Jump to: navigation, search

The Guardian (13/Aug/1999) - Strangers on a Train

(c) The Guardian (13/Aug/1999)

Strangers on a Train

Another set of partners in crime emerges in Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train", re-released this week as part of the ongoing celebration of the master director's centenary (today is actually the great man's birthday). Tennis ace Guy Haines (Farley Granger, who takes part in a Guardian Interview at London's NFT tonight) is unlucky enough to share a rail compartment with insinuating smoothie Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) and, in what is in all likelihood one of cinema's earliest manifestations of the stalker syndrome, is bamboozled by the latter's all-too-intimate knowledge of his domestic affairs. "I don't talk much," says Anthony; and then proceeds to turn the guileless Haines inside out - before proposing the infamous "murder switch" that's the movie's simple-but-effective hook.

Adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel, and with Raymond Chandler and Ben Hecht among the contributors to the script, "Strangers on a Train" belongs to a transitional period in Hitchcock's Hollywood career: between the arch, gimmicky post-war thrillers of "Spellbound" and "Rope" vintage, and the elegant, powerhouse constructions of the mid-50s onwards, which began with "Rear Window" and encompassed Hitchcock's greatest achievements.

"Strangers on a Train" contains a decent quota of those tricksy flourishes for which the director was justly renowned - like the story's pivotal killing seen as reflected in a pair of spectacles - and a couple of instances of nicely sick humour (Anthony bursting a child's balloon with a cigarette, for example, or the heroically idiotic carnival worker who slides underneath the out-of-control merry-go-round at the film's climax). But it's the sheer compulsive watchability of the narrative - co-ordinated with Hitchcock's effortless panache - that makes Strangers the film it is.

There are shades of classic noir as poor Haines stumbles further and further into trouble - there's no femme fatale as such, but Haines momentarily loses his head after confronting his greedy, estranged wife Miriam (Laura Elliott), and thereby opens the door to Anthony's silver-tongued innuendo. Hitchcock wasn't afraid to mix in elements of parlour-room whodunnit either - at one point Anthony wheels out his bats-in-the-belfry mother (a premonition, perhaps, of the way things would turn out in Psycho?). It's easy, too, to analyse Hitchcock to death; but that misses the fundamental point of the director's work. The tubby gentleman with the long nose, and even longer cigar, made movies to nail his audience down in their seats, to captivate, and to entertain. He didn't always succeed - his next film was the less-than-totally-inspiring "I Confess" - but when he did, as he emphatically did here, few could touch him.