DVD - Image A Sound A Extras B
BD - Image A- Sound A Extras B
starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Leo G. Carroll
screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Alfred Hitchcock's queerest film (Rope notwithstanding) and proof positive of the director's knack for casting men of ambiguous sexual mooring in roles that cannily exploit it, Strangers on a Train, shot in vibrant contrasts by the great Robert Burks, is best read as a dark comedy--a noir in the most perverse sense of the term. Find in it the finest performance by troubled Robert Walker, tormented to his grave by David O. Selznick's infatuation with and eventual theft of wife Jennifer Jones and committed, not long after Strangers on a Train finished shooting, to a mental institution, where he was the victim of an accidentally-lethal dose of sedative. Playing a character named after the kidnapper and murderer of the Lindbergh baby, Walker is Bruno, a spatted dandy who bumps shoes with hero Guy (Farley Granger--the "girl" in the Rope dyad) on a train and ostensibly hatches a plan with the pliant tennis star to "criss-cross" murders (trade assassinations, as it were), freeing each of them from the burden of blood motive. Bruno wants his father dead; Guy, involved in a very public affair with the senator's daughter Anne (Ruth Roman) but shackled to loathsome Miriam (Kasey Rogers), would benefit from Miriam's timely demise. So when Miriam turns up dead by Bruno's hand, Guy is trapped by circumstance into either murdering Bruno's dad or going to the police and implicating himself and his lover in a conspiracy.
The murder sequence is astonishing, unfolding on an island in the middle of a carnival ground where revellers take boats to consummate their passion. Hitchcock's use of shadow in the lover's lane tunnel that introduces this passage over water suggests (as it has in Notorious and will again in The Birds) a literal sea change, a devouring of the protagonist (Bruno now) by carnal night, deepened in this film by the read that Bruno might be the homosexual-as-monster infiltrating a heterosexual orgy in a picture that sees all forms of heterosexual sex as disgusting and venal. This sympathy that we're invited to invest in Bruno's point-of-view as he stalks Miriam--who's arm-in-arm-in-arm with two paramours obviously expecting sexual favours from her after stuffing her with food ("I've never seen a girl eat like that!")--is paid off when he corners her in a dark wood, lights his lighter in her face to identify her, then throttles her in an action reflected in the convex lens of her broken glasses. Hitchcockian motifs: eyeglasses as the filmmaker's perspective (and the wearers of them either ironic or literal holders of extra-textual information); smoke and fire as evidence of infernal presences and Promethean knowledge; and the thought that film is a voyeuristic--and, as such, criminal--act. We want Bruno to kill the little slut. Later, we want him to retrieve Guy's lighter from a sewer grate so that he can frame him for the murder of the wife Guy was cheating on.
Every moment of Strangers on a Train is meticulous, constructed with a careful, metered brilliance and allowed to unfurl with an excruciating clockwork precision. Note the barred shadows of the gate across the street from Guy's apartment when Bruno stops by to tell him that Miriam sleeps with the fishes, or how Guy joins Bruno, guilty, when the police come calling. It's a film told as much with images as it is with narrative, cribbing liberally from Patricia Highsmith's debut novel while keeping intact Highsmith's emerging throughlines of protean anti-heroes at prey amongst swiftly tilting moral certitudes. By the end, only Bruno understands the bond he shares with Guy: that the love triangle of the picture hasn't been between Guy, Anne, and Miriam but between Guy, Anne, and Bruno. And after the magnificent process-and-miniatures stunt that ends the film (involving a carousel gone out of control--at the hand of an idiot policeman, natch), when Bruno whispers "oh, Guy," he's holding fast to the last remnants of a love affair jealously guarded, slipping now through his fingers. There are dozens of ways to access the text of Strangers on a Train--enough that once the initial surface thrill of it fades, the ripples it creates through the rest of the master's films of the Fifties make it, along with Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious, the work most necessary for a deeper appreciation of Hitchcock's late masterpieces: Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie.
Warner reissues Strangers on a Train on DVD in a Two-Disc Special Edition that includes not only the theatrical cut of the picture but also the "British" alternative introduced to cinephiles on the now-obsolete 1997 flipper. Be advised that "British" is actually a stubborn misnomer used to characterize a discarded preview version, as clarified by the information on this new edition. The preview version ends on Ruth Roman's ecstasy at the news that Guy's been exonerated by Bruno's death (freed to love her, if you will, and quite literally by the return of the source of Guy's phallic power: his lighter), with various small differences here and again that change the tenor of the piece ever-so-slightly (the luncheon shared by Bruno and Guy is far more flirtatious, for instance)--not enough to be more than a curiosity for scholars interested in seeing how a good filmmaker uses test audiences as a test of their own suspicions rather than as the arbiter of their editing decisions. (There is delicious irony in the fact that M. Night Shyamalan, the guy who still won't cop to the fact that he reshot the ending of The Village following frankly disastrous test screenings, was invited to share his thoughts about Hitchcock for this very DVD.) The theatrical cut is the official text, as it were, and is the one discussed above and below.
