(This article is from guest contributor The Lady Eve and first appeared at http://classic-film-tv.blogspot.com/. The rating in the title is my own.)
It was the middle of the 20th Century and Alfred Hitchcock's last major film had been Notorious (1946). Four years and four films later, he was in a slump. Though The Paradine Case, Rope, Under Capricorn and Stage Fright were all interesting attempts, each one had its problems and each had bombed.
For his next project, Hitchcock looked to the first novel of young Patricia Highsmith. Intrigued by its clever "criss-cross" murder plot, he bought the rights to Strangers on a Train.
Raymond Chandler was tapped to tackle the screenplay, though Czenzi Ormonde, a protégé of Ben Hecht, rewrote most of it. Cinematographer Robert Burks collaborated with Hitchcock for the first time and earned an Oscar nomination for his efforts. He was nominated again for Rear Window and won for To Catch a Thief. Dimiti Tiomkin, who had last worked with the director on Shadow of a Doubt, composed the film's nimble score. Hitchcock produced and directed for Warner Brothers.
A thriller of mature scope and depth, Strangers on a Train (1951) is also considered one of Hitchcock's most accessible films; its overwhelming success revived the director's reputation at a crucial point. It also signaled the beginning of his final great filmmaking period.
Strangers on a Train is pure and classic Hitchcock. It begins as two young men meet very cute in the first class club car of a commuter train. One is a tennis celebrity, the other a wealthy ne'er-do-well, and what seems like casual chit-chat has deadly consequences. A study in Alfred Hitchcock's mastery of visual storytelling and technical wizardry, the film bears all the hallmarks of his style...
There are spectacular visual set pieces, among them...1) Bruno stalks Miriam at a fairgrounds and, in a stunning shot, strangles her on a secluded island, 2) Guy makes a stealthy visit to Bruno's darkened home where a large growling dog adds even more suspense, 3) An intense tennis match is cross cut with scenes of Bruno's harrowing journey to plant evidence, 4) a carousel disaster comes to a breathtaking climax.
Prominent historical sites appear; Washington, D.C., landmarks are woven into the scenario with the Jefferson Memorial in a stark cameo.
There is an "innocent man accused" theme and a powerful doppelganger motif.
Though there are no marquee names, the cast is solid. Farley Granger fleshes out handsome, guileless and beleaguered tennis star Guy Haines; Laura Elliott (Kasey Rogers) is delicious as his estranged wife, Miriam; Marion Lorne stands out as Bruno's discombobulated mother. Leo G. Carroll is credibly senatorial as a U.S. Senator and Patricia Hitchcock gives one of her best performances as his quirky younger daughter.
Alfred Hitchcock once told Francoise Truffaut, "...the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture. That's a cardinal rule..." The bold, unforgettable performance of Robert Walker as psychopathic Bruno Anthony is proof positive of that rule. Remarkably, Walker had mostly been cast as male ingénues up to then.
Like Joseph Cotten's Uncle Charley in Shadow of a Doubt, Walker's Bruno is a glib, self-possessed charmer - who is also a remorseless killer. Walker is riveting onscreen. His Bruno is confident, slick, erratic...and very, very creepy. His smooth veneer barely masks a simmering rage. With a voice that ranges from sensual as velvet to cold and hollow as tin, his eyes glitter, glare, caress.
From the moment Bruno is first seen in the club car insinuating himself into Guy's life, to his final seconds of life, when he mercilessly implicates Guy with his dying breath, Walker dominates and energizes the film. Pat Hitchcock once observed that for all her father's genius, it was Walker's daring performance that 'made' the picture.
Walker died tragically at age 32 less than two months after the film was released. He had appeared in more than 30 films in his career, but it was only Strangers on a Train that allowed him to unleash the devastating range of his talent. Farley Granger later reflected, "he was great in the film; his potential was limitless, his career was just beginning to take wing."
Robert Walker's life had been short and often troubled, and his early death sent shock waves through Hollywood. In time, though, it became clear that he had a bit of good fortune after all; his greatest role, his single virtuoso performance, was preserved within one of Alfred Hitchcock's finest films.
British film critic and historian David Thomson noted in a piece on Strangers in 1999, Hitchcock's centennial year, that Walker's was "...a landmark performance. You see it now and you feel the vibrancy of the modernity...he had had that one chance..."