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The Times (16/Oct/1993) - Hitch a thrilling ride on this train

(c) The Times (16/Oct/1993)

Hitch a thrilling ride on this train

When Alfred Hitchcock's balefully ironic Strangers on a Train arrived in 1951 its timing was fortunate. He had just had four flops in a row; a dull courtroom piece, The Paradine Case, the tedious "ten-minute take" experiment that had made Rope such heavy going, and two films made in England, an overblown costume melodrama, Under Capricorn, and a London thriller, Stage Fright, tepid compared with his pre-war British successes.

But any suggestion there may have been that he was past his peak was completely dispelled with Strangers on a Train. A brilliant, ingeniously plotted thriller, from a Patricia Highsmith novel, adapted by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde, it heralded the great era of Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho.

Guy, a rising-star tennis player played by the likable but facially bland Farley Granger, is button-holed on a train by the wealthy, talkative Bruno. It is Robert Walker's finest role; his dangerous, hypnotic charm permeates the movie. Both men have someone they want dead in Guy's case his obstructive wife in Metcalf, a small town on the line between New York and Washington, blocking his socially mobile desire to marry a senator's daughter. For Bruno it is deep-seated hatred of his authoritarian father. His preposterous suggestion is that they swap murders so that the police will never find a motive. Guy backs away, thinking he's talking to a crank, but is horrified a couple of days later to learn that Bruno has fulfilled his part.

Hitchcock, who had been educated by strict Jesuits, knew all about guilt, which was a recurring theme in his films. Guy's guilt engulfs him, firstly because he wanted his wife dead, and secondly because he cannot murder Bruno's father. He knows that his story is too implausible to be believed by the police, who in any case regard him as a suspect.

Bruno, angry at Guy's refusal to reciprocate, sets off for Metcalf, in order to plant incriminating evidence at the crime scene. Guy, meanwhile, must battle his way through a five-set match at Forest Hills, with a taxi waiting outside, engine running, to whisk him to Pennsylvania Station and pursuit of Bruno.

There's a satisfying abundance of Hitchcockian detail. The woman's murder is seen by the viewer only as a reflection in her fallen glasses. Amid a group of swivelling tennis spectators one head remains still, Bruno's, his eyes fixed on one player. As Guy endeavours to beat his court opponent Bruno inadvertently drops the evidence, a lighter, down a grating, and then struggles to retrieve it in front of a crowd of onlookers. The climax, which takes place on a fairground merry-go-round, ends with a pile of mangled wreckage. The final irony is that the sick, degenerate Bruno, really did do Guy a favour.