Now that Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular movies have made their spectacular Blu-ray transitions, the second tier of his vast catalogue is getting the treatment. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s chilling novel, Strangers on a Train is visually one of Hitchcock’s tamest films, but one where watching the actors’ faces is far more important than the scenery or crane shots used to film it. And Robert Walker and Farley Granger’s faces probably didn’t look this good when they were alive and in person.
As everyone knows, Alfred Hitchcock made suspense films, often so masterfully that audiences were horrified by the situations shown, and as such misconceive his films to be horror, despite a lack of blood and gore. He often told tales of characters with inner motivations far darker and scarier than the most costumed of monsters. For me, Strangers on a Train is the logical conclusion of how little complexity can be involved within a human being’s propensity for darkness. Before this current era of over-diagnosis, sometimes crazy was just crazy. In Strangers on a Train, Bruno Antony is the vacant-eyed posterchild for restrained lunacy.
The first meeting between Bruno (Robert Walker, in a stellar final performance) and Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is entirely relatable as a thriller’s starting point. I talk to lots of strangers daily, sometimes engaging in longer conversations. Rarely does it occur to me that one of these people might not be just a stranger, familiar enough with me to know how to tear my life apart from within. When social networking plays a part, privacy is often less of a concern than we think, allowing normally trivial information to be read by anyone. Even if it’s just someone annoying from the store down the road that you always stop at--and not a murderous sicko--there is little beyond morals stopping anyone from harassing anyone else. This concept is pretty fucking scary, and Hitchcock knew how to manipulate it.
With his classic good looks matching up with Guy’s fresh handsomeness, Bruno is initially a polite sap whose curiosity is quicker than his tongue. Knowing far more about Guy’s life than a mere newspaper article could impart, Bruno vocalizes a hypothetical scenario where Guy could avoid a long road to a messy divorce from his philandering wife by having Bruno kill her, in exchange for the similarly dastardly deed of Guy killing Bruno’s father. At best, it’s a strange place to take any conversation, and at worst, it is everything that happens for the rest of this movie. Though Guy has his own extra-marital attraction, he is essentially a decent human being who cannot extricate himself from a descending situation he never asked to be in. The pathological Bruno convinces himself that Guy has taken this suggestion seriously, and becomes Guy’s constant shadow on the horizon, the brim of his hat signifying doom.
There aren’t any proper twists and turns in the film, which has saved its story from becoming too familiar in the last sixty years. The intensity that builds throughout earns the film repeat viewings with barely diminishing results. ”Bruno, he sometimes goes a little too far,” his mother says, and when he does go this far, during another hypothetical conversation at a dinner party, repeated viewings never fail to make me wince. The film’s weakest aspect can be pinpointed as the lack of a defining quality to champion within Guy, who finds a modern comparison with the “final girl” from slasher films that you casually don’t give a shit about while rooting for the villain.
Everyone else in the cast is serviceable to excellent. As Guy’s bespectacled wife Miriam, Kasey Rogers is a right tart, earning every bit of her fate. Sisters Anne (Ruth Roman) and Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock) are diligent and pivotal. The score from the legendary Dimitri Tiomkin drives forward and sustains tension alternately. Books have been written about the director, so any compliments I have for him are dwarfed ten-fold.
I can’t say this is my favorite of Hitchcock’s long list of classics, because it isn’t necessarily a pleasant movie to watch on a regular basis, lacking even the whimsical set pieces from other films, and replacing them with grim ones. But the gut-burning voyage the viewer takes from beginning to end, along with the pitch-black humor, makes it the one film of his that affects my psyche the most. Now, allow me to introduce myself.
Nothing beyond pixels and sound quality differ this Blu-ray from the last special edition DVD that came out in 2006. The features are excellent in any case, and first-time buyers will rejoice.
The “preview” version is more of an artifact than a special feature. It’s a few minutes longer and includes alternate scenes and an ending, but isn’t a “Director’s Cut.” Far more essential is the commentary, which features more people than there are principal cast members, including Peter Pogdanovich, Joe Alves, Peter Benchley, Whitfield Cook, and archived footage of Hitchcock himself, among about a dozen others. It’s a consistently entertaining revolving door of revealing information which retains a light tone, and should be as good as any commentary fans could hope to hear.
“Behind the Scenes” includes five features. “A Hitchcock Classic” follow a slew of people celebrating the film’s importance for thirty-six minutes. “The Victim’s P.O.V.” allows Kasey Rogers to talk about her scenes for seven minutes. “An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan” (scratches head) is twelve minutes of Shyamalan sharing his admittedly insightful opinions about certain elements. “The Hitchcocks on Hitch” is eleven minutes of home movies and family memories, and I’m pretty certain a similar feature is on other films. Finally, “Alfred Hitchcock’s Historical Meeting” is a minute long silent bit where costumed actors meet Hitchcock. It isn’t necessary but it is fairly interesting.
There’s no need to say anything more but add the movie to your collection. And don’t talk to kind-eyed murderous strangers.