Thursday, April 18, 2019

Strangers on a Train See's Chilling Chaos Emerge From Murderous Conversations

Murder is usually afoot in an Alfred Hitchcock movie and Strangers on a Train is no exception. The murder here starts out as merely a conversation between tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and an obsessive fan by the name of Bruno Atony (Robert Walker), one that occurs by total chance on a train ride the two men are sharing. While they exchange low-key chit-chat, Bruno brings up this idea he's had of a pair of people deciding who in their lives they'd most want to see murdered and then have the other person commit that murder. That way, nobody would suspect the actual culprit of these grisly crimes! Guy brushes it off as just quirky talk from a quirky man but he quickly realizes it's far more than that when his estranged wife, Miriam (Laura Elliot), turns up dead at an amusement park.

It's a mysterious murder that Guy Haines is suspected of committing, though this confused tennis player quickly learns that Bruno was behind the act via Bruno himself, who know wants Guy to finish their exchange up by murdering Bruno's father. Guy is now caught up in a web of lies and murder that make up the crux of the plot of Strangers on a Train, which follows Guy trying to evade this deadly deal Bruno has gotten him into. Much of the tension in this thriller comes from the character of Bruno, specifically in how he turns out to be such a  clever departure from the norm in terms of typical murderous thriller adversaries.

Instead of being a chilling figure with a towering intimidating frame, Strangers on a Train has its primary antagonist, Bruno, be simply an unassuming looking guy whose menace comes from how casually he treats the idea of disposing of human life. Much like Norman Bates in the later Hitchcock film Psycho, Bruno likely wouldn't draw much attention from anyone if they saw him in a crowd, the fact that a fellow who fits 1950's American societies definition of conventional is shown to be so easily capable of committing heinous acts of violence results in some terrifying dissonance. This crucial aspect of the character is excellently realized by Robert Walker's performance, his relaxed line deliveries as he tells Guy Haines about something as gruesome as killing his dad is at once darkly humorous and also immensely disturbing.

Bruno's level of menace as a villain despite his intentionally non-villainous appearance is aided by a brilliantly directed sequence depicting him actually killing Miriam. This is a crucial moment in Strangers on a Train since it serves as the first time the audience realizes that Bruno isn't just all talk about his elaborate murder plans and it's executed with remarkable creativity. Though the Hayes Code of this era prevented this film from explicitly showing the gruesome deed actually being committed, we do see a slightly obstructed version of the task being carried out by way of a reflection in Miriam's glasses, an eerie way to frame this moment that lends an extra layer of terror to an already petrifying sequence.

Come to think of it, a large portion of the suspenseful thrills in Strangers on a Train come from its visual elements, including the editing by William H. Ziegler which gets put to remarkable use in a sequence where the camera keeps cutting back-and-forth between Guy engaging in a tennis game and Bruno trying to reach for Guy's lighter in a storm drain. Ziegler's sense of timing in how long each shot should be and when a cut to another shot should occur help make this scene as harrowing as it is. That particular skill of his gets put to great use once again during a similarly suspenseful sequence in the finale involving the camera cutting back-and-forth between various perspectives as a carousel that Guy and Bruno are trapped on goes horribly awry.

Ziegler's editing is a key reason for why this climax is so thrilling and the same can be said for Alfred Hitchcock's direction and the cinematography by Robert Burks. Both men film this sequence in a way that emphasizes the level of destruction happening around Guy and Bruno to reinforce just how horrifying it would be to be trapped on a carousel spiraling out of control and crumbling around you. That emphasis on the haywire disintegration of the carousel itself alone makes the finale harrowing to watch and it's even moreso given that the script (which is credited to three writers, one of whom is iconic film noir author Raymond Chandler) ensures that we're already invested with the two lead characters trapped on that doomed carousel. It's truly no surprise to say so about a classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller, but Strangers on a Train is remarkably well-made and chilling.

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