I gave a one-paragraph mention to Strangers on a Train back in November 2008. This month's TCM Guest Programmer, retried basketball star turned color commentator Reggie Miller, has selected it as the first of his four movies, so it's airing again tonight at 8:00 PM.
Farley Granger plays Guy Haines, a tennis player on a train to Washington DC to meet his girlfriend Anne (Ruth Roman). He'd love to propose to her, but there's a problem in that he's already got a wife. Sure, he could get a divorce, but that takes time, and then there's alimony and that other stuff -- and that's if one's wife even wants a divorce. While on the train, who should run into him but Bruno Antony (Robert Walker)? Who's Bruno, you ask? That's a good question, and it's not as if Guy knows Bruno. But Bruno knows of Guy since Guy is a famous tennis player, and strikes up a conversation. It seems as if they've got something in common: a relative who's causing problems in their life. He's got serious daddy issues, and thinks his father is the cause of all is problems. If only something could happen to Father. At which point Bruno reveals his brilliant plan. Find two people who each have somebody they want to get rid of, have them have a chance meeting, and then have each of them perform the murder for the other one! It's not as if the police would be able to discover a motive.
Guy thinks this is nuts, and understandably gets off the train figuring that he was just talking to some oddball. I mean, who on earth in real life would come up with an idea like this? Of course, this isn't real life, but the movies, so it's perfectly normal to have oddballs like Bruno, and boy is Bruno a nut. Or, more accurately, a psychopath. Where Guy thought Bruno was just a nut and Guy was just humoring him, Bruno figured -- in no small part because it was also convenient for him to draw this conclusion -- that Guy was agreeing to the "let's commit each other's murder" plot. So he goes off and kills Guy's wife.
This presents an obvious problem for Guy. The bigger problem is that Bruno wound up with Guy's cigarette lighter when he accidentally left it on the train, and could use it to implicate Guy. And, having committed murder, Bruno expects Guy to fill his half of the bargain. Going to the police is of no use, since Guy doesn't have an alibi, either. (Well, technically he does, but it's not believable and conveniently can't be corroborated.) So Bruno continues to stalk Guy, while the police have their eye