A suave playboy (Robert Walker) meets a tennis champ (Farley Granger) on a train and draws him into an odd conversation about committing the perfect murder. Walker suggests that if a pair of potential killers swapped their intended victims, they could get off Scot free because there would be no motive linking them to the bodies. Granger acknowledges that he’d love to kill his cheating wife and Walker says he’s been wishing for someone to do away with his father. After arriving at his destination, Granger brushes off the conversation and chalks it up to idle chit-chat, but unfortunately for him, Walker shows up the next day to inform him that he’s bumped off Granger’s pesky cheating wife (who was carrying her lover’s baby) and now is waiting for Granger to fulfill his part of the bargain. What’s worse is that Granger is now prime suspect numero uno in his wife’s murder, and Walker’s constant smarmy, sinister presence doesn’t help matters any. In the end the dueling duo duke it out on an out of control merry-go-round.
Both leads are excellent. Walker is great as the creepy, vaguely homosexual villain and Granger fairs well in the thankless role of the wrongly accused man. The performances compliment Hitchcock’s unnerving knack for suspense nicely. The sequence where Walker stalks Granger’s wife at a carnival is some of the best stuff Hitch ever did. The way Walker (along with Hitchcock’s camera) follows her from the shooting range to the strongman booth to the carousel to the tunnel of love is intense enough, but when Walker starts to wring the girl’s pretty little neck, Hitch really dials it up. The final shot when we see the reflection of her glasses as Walker chokes her is the perfect cherry on the top for the sequence.
They don’t call the dude The Master of Suspense for nothing, folks. I mean only Hitchcock could take something so mundane like a tennis match and make it seem remotely suspenseful.
One thing that knocks Strangers on a Train down a notch is that the film lacks a strong female lead that hallmarked most of Hitchcock’s best work. Ruth Roman is OK as the other woman in Granger’s life but her character really doesn’t add much to the film. Really though, this flick is more about the relationship between Granger and Walker. I said before that Walker’s character was vaguely homosexual. Hitchcock couldn’t really come out and tell you the dude was gay because of the Production Code, but if you look close, it’s plain as day. (The dude lives with his mother. In the 50’s that was as good as being a designer on Project Runaway in terms of gayness.) The film was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who knew a thing or two when it came to vaguely homosexual psychopaths, having written The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Hitchcock packs enough suspense into this one to put it at Number 3 on the Video Vacuum Top Ten for the Year 1951, sandwiched in between The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing from Another World.