Alfred Hitchcock is recognized as one of the most famous film directors of the twentieth century. Known for his 1960 horror film Psycho and his 1958 thriller film Vertigo, Hitchcock also directed many other thriller films during his career, including the 1951 film Strangers on a Train. Based on the novel Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, Hitchcock’s film adaptation Strangers on a Train has been ranked #32 for the American Film Association’s list of the 100 Most Thrilling American Films.
Strangers on a Train begins with a tennis player named Guy Haines randomly meeting the rich, charismatic psychopath Bruno Anthony on a train. Both men are currently unhappy. Guy, in the midst of an affair, wishes that he could divorce his gold-digging wife, Miriam. Bruno hates his father, who often tells him that he is lazy and insane. When Guy and Bruno cross paths on a train, Bruno starts talking with Guy and proposes a deal: Bruno promises to kill Guy’s wife if Guy promises to kill Bruno’s father. According to Bruno, Guy and Bruno would be more likely to get away with the murders because each of them would kill a stranger without a personal motive.
Uncomfortable, Guy tries to change the subject. However, before Guy leaves the train, Bruno asks Guy if he agrees with the bargain. As a placating joke, Guy says that he “likes” the plan. Guy later regrets it when he learns that Bruno has fulfilled his end of the deal. The police immediately suspect Guy of killing Miriam, and Bruno tries to pressure Guy into killing Bruno’s father. For the remainder of the movie, Guy attempts to free himself from Bruno’s deal while convincing the police that he is not guilty.
This thriller showcases Hitchcock’s mastery of visual storytelling and expresses a realistic, unsettling theme: anyone can hold anger and hatred against another person, and these sins can produce dangerous consequences.
Hitchcock effectively uses cinematography, sound editing, and visual metaphors in Strangers on a Train to create suspense and to reveal the film’s themes. For example, the movie introduces Guy and Bruno with close-up shots of their shoes as the two characters walk through the train station and board the train. These close-up shots of their shoes are presented in a montage, but the montage only ends when the two men sit at the same table in the train car. The camera does not immediately reveal the characters’ faces, which would have immediately revealed differences in their appearances and identities. Instead, the camera focuses on the human nature of two anonymous men traveling on the same path (or railroad) together.
Hitchcock’s brilliance is also evident in a later scene. After Guy leaves the train, he meets Miriam in a store to talk about filing for divorce. Guy and Miriam walk into a room surrounded by soundproof glass walls, so bystanders can watch them without clearly hearing their conversation. Hitchcock uses zoom shots on Guy and Miriam to increasingly build tension throughout the scene. Deep focus is then used to show bystanders watching the fight unfold and blaming Guy for getting angry at Miriam.
Guy then goes to a payphone outside and calls his lover to express his anger at Miriam. In the middle of the call, a train chugs past Guy, and Guy ends up screaming into the phone, “I want to break [Miriam’s] neck!” The scene ends, and the screen dissolves to show Bruno’s hands. The end of this scene foreshadows how Bruno will kill Miriam, but the sound of the train also reminds the audience of Guy’s encounter with Bruno. When Guy feels forced to shout about his anger, he reveals his vicious hatred towards his wife. Regardless of whether Guy is legally guilty of murder, the movie makes it clear that Guy has still committed a terrible sin against her.
Some concerns about plot holes may come to mind when viewers watch Strangers on a Train for the first time. First, some viewers may question why many characters in the film are quick to trust Bruno. At various points in the film, Bruno blatantly talks about murder in front of other characters. However, the characters do not take Bruno’s words seriously. Also, the film does not clearly reveal if the public or the senator’s family accepts Guy’s affair, nor does it clearly suggest that Guy feels pity for Miriam after her death. Even so, the movie makes it clear that Guy starts taking sin and temptation more seriously by the end of the movie.
Overall, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train is well-executed and effectively warns viewers against holding hatred against others.