My Hall Of Fame
Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train (1951) is one of his most amazingly crafted movies, yet today it is not one of his most popular. Most movie fans have seen his more famous movies like Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954) and North By Northwest (1959), but just a few years before all of these classics, Hitchcock made one of the most underrated and technically beautiful films of his career with Strangers On A Train.
Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Strangers On A Train tells the story of amateur tennis player, and political hopeful, Guy Hains (Farley Granger). As the film opens we see two men both arriving at a train station and sitting net to each other in the same train car. They accidentally bump into each other and Guy begins a conversation with Bruno (Robert Walker). As it turns out, Bruno knows all about Guy, his career ambitions, his girlfriend, Anne (Ruth Roman), and even his wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott). Miriam has been having affairs and she and Guy have been separated for some time, but now that she is pregnant with another mans child, she intends to remain married to Guy in an apparent effort to keep Guy miserable, and away from Anne.
While talking on the train, Bruno tells Guy about his own troubles, including his wealthy father’s ambitions to keep Bruno far away from the family fortune. Bruno expresses his desire to be rid of his father, and even explains to Guy that he thinks he has figured out the plot for a perfect murder. Bruno suggests that he and Guy trade murders. Bruno would go to Miriam and kill her while Guy is in another city. Then Guy could later kill Bruno’s father, and because neither killer has any connection to the victim, nobody would ever suspect them of the crime. Guy patronizes Bruno’s plan, but after they part, Bruno puts the plan into play by murdering Miriam. Now Guy is linked to a madman who will stop at nothing to get the inheritance he feels he deserves.
At the time of pre-production, most people wrote off the story for Strangers On A Train as being slow and without much substance. Hitchcock made several attempts to have famous and notable writers work on the screenplay, including the great Raymond Chandler, but none of these “writing teams” ever worked out well. Then Hitchcock hired Czenzi Ormonde and teamed her with his associate producer Barbara Keon and his wife, Alma. These three women joined with Hitchcock himself and turned out a phenomenal screenplay, and all in just the final few weeks before shooting was to begin. Many writers are credited with this screenplay in different stages, but this final team brought together fresh ideas and made the screenplay into the masterpiece it is today. They are also who is responsible for the famous carousel scene in the film’s climax.
Strangers On A Train also marks the first time Hitchcock worked with cinematographer Robert Burks. Together on this film they created some of the most amazing and technically advanced shots in movie history. In fact, Burks received an Academy Award nomination for his work on the film. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch Strangers On A Train, I am still blown away by what these two men were able to accomplish together. The shot of Miriam being strangled through the reflection of her own glasses is an extremely beautiful and complex shot that surprises and inspires me every time.
The carousel scene at the film’s climax is awe-inspiring. It is hard to understand how the director and cinematographer were able to achieve such a complex sequence and have it turn out so magnificently. And yes, the old man who crawls under the moving carousel was really a carousel operator who volunteered to perform that feat, even at the risk of his own life. There is no trick photography there, and Hitchcock later admitted that shooting that scene was the scariest day of filming in his career. The scene is edited superbly by William Ziegler and remains one of my favorite examples of perfect editing.
So many of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies are “must see” movies, and I have always believed that Strangers On A Train deserved a spot along with his other masterpieces. It is a film that can be talked about, discussed and dissected endlessly, and thanks to a newly release on Blu-ray, Strangers On A Train can hopefully be seen by more and more new viewers helping to increase it’s popularity in the coming years.