BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) and SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) were followed today by my first-ever viewing of Alfred Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it easily moved into my "Top 10" list of favorite Hitchcock films, a list which also includes, in rough order, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940), THE LADY VANISHES (1938), NOTORIOUS (1946), REBECCA (1940), and SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943).
Many classic film fans are already familiar with the premise: tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) has a chance meeting with a man named Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) on a train. Bruno seems to know an awful lot about Guy, including that Guy is unhappily married to Miriam (Kasey Rogers, then billed as Laura Elliott) and wants to divorce her and marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator (Leo G. Carroll).
Bruno suggests that it would be a perfect crime if he did Guy a favor and killed Miriam, and in return Guy would help him out by bumping off Bruno's hated father (Jonathan Hale). Since the two men have no connection with one another, they'd be more likely to get away with the murders. Guy thinks Bruno's just a somewhat annoying man babbling on the train and assumes he's joking, laughing himself that it's a perfect plan and then extricating himself from their brief acquaintance.
Little does Guy realize that the psychotic Bruno will promptly follow through on his part of the deal. Bruno expects Guy to follow through by killing his father, or he'll frame Guy for Miriam's death. Guy is well and truly trapped in a waking nightmare.
The above isn't much of a spoiler, as it all happens at the outset, setting up the premise for the rest of the film. Where it goes from there is a fun, wild ride, with a clever script, great performances, and memorable Hitchcockian set pieces, including a tennis match and a nightmarish ride on a carousel.
Robert Walker has been rightly lauded for his spot-on portrayal of the disturbed murderer. The performance represented quite an evolution for the sweet young leading man of films such as SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944) and THE CLOCK (1945), and it's a tragedy that Walker died the same year STRANGERS ON A TRAIN was released. He had great talent, and it would have been very interesting to see his acting career continue to develop.
I was particularly taken by the performances of Kasey Rogers, playing the murder victim, and Patricia Hitchcock (the director's daughter) as Barbara, the perceptive younger sister of Guy's love Anne. Rogers only has a couple of scenes to put across her flirtatious but hard-edged character, and I found her really interesting to watch. It's hard to forget her licking an ice cream cone as she notices Bruno's interest, or the look on her face when Bruno asks if her name is Miriam.
As a side note, it was also fun to recognize a scene where Miriam gets on a bus with a couple of male admirers is used as a clip in the intro to late-night films on Turner Classic Movies!
Patricia Hitchcock was delightful as Barbara, who doesn't hesitate to speak her mind and who recognizes something is wrong with the decidedly odd Bruno early on in the film. She has a terrific scene with Bruno at a party. Hitchcock had previously had a supporting role in her father's STAGE FRIGHT (1950) and a bit part in THE MUDLARK (1950). Her character called to mind another wonderful younger sister in a Hitchcock film, Edna May Wonacott's performance as Ann in SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943). Barbara is older than Ann, but they were both played by actresses who were new, or nearly new, to film acting, and they were both extremely enjoyable, scene-stealing performances.
The acting by the rest of the cast, including Granger and Roman, is quite good, as might be expected in a Hitchcock film. I would have liked Carroll to have a bit more to do, but he does at least have some nice exchanges of dialogue with Patricia Hitchcock as his daughter.
For fans of the TV series BEWITCHED, such as myself, it was fun to not only see "Louise Tate" (Kasey Rogers) when she was quite young, but Marion Lorne, "Aunt Clara," playing Bruno's dotty mother. Lorne was certainly adept at playing crazies, although her performance as Mrs. Antony is completely different from her memorable role as bumbling Aunt Clara.
The supporting cast includes Norma Varden, Robert Gist, John Brown, Howard St. John, and John Doucette.
The screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde, with uncredited work by Alma Hitchcock, was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Dimitri Tiomkin composed the score.
The black and white cinematography was by Robert Burks; this was Burks' first film with Hitchcock, but there would be many more in the years to come, including DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954), REAR WINDOW (1954), TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), VERTIGO (1958), MARNIE (1964), and more.
This film has been released on DVD in a 2-Disc Special Edition. It contains the 101-minute release version and another cut which is two minutes longer. The disc also contains several featurettes. It can be rented via Netflix.
It had a previous DVD release with minimal extras, as well as multiple VHS releases. I watched a very nice older VHS print, but I hope to get the Special Edition DVD before too long so I can see the extras.
The film is also shown periodically on Turner Classic Movies, where it will next play on December 22, 2011, and February 22, 2012. Just click on "Remind Me" at TCM and they will send a reminder email close in time to the chosen screening. TCM has a trailer available online.
I highly recommend this film, which is No. 5 on my personal list of 10 "unseen classics" to watch in 2011. It follows seeing SHANE (1953), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1941), and BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955). Five down, five to go!
Those who have seen STRANGERS ON A TRAIN will want to check out Dorian's fun, spoiler-filled analysis at Tales of the Easily Distracted. I especially enjoyed her comment "Class Action Lawsuit!" I was thinking the same thing. :)