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Strangers on a Train(1951)
Two complete strangers, Bruno Anthony, a psychotic mother's boy and Guy Haines, a professional tennis player meet on a train and begin discussing a theory on how the two of them could commit the perfect crime. Guy thinks they are joking, while Anthony is serious, and is about to take their convertation a step too far.
For more about Strangers on a Train and the Strangers on a Train Blu-ray release, see Strangers on a Train Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on October 6, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Leo G. Carroll, Patricia Hitchcock, Kasey Rogers
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
» See full cast & crew
Strangers on a Train Blu-ray Review
Be careful to whom you talk.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, October 6, 2012
If someone were to confide in me that they had never seen an Alfred Hitchcock film and wanted to know which one to start with, perhaps surprisingly it wouldn't be hard for me to instantly recommend Strangers on a Train. Some might be shocked that Psycho wouldn't be the obvious choice, but for those unaccustomed to Hitch's sometimes unpredictable rhythms, the first act of that film can seem interminable for those unprepared for the film's lengthy setup. Others would immediately gravitate to North by Northwest, and that's certainly a great choice, and in fact would probably be a close second in my own "Hitchcock elementary school" curriculum. (Interestingly both films feature train rides as major plot points.) But Strangers on a Train boasts a much stronger concept than North by Northwest does, and it also oozes with a menace and snarky humor and almost Nietzschean subtext that sets it apart from many other Hitchcock outings. The basic plot conceit of Strangers on a Train, namely that two people "trade murders" so that neither can be implicated, is such an iconic foundation that it has passed into the annals of all time classic story points, and the film also contains some of Hitchcock's most brilliant set pieces. Highlighted by one of the most creepily sociopathic performances in the entire Hitchcock canon by Robert Walker (who would die quite unexpectedly shortly after this film's release), Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchcock's most supremely crafted thrillers and continues to surprise even on repeated viewings, one of the surest signs of its mastery. Rather interestingly, critical reaction was mixed when the film was first released, though it has attained a much more lustrous reputation in the intervening years. While other Hitch efforts may be more thoughtful or thrilling (something I personally would debate), Strangers on a Train is poised perfectly between mass market appeal and something much more complex and multilayered, certainly reflective of Hitchcock's own personality.
The elegant structuring of Strangers on a Train is evident from the very first shot, when Hitchcock introduces us to our two main characters courtesy of the shoes they are wearing. Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) is obviously a narcissistic dandy, dressed to the nines in two tone spats that are flashy and a little cheap looking despite their finery. Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is a bit more down to earth, conservatively dressed and perhaps a bit aware of keeping up appearances. The two men actually "meet cute" on the train when Guy's shoe brushes against Bruno's as Guy sits, and Bruno recognizes Guy as an international tennis star. Bruno is obviously star struck and eager to impress Guy, and he sets out on a long monologue that it is implied goes on for hours. Bruno knows a frightening amount about Guy, including the fact that Guy is trying to get a divorce from his first wife Miriam (Laura Elliot) so that he can marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a United States Senator (Leo G. Carroll). During Bruno's stream of consciousness rant, he opens up to Guy about something he's been thinking of for years: "swapping" murders with someone so that neither could be implicated. Bruno suggests this "criss cross" could result in Bruno murdering Miriam while Guy could kill Bruno's imperious father, who is preventing Bruno from burning through the family riches and is insisting the self-obsessed young man actually go out and get a job.
To give too much more away about what happens next would spoil the elegant twists and turns the film has in store for those who haven't seen it before. Suffice it to say this is one of the most smartly written of all of Hitchcock's classics (despite the credits, the film was actually written pretty much by committee and Raymond Chandler's contributions were minimal, though his marquee value was enough that Warner Brothers wanted his name kept on the film). There are several key sequences in Strangers on a Train which rank among the best set pieces in the entire Hitchcock canon. Among these are the encounter between Bruno and Miriam at a carnival, one of the most astoundingly conceived segments to spring from Hitchcock's fertile visual imagination, and, later, an incredibly tense moment when Bruno loses something that is germane to his psychopathic machinations.
The film is fascinating on any number of levels, both technical (watch how Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks play with light and shadow throughout the proceedings) and more mundane (this is one of the few films where the love interest isn't a blonde "ice goddess", per Hitch's usual predilection—Ruth Roman was foisted on him by the studio). There are also several salient subtexts in the film—whether real or imagined—that inform careful viewings. Hitchcock is on record (including on the commentary which includes some really interesting interview segments hosted by Peter Bogdanovich) as thinking that Bruno was "obviously" homosexual, and it's probably no mere coincidence that Hitchcock cast Farley Granger, a kind of asexual actor who portrayed a closeted gay in Hitchcock's Rope, as the "hero" of the film. Many have claimed to see an indictment of the nascent Red scare that was beginning to erupt into outright McCarthyism just as the film was released, though that particular reading might be a bit more of a stretch.
Strangers on a Train has a few niggling issues despite its overall brilliance, probably none more apparent than the fact that Guy, for all his issues (including his hapless status as unwitting victim), isn't all that easy to root for. The film is precariously tilted toward Bruno, not just due to the writing, but also inescapably a result of Walker's unbelievably compelling (if nasty and smarmy) performance. Granger kind of comes off as an anemic wimp by comparison, not the best situation in attempting to get the audience on his side. But this and a couple of other niggling qualms are just tiny little bumps on a "train ride" that is truly one of the most magnificently thrilling ever captured on film.
Strangers on a Train Blu-ray, Video Quality
Strangers on a Train is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Brothers with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.36:1. This is one of the most deliciously crisp transfers in this current glut of Warner (and/or MGM) catalog releases that are coming out en masse, with beautifully variegated gray scale, brilliant whites and really deep, enveloping blacks. Contrast is very solid, easily supporting both the garish lighting in some scenes as well as the shadow filled darkness of several others, and the transfer maintains a nicely filmic quality with very natural looking grain. There are a couple of very minor (as in very minor) issues with the elements, including some hairline scratches and other blemishes that show up from time to time (strangely on the left side of the frame most of the time), but otherwise this is a stellar looking presentation.
Strangers on a Train Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Strangers on a Train's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track sounds a bit thin some of the time, especially with regard to Dimitri Tiomkin's score. (Tiomkin, certainly one of the greatest Golden Age composers, and a particular favorite of mine, nonetheless never really "clicked" with Hitch, and his scores for Hitch's films are rather odd, anachronistic affairs.) Dialogue sounds fine, though again in the midrange in particular there's a noticeably boxiness and hollowness to the sound quality that is occasionally just slightly grating. Aside from these age (and stem) related issues, things sound generally quite good, with decent fidelity and dynamic range.
Strangers on a Train Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Strangers on a Train Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Strangers on a Train remains a near perfect entertainment, one that works perfectly on its surface level as a terrifying study in sociopathy but then rewards deeper study with any number of slightly hidden layers. This is the rare thriller that loses little if any of its visceral intensity on repeated viewings. If you've never seen a Hitchcock film, there's no better place to start. If you're a longtime fan of Strangers on a Train, this new Blu-ray will delight with its superior image quality, decent audio and the glut of supplements ported over from the DVD. Highly recommended.
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