Matching the virtually flawless fullscreen b&w video transfers of both incarnations is clean DD 1.0 mono audio that perfectly balances the dialogue and Dimitri Tiomkin's score. As an aside, note the love theme, which Hitchcock uses to underscore one of Guy and Bruno's initial encounters. It's something he'll experiment with again to greater resonance by placing Bernard Herrmann's romantic overture under Leonard and Van Damme on the train platform in North By Northwest. The first platter is, to the benefit of PQ, light on extras, with the release print attended only by a theatrical trailer (also remastered) and a film-length yak-track moderated by Laurent Bouzereau, featuring contemporary and archival information from a constellation of scholars, relatives, sycophants, Robert Osborne, Peter Bogdanovich, and, in two key instances, Hitchcock himself. The least involving bits are extended musings from Andrew Wilson, Patricia Highsmith's biographer, who goes on at length about Highsmith in a general, non-scene specific way. Similarly, Patricia Hitchcock, Osborne, et al drone on and on about nothing much at random intervals. Osborne, for example, lavishes praise on the tennis sequence while, onscreen, we're watching Bruno fight with his father. The commentary is a model of how not to edit a multi-headed yakker. But the whole thing is worth it when, during the murder sequence as well as in the carousel climax, taped excerpts from an interview Bogdanovich conducted with Hitchcock in 1963 clarify themes, underscore classic obfuscations, and, in general, create the equivalent awe of the RCA dog hearing its master's voice.
Disc 2 contains a retrospective making-of documentary, "Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic" (37 mins.), wherein Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, Richard Schickel, Osborne, Bogdanovich, Bill Krohn, and so on provide background on the picture ranging from the truly trivial to the moderately surprising. Of the former, Bogdanovich's quick and hyperbolic analysis of the opening meet-cute focused on feet--of the latter, Robert Walker Jr.'s haunted memories of his doomed father in the last months of his life coming home from work and, as had become his nightly ritual, pouring himself a highball. Walker Jr. (a dead ringer for his dad) also says that Bruno is his favourite character in the piece not because he was played by his dad, but because Bruno is so vital and interesting. William Blake is grinning somewhere ear to ear. "An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan" (13 mins.) sees the immodest one (how his and Bouzereau's egos fit onto one DVD is the real miracle of digital compression) seguing from an appreciation of Hitchcock's lengthy dialogue sequences into a self-serving anecdote about how he identifies with Guy in that people are always coming up to Night on the street, starting a conversation in which it's revealed that this alleged stranger knows everything about him! What a horrible burden it is to be Shyamalan--wait, what were we talking about again? Oh right, Hitchcock. Night goes on to regurgitate plot and confesses that upon watching the movie again recently, it became clear to him that Bruno was a psychopath and the film is about how he affects other people. How did this yahoo make The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, anyway?
The best docu on the disc might be "A Victim's P.O.V." (7 mins.), in which contract player Kasey Rogers (a.k.a. Laura Elliot) recalls hoping that Strangers on a Train would be her big break (and she does do fantastic work in the picture as hussy Miriam) and how Hitchcock instructed her to fall "gracefully," as though she were doing the Lindy Hop, in her death scene. Unaffected and articulate, Rogers gives insight into the plight of the contract player in a series of anecdotes that resurrect the joy cinephiles first experienced when LaserDiscs began to promise commentaries by the filmmakers themselves. Rogers appears in Disc 1's patchwork yakker as well and, true to form, delivers what are perhaps the best nuggets--not all of which, to my surprise and pleasure, are repeated here. "The Hitchcocks on Hitch" (11 mins.) shows home movies of the family at rest and play, with Patricia's daughters (Hitch's granddaughters) Mary Stone and Katie Fiala reminiscing about the kind, loving man who was their granddad. It's a warm, welcome antidote to the recent trend of making a tabloid of Hitchcock's life and obsessions. I'm not discounting the dark side--I'm seeing for one of the first times the light side. "Alfred Hitchcock's Historical Meeting" (1 min.) closes the disc on a weird note: It's a vintage newsreel, silent, of Hitch standing next to a train and shaking hands with folks at a whistle stop. Originally published: November 6, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner's Blu-ray release of Strangers on a Train is the kind of HD upgrade that leaves the original film a bit exposed. The static crowd backdrop behind Guy during his climactic tennis match, the momentary freeze-frames as Guy consults a map in Bruno's house, the faux-"split-dioptre" shot that foregrounds Bruno in a tableau with his parents, and the methodology of the merry-go-round finish are all conspicuous in a way they weren't, necessarily, on DVD. But anyone for whom this would ruin the movie has no business watching it in the first place; frankly, I was left with a new appreciation for the sheer range of techniques that Hitchcock employed--whatever it took to achieve the desired effect. The seams may show, but what registers is his nimble command of the medium at a time when F/X processes intimidated most directors.
I'm less enthused that the opening titles bleed light and lack depth of contrast--it makes a bad first impression, though the 1.37:1, 1080p transfer quickly rights itself, boasting crisp grain and supple dynamic range (with only some minor clipping of the whites to detract) for the remainder of the runtime. Bruno's dandy outfits have never been louder or more tactile. Unfortunately, the included British "preview version" is still in 480i; couldn't they have seamlessly branched the alternate footage so that viewers of the UK cut were able to see the majority of it in HD? Oh well, at least the notoriously-revisionist studio left the original Warner logo intact. The 1.0 DTS-HD MA track is fairly robust, responding well to amplification without betraying too much or too little in the way of noise-reduction. Extras are identical to the Two-Disc Special Edition, as covered by Walter above.