Strangers On A Train
Something as Ridiculous as Murder
You know what’s coming before the characters do. First, you know what’s coming because you’ve seen the movie before, or heard someone reference the plot. This is a movie, after all, that is now over fifty years old. But that’s not your only clue.
The first two clues are subliminal, almost. We see a man on the way to the train station, but all we see are his feet, in a pair of snappy two-tone shoes that might have been all the rage in 1951, who knows? But that’s all that we see of him, the camera doesn’t reveal his face. We see his feet, and then the feet of others, tramping through the bus station. We don’t recognize any of them, and that’s the point. Anonymity. Secrecy in loneliness. (How much do you really notice about the people around you, anyway?)
That’s part of it. Then some of the feet get on the train, and we see the train proceeding down the tracks. But it’s not one track, there are several the train can take, depending on which way the switches go. The tracks go back and forth, now parallel, now flowing over each other in a criss-cross pattern. (Criss-cross! Now you’ve said it.)
These are the important things. What follows is unimportant, a bit of something which to wrap images around. Two men meet, one quiet and reserved, the other gregarious, and perhaps a bit affected. The first man is famous, the second man is attracted to that. They have a conversation that only one of them seems interested in; the second man comes up with a ridiculous idea. Ridiculous, but it’s one that he’s been nursing for a long time, apparently. (It would be rude to tell a total stranger that he’s a nutcase, wouldn’t it?)
And that sets up the plot. But the plot isn’t important. It is, if you will pardon the metaphor, the 29-cent clothes hanger holding up the beautiful dress on the rack. It is incidental, but necessary. What is important is the feel of the thing, how it looks. More importantly, can it surprise again? Does the movie have the power to rise up from out of the watery past, from fifty years back, to provide one more chill on a warm summer evening? (Or has America finally been scared by people with more audacity even than Hitchcock?)
The trick here is making the ordinary sinister, and that is where Strangers on a Train excels, in those brief moments where the earth tilts. A merry-go-round, with its cheerful music tainted by sudden violent death. A friendly chat with a police detective, and then a dark figure outlined by the white columns of the Jefferson Memorial. A crowd watching a tennis match, all dressed in white, heads bobbing back and forth, and that same dark figure sitting perfectly still. (Robert Walker is only effective from a distance, when he speaks, he loses the menace that makes the thing work.)
That the thing does work at all is a testament to the Hitchcock genius. Midway through the movie, the whole silly plot threatens to collapse, as Farley Granger’s tennis bum suddenly has to win an important match, in straight sets, for some bizarre reason, and we see the poor man falling all over the court. Walker has the McGuffin, and he is carrying it back to the scene of the crime, but he carelessly lets it slip away. It is these small touches, not the superficial, ridiculous, tissue-thin murder plot, that cement Hitchock’s reputation and make small movies like Strangers on a Train meaningful and alive, after all these years.