Monday, December 26, 2011

Dollar Bin Horror Review:Strangers on a Train (1951)

By Eric Polk-
I thought I'd switch up from the blood and guts that is the staple of my cinema diet to something a little more classy and suspenseful with this Alfred Hitchcock classic from 1951.

Amateur tennis star Guy Haines wants to divorce his vulgar and unfaithful wife Miriam, so he can marry the elegant and beautiful Anne Morton, daughter of a senator. While on a train to meet Miriam, Haines meets Bruno Anthony, a forward stranger who recognizes Guy from gossip items in the newspapers that detail his marital problems. During lunch in Bruno's compartment, Bruno tells Guy about his idea for the perfect "Criss-cross" murder(s): he will kill Miriam and in exchange, Guy will kill Bruno's father. Since both are strangers, otherwise unconnected, there is no identifiable motive for the crimes, Bruno contends, hence no suspicion. Guy hurriedly leaves the compartment but leaves Bruno thinking he has agreed to the deal. Guy accidentally leaves his cigarette lighter behind, a gift from Anne to Guy, which Bruno pockets.

Bruno heads to Guy's hometown of Metcalf and follows Miriam and her two beaux to an amusement park, where he briefly illuminates her face with Guy's lighter, then strangles her to death. Guy's problems begin when his alibi — an inebriated college professor on the same train as Guy — cannot remember their meeting. But they increase exponentially when Bruno makes repeated appearances into Guy's life as he seeks to remind Guy that he is now obliged to kill Bruno's father, according to the bargain he thinks they struck on the train.

Bruno sends Guy the keys to his house, a map to his father's room, and a pistol. Soon after, Bruno appears at a party at Senator Morton's house and hobnobs with the guests, much to Guy's apprehension and Anne's increasing suspicion. He demonstrates how to strangle someone while preventing them from screaming: with his hands around his "assistant's" neck Bruno looks up and sees Anne's younger sister Barbara. Her eyeglasses and resemblance to Miriam trigger a flashback for Bruno to Miriam's slaying, and he loses control of himself and begins to strangle his subject. After a moment he faints, and the frightened party guests pull him off the hysterical woman. Young Barbara rushes to her sister and tells her, "His hands were on her neck, but he was strangling me." Anne puts together the facts of the crime and confronts Guy, who finally admits the truth.
Guy finally agrees to Bruno's plan over the telephone and creeps into Bruno's home at night. When he reaches the father's room he tries to warn the older man of Bruno's intentions, but finds Bruno waiting for him instead, now aware that Guy's sudden change of heart suggests betrayal. Bruno tells Guy that because he will not complete his end of the bargain, he should be blamed for the murder which "belongs" to him — so he will frame Guy for the murder of Miriam.
Anne visits Bruno's house to tell his mother (Marion Lorne) that her son is responsible for the death of a woman, but she does not believe Anne and fails to understand how dangerous her son is. Bruno overhears the conversation and lets Anne know that he has the lighter and plans to plant it at the scene of the crime during the night to implicate Guy. Anne reports back to Guy and the two devise a plan for Guy to beat Bruno to the scene of the crime after he finishes a tennis match that would be too suspicious for him to cancel.
Guy wins the tennis match but takes much longer than expected; likewise, Bruno is delayed when he drops Guy's lighter down a storm drain and must force his fingertips down the drain to recover it. Guy arrives at the park while Bruno is still waiting for sunset. The two men struggle on the carousel, which spins out of control and crashes after its operator is accidentally hit by a bullet from the police meant for the fleeing Guy. Bruno, mortally wounded in the crash, manages to tell the police of Guy's guilt, but the lighter is found clutched in Bruno's hand, finally exonerating Guy. An amusement park employee who remembered Bruno's previous visit confirms that Bruno was in fact the murderer.

Reunited with Anne on a train home, Guy is asked by a friendly clergyman seated near them if he is Guy Haines. Starting to reply, Guy, remembering this is the way ,Bruno started their fatal conversation, stops himself and quickly leaves the club car.
All the elements of a Hitchcock great are well on display here. The great camera angles, the sense of humor sprinkled throughout. The psychotic, charismatic antagonist and, of course, the overripe suspense that made Psycho and The Birds classic. If you have had an aversion to older films, why not let go of that prejudice and check this film out.

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