Thursday, October 4, 2012

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN: Blu-ray (WB 1951) Warner Home Video

After a decidedly uneven string of movies in the 1940s, Alfred Hitchcock redeemed himself in the public’s estimation as the master of suspense with his first thriller of the new decade; Strangers on a Train (1951). Loosely based on the dark, elegant novel by Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train is a diabolically delicious excursion into the mind of a psychopath. From its iconic slaying of Miriam Hanes (Kasey Rogers), distorted in the reflection of eyeglasses fallen from her face, to its climactic showdown aboard a perilous careening carousel, Strangers on a Train is an exceptionally taut, often disturbing thriller.  
Hitchcock wanted and received the services of hard-boiled detective writer Raymond Chandler to do the screenplay. A master at dialogue, Chandler’s narrative construction left something to be desired, and Hitchcock turned the project over to Czenzi Ormonde to polish the script. Highsmith’s fascination in writing the novel also proved to be Hitchcock’s for making the film; the duality between good and evil and how a seemingly normal individual could be driven to do terrible things under the right set of circumstances.  
Our story begins in earnest with a chance meeting between sycophantic mama’s boy, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) and all-American tennis pro, Guy Hanes (Farley Granger). After forcing a luncheon ‘cute meet’ on Guy, Bruno confides a plausible way of committing the perfect murder. Two strangers meet and swap crimes – each disposing of a total stranger, thereby foiling the motive necessary for any criminal investigation to convict. The idea, while superficially intriguing to Guy – whose ex-wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) is attempting to blackmail him for alimony with another man's baby – is dismissed once the train pulls into Guy’s hometown of Metcalfe. However, Bruno takes the challenge seriously. Tailing Miriam to a nearby fairground, Bruno isolates his prey in a darkened corner of the island and strangles her – returning hours later to Guy’s apartment with her broken glasses as proof that she is dead.
Appalled, Guy threatens to expose Bruno’s crime to the authorities, a move Bruno discourages because, after all, Guy is an accessory before the fact. Also, Bruno is in possession of Guy’s cigarette lighter that he threatens to give to the police as proof of Guy's complicity in Miriam’s strangulation. Unable to decide what is right, and fearful that he will be suspected of the crime anyway, Guy’s nervousness is misperceived by police Capt. Turley (Howard St. John) who assigns Det. Leslie Hennessey (Robert Gist) to shadow him on his trip to Washington.
In the meantime, Guy’s fiancée Ann Morton (Ruth Roman) begins to worry, especially after Bruno’s impromptu arrival in their midst. Ingratiating himself to their friends, Bruno becomes strangely disturbed at his first sight of Ann’s sister Barbara (Pat Hitchcock) who is a dead ringer for Miriam. But Bruno persists in becoming a fixture in Guy’s social life, thus causing Guy’s mood to sour and become even more suspicious. Determined to rid himself of Bruno once and for all, Guy eludes Hennessey after pretending to go to bed, but instead makes haste to the Anthony estate with a pistol in his pocket.
In Highsmith’s novel Guy does indeed murder Bruno’s father, thereby drawing a parallel between the two men and reiterating Hitchcock’s point; that simply by walking down any street one could come in close proximity to either a sadist or a murderer. There is evidence to suggest that Hitchcock toyed with keeping this plot point intact in the film. The Production Code precluded such an idea however, and Hitchcock later agreed that it would have ruined the audience’s sympathy for Guy. Instead, Guy goes to the Anthony estate intent on revealing to Mr. Anthony that his life is in danger, only to discover Bruno waiting for him in the dark.
Realizing that Bruno will stop at nothing to incriminate him in Miriam’s murder, Guy attends his prearranged tennis match the next afternoon, plays out the game, and then evades Turley and Hennessey en route to the fairgrounds in order to stop Bruno from planting his lighter as evidence. Bruno arrives at the fairgrounds with enough time to spare, but is recognized by one of the carnival boatmen (Murray Alper) and forced to retreat. Turley and Hennessey enter with backup and Guy confronts Bruno aboard the carousel. The operator is accidentally shot in the mayhem, causing the ride to spin wildly out of control.
If Strangers on A Train does have a weakness it remains this climactic showdown; designed to give Guy a redemptive moment of blind heroism by saving a small child from being tossed off the ride by Bruno. The carousel is destroyed and Bruno is crushed beneath its gears, revealing Guy’s lighter in his possession moments before dying. For this climax, Hitchcock wanted a shot of a man crawling beneath the carousel en route to its emergency brake located at the center axis. After toying with the idea of incorporating rear projection to accomplish this feat, the stunt was performed live by Harry Hines without trick photography or any safety harness – his head only inches away from being decapitated by the whirling floorboards. In an interview conducted many years after the fact, Hitchcock’s face grew pale while recalling Hines’ fool bravery.
Strangers on a Train is imbued with Robert Burkes’ superb cinematography; at once elegant yet oppressive, creating an ever-constricting evil around our hero. Farley Granger gives a memorable performance as the congenial everyman whose moderately troubled life is about to plunge into peril. There’s something not quite right about Granger’s sexy tennis star; undeniably good looking but infinitely insecure and oddly emasculated, suffering from an absence of common sense to face the police with the real truth and let his chips fall where they may.
Robert Walker, then known for playing affable good guys, rewrote his all too brief career with this morbidly unsettling performance. Walker’s Bruno is an unstoppable madman who lacks even the basic conscience to understand his own actions. Separately, these men represent two extremely flawed sides of the masculine identity. Yet, arguably it is their similarities that are even more distressing to the audience than their differences.   
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is welcome. While the theatrical version has been remastered in 1080p the rough cut (often erroneously referred to as the ‘British version) remains in 720p. For review purposes, the theatrical version exhibits a fairly impressive B&W image that marginally improves contrast, sharpness and overall rendering of the film’s grain structure. But I do have to say that performing a side by side comparison on a 65 inch monitor reveals just how little overall improvement there is when compared to WB’s exemplary 2 disc DVD from some years ago.
The DTS audio, in mono, sounds virtually identical. And while the visuals obviously tighten up with Blu-ray’s higher bit rate, the ‘wow’ factor we’ve come to expect from the format –  rediscovering depth and fine detail – isn’t all that impressive herein. Extras are also disappointing. We only get the few featurettes imported from the 2 disc DVD, as well as the thoroughly comprehensive audio commentary and theatrical trailer. Plan your repurchase accordingly.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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