And now for some suspense...
Strangers on a Train offers a classic example of what French film critics first identified as a recurring motif in Alfred Hitchcock's best thrillers: the "interchangeable killing." As François Truffaut noted in his book-length interview with the Master of Suspense, the audience is confronted "with one character who has committed the crime, and another who might just as well have been guilty of it."
Based on a popular novel by Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train begins with a chance meeting between Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a champion tennis player, and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a ne'er-do-well from a wealthy family. In the course of a rail journey, Guy admits that life would be easier for him---and, more important, for his fiancée (Ruth Roman)---if his estranged wife (Laura Elliott) would only grant him a divorce. Bruno, who'd like to be rid of his disapproving father, suggests they "swap murders," each man disposing of the other's tormentor. "What's a life or two, Guy?" Bruno heartily exclaims. "Some people are better off dead."
Guy dismisses Bruno's plan as the conversational gambit of an overly friendly eccentric. Unfortunately, Bruno does indeed strangle the tennis player's slatternly spouse. Even more unfortunately, Bruno soon becomes very insistent in his demand that Guy keep his end of their "bargain."
Strangers on a Train has been remade, recycled, and ripped off many times since its 1951 release. But Hitchcock's cunningly suspenseful original remains in a class by itself. The film is justly famous for visual masterstrokes that range from the shockingly disorienting (a distorted image of a murder viewed through the victim's eyeglasses) to the darkly humorous (during a tennis game, while others intently follow the back-and-forth movement of the ball, Bruno stares straight ahead at Guy). And in the final reel, Hitchcock skillfully intensifies the tension by subtly contracting and expanding time, as Guy struggles to finish a championship match in time to prevent Bruno from planting incriminating evidence.
Farley Granger leaves something to be desired as the hero, and Ruth Roman leads the viewer to desire another actress altogether. But Robert Walker earns a place of honor in the pantheon of Hitchcockian villains with his sly and insinuating portrayal of the deceptively fey but lethally psychotic Bruno.
For the DVD release, Warner Home Video provides both the familiar "Hollywood" version of Strangers on a Train and, on the flip side, a newly discovered British edition. The latter contains approximately two minutes of footage---most of it during the first meeting between Guy and Bruno---that Hitchcock trimmed for the movie's US release. The only significant difference: In the slightly expanded version, it's easier to spot Bruno as a barely closeted homosexual who's cruising Guy even as he involves the tennis player in a murder swap. Reportedly, Hitchcock made the cuts to avoid problems with censors. On the other hand, it's just as possible he simply decided not to belabor the obvious.
In any event, the DVD transfer is excellent. The black-and-white images are clean and sharp, and the Dolby Digital soundtrack enables even the pong! of struck tennis balls to resonate impressively---and, yes, suspensefully.