I love the era pre-PG-13. This is a straight up PG movie...where a weird guy chokes multiple people, one of them...TO DEATH! You know, kids' stuff.
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
This has to be my most viewed Hitchcock film with the exception of Psycho. I love this movie so much that I'm actually going to have a bit of difficulty writing about it. Right now, I have Bernard Herrmann's score to North by Northwest playing while I write this, which is just confusing up scenes in Strangers on a Train for me, but that's okay. I'm taking my favorite score and putting it over what might be my favorite Hitchcock. I know that Hitchcock rarely wrote completely original stories and Strangers on a Train is another adaptation from a novel. I also know that Raymond Chandler gets credit for this script outside of the fact that Hitchcock hated his script and borderline threw it out. But Strangers on a Train works so well because it has to be the coolest concept out of all of his films. That's kind of saying something. Hitchcock's thriller were often extremely high concept, so when I say that Strangers on a Train is the best concept, I am swearing by it pretty hard. This might be my favorite film from who might be my favorite director. Yet, I acknowledge that it is not perfect. Go, me, for objectivity!
I feel like a film snob for picking Strangers on a Train. It's such a hipster choice. It's either Strangers on a Train or Vertigo. The only reason that I give Strangers on a Train more points sometimes is that I watch it more often. For those not in the know, Strangers on a Train relies on a very cool premise. Bruno, a very uncomfortably weird guy, confronts Guy, a semi-pro tennis player, on a train and posits an odd theory: the only way to commit the perfect murder is for two strangers to kill each other's victim. Guy is trying to divorce his wife who is refusing to give him the divorce. Bruno wants his father dead. Guy humors Bruno, thinking that this is all a hypothetical. The only problem is that Bruno goes through with his end of the bargain and demands that Guy does the same. That is nifty. That is a really good premise. My film students still screamed at the screen and said that he should have told the police everything. I agree, but then the movie wouldn't work. Also, there's a suspension of disbelief that someone could read the situation the same way that Guy did. The premise is so brain-breaking. It took me years to find a way to summarize the concept as well as I did above. It's still very confusing in the long run, but at least someone is at least a little enlightened, I hope. With Hitchcock being the Master of Suspense and all, this story just oozes with suspense. With a focus on Guy and the repercussions, the often hidden Bruno comes across as a monster. Every time there is a hint of Bruno on screen, there is an element of the unknown that plays up on fears. It also helps that Bruno is a wild card. He doesn't follow social conventions by any means, but he also considers himself a social chameleon to varying degrees of success. This means that Bruno can and often inserts himself into sequences that would normally be considered safe places for Guy. There's a shot of Guy walking with a policeman and Bruno is just standing at the top of the stairs from a distance, staring at him, There are many stories that have a stalker as the antagonist for a piece, but it doesn't always work. Bruno Anthony might be the most effective stalker villain I've seen in film. There's something genuinely upsetting about Robert Walker's performance. I will admit that there are times when it is over the top, but the movie almost calls for that.
The movie opens absolutely brilliantly. When I teach Hitchcock, I talk about how Hitchcock's low angle tracking shot of the lead actors' shoes is more telling than any opening I've seen when it comes to establishing character. Their outfits are so telling and the way they walk has this element of a fatal collision that works remarkably well. Following this shot, having the point of view shot of the train looking at the criss-crossing tracks is absolutely stunning. Bruno often repeats the phrase "criss-cross", which acts as a motif for the film. Having the movie start out with the image of the criss-crossing tracks establishes the tone and the motif so quickly that the movie really just is allowed to start. The characters are given sufficient introduction that any previous content seems unnecessary. As a consequence of this sequence, there is a bit of an exposition dump when it comes to Bruno interviewing Guy. It seems larger than life, but it also is telling of Bruno's obsessive personality. While I hate info dumps, this one really works because Guy is marvelously uncomfortable with Bruno direct characterization, which (probably intentionally) acts as indirect characterization for Bruno himself. I might actually show this sequence for teaching direct and indirect characterization one day because it works remarkably well.
There are so many good shots in this movie too. I'm going to get a little bit listy, so I apologize. It's not my favorite way to write, but analyzing each of these scenes for how cool they look might get a little tedious. My favorite shot in the film is at one of the earlier tennis matches. The heads are bouncing back and forth as has been seen in umpteen films involving tennis. What makes this scene unique is the fact that Bruno's head doesn't move. This contrast between spectator and stalker is sublime. I also really dig the call backs to the way that the wife dies. The use of reflection could have looked extremely cheesy. I often groan when there is a reflection in the eye that is very clear, but using the coke bottle glasses as the reflective surface works really really well. In contrast to these moments, there are a few sequences that don' really work for me. I do think that the final tennis match goes on for way too long. Like, it is really long. Hitch loves the suspense sequences, and he usually know when to cut them. I think that the tennis match hits that tipping point and it hits it hard. SPOILER: I also don't like the final effect with the carousel. It gets silly. I'm talking about the layered effect along with the speed up effect. I always have a problem with the speed up effect in old movies, but I'm not going to stop complaining about them any time soon. I also know that Hitch hated both of his endings that he shot. I'm talking about the denouement. I agree with that assessment.
But the movie works! It works really well. I have to watch Vertigo for a third time to see if it is still my favorite. But Strangers on a Train might be the most watchable and I'll stand by that one for a while.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.