Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Short Take: Strangers on a Train

The 1951 thriller Strangers on a Train may be Alfred Hitchcock's most entertaining film. A rich layabout (Robert Walker) becomes acquainted with a champion tennis player (Farley Granger) during a train ride. He knows about the athlete's marital troubles, and he proposes what he considers a perfect bargain. In exchange for murdering the athlete's wife, he wants the athlete to do away with his detested father. That way, both their problems are solved. Since the two are otherwise strangers, neither would have a discernible motive, and the police would never suspect them. The athlete refuses to take the idea seriously, but the layabout is perfectly earnest. After the train ride ends, he won't accept their going their separate ways. He kills the athlete's wife, and tries to coerce the athlete with blackmail: Commit the murder, or be framed for one. The plotting is ingenious, and Hitchcock delivers some of his finest suspense sequences. They range from the spectacular (the climactic fight aboard a runaway merry-go-round) to the amusingly mundane (trying to retrieve a lighter from a storm sewer). The visual tropes, most notably the eyeglasses signifying murder, are used to brilliant and varied effect. The two stars are perfect. Farley Granger has a too-polite, go-along-to-get-along softness that makes his character seem a natural target for manipulation. Robert Walker takes the viewer right inside the layabout's joy in scheming and perversity. The best thing about the performance is the creepy, vaguely effeminate manner he affects. It gives the layabout's interest in the athlete a strong homoerotic edge, and one is never quite sure of where he wants to take their relationship. Overall, the various intrigues are marvelously played. The director has never seemed so light on his feet. The film is loosely adapted from Patricia Highsmith's 1950 debut novel. The screenplay is credited to Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde, although reportedly none of Chandler's work is present in the completed film. The actual script was written by Ormonde with Hitchcock and Hitchcock's wife Alma. Kasey Rogers, who plays the ill-fated wife, is credited as Laura Elliot. The other cast members include Ruth Roman, Marion Lorne, and Patricia Hitchcock (the director's daughter). The fine black-and-white cinematography is by Robert Burks.

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