Cambridge Film Festival review – Strangers On A Train

Strangers On A Train (1951)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock (USA)

101 minutes

Screened: Friday 26th September 2008

I tend to divide Hitchcock’s work in a strangely arbitrary fashion; between his black-and-white and colour films. Although he used a lot of innovative camera tricks throughout his career, I can’t help but think of the Technicolour panoramas of North By Northwest or the psychedelic craziness of Vertigo, and see his black-and-white films as restrained by comparison. In Strangers on a Train, rescreened as part of a Warner Bros. retrospective at this year’s CFF, this restraint works, as a nightmare unfolds from a seemingly innocuous event.

Strangers was adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel, and her and Hitchcock have many preoccupations in common. Highsmith’s novels and short stories read as if they’re filmed in tight close-ups, dragging you into the protagonists’ distrubed minds and desperate actions, which are terrifying precisely because of their seeming banality. The film begins on a lighthearted note, as starstruck Bruno encounters famous tennis player Guy on a commuter train. Guy tries to fend off Bruno’s attempts at conversation, but by the end of the journey, a plan for the two men to “swap murders” has been set in motion, without Guy knowing it.

Late ’40s/early ’50s America is a good-looking, peaceable place in Strangers, but with a secret rottenness to it. Both the pivotal event of the film – the murder of Guy’s estranged wife, Miriam – and its climax are set at a fairground, and Hitchcock wrings equal amounts of irony and suspense from the location. The former scene is a masterpiece in slowly building tension, as Bruno tails Miriam through the rides and stalls, and eventually strangles her. Heightening the eerie atmosphere, the murder is seen reflected in the victim’s glasses, soundtracked by the haunting lilt of fairground music.

The downside to this is that when we spend more time with Guy, the film grows curiously inert. As Guy, Farley Granger has an endearing woodenness which actually works for the purposes of the film, like Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate. Strangers never recovers the disturbing atmosphere of the fairground scene, but offers up an entertaining set-piece in which Guy must race Bruno to the site of the murder in order to prevent him planting evidence – but not before winning a tennis match. The climax, too, is well-staged and terrifically paced. Unfortunately, the bizarre shift in tone afterwards, with Guy going from murder suspect to free man in five seconds flat, and on the flimsiest of evidence, rings false. Still, the fact that we want to spend more time with the cold-blooded sociopath is credit to Hitchcock’s skill, and perhaps proves his point about the murderous nature of seemingly ordinary people.


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