious to the inherent danger and dire activities around him, the sequence is quintessential Hitchcock and caps off a thrilling ride into the dark side of the human psyche.
'Strangers on a Train' may lack the grandeur and scope of other Hitchcock works, but its array of small yet potent moments make it a highly effective, deeply involving thriller. Its exquisite construction and execution rival Hitchcock's best, and 60 years hasn't dampened its impact. In fact, like most of the master's films, it only gets better with age.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Strangers on a Train' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case with new cover art. (I prefer the old, original poster reproduction that graced the 2004 DVD sleeve.) Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. When the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
'Strangers on a Train' sports an almost-perfect 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that heightens the effects of Robert Burks' stunning cinematography. The film's noir-ish flavor is spiced up by well-defined shadows, luscious black levels, and stark contrast, all of which lend this Hitchcock classic a bold, muscular look that ramps up tension and draws us deep into the characters' twisted lives. Clarity is superior throughout; grain is present, but beautifully integrated, maintaining the feel of celluloid. Unfortunately, a few isolated scenes flaunt a grainy roughness that seems out of sync with the rest of this elegant effort, but such instances are blissfully brief and, though jarring, don't derail the whole.
Gray level variance is top-notch, with plenty of shades adding texture and dimension to the image, while solid depth opens up the frame to provide an expansive feel. Background elements are easily discernible (the picture is so clear you can even see the face of Granger's tennis-playing double) and shadow detail is excellent, with no incidents of crush even in the darkest scenes. Crisp, finely detailed close-ups spotlight an array of facial features, from the wrinkled turkey necks of the elderly matrons to the divets and hair follicles scattered across Walker's cheeks and chin to Roman's peaches-and-cream complexion.
Processed shots are always more noticeable in high-def, and because Hitchcock was a big fan of them, plenty adorn 'Strangers on a Train.' The black-and-white photography, however, somehow seems to soften their impact and they seem better integrated than usual. No digital anomolies mar the print, which still contains a few errant nicks (only eagle eyes will catch them), and no noise reduction or edge enhancement have been applied.
This is another superior Golden Age effort from Warner that just misses a five-star rating.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track offers good quality audio, although a couple of occasional pops and crackles and a bit of surface noise still could be detected. The front-based mix balances dialogue and effects well, with subtle accents and atmospherics achieving a nice degree of presence. Conversations are always clear and easy to comprehend, even when competing with other elements, and Dimitri Tiomkin's melodramatic score benefits from marvelous fidelity and tonal depth.
A strong dynamic scale allows screams and high-pitched strings free rein, and despite the lack of a designated LFE track, lows possess good weight and power, especially during the cacophonous climactic sequence. For an antiquated track, the audio here remains solid throughout, enhancing the mood and complementing the action without calling attention to itself.
All the extras from the 2004 special edition DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release, and the package is quite impressive, providing classics aficionados and the Hitchcock faithful with a host of well-produced featurettes and other material that both salutes and dissects this terrific film.
'Strangers on a Train' isn't so much under appreciated as it is overlooked. Though bigger name Hitchcock films often overshadow it, this superior suspense yarn, marked by a fascinating plot, excellent performances, and, above all, impeccable direction, stands on its own as one of the finest movies in the Hitchcock canon. Warner takes special care bringing this classic to Blu-ray, with high-quality transfers allowing us to completely immerse ourselves in the absorbing drama. A substantive supplemental package clinches an enthusiastic recommendation for this top-notch release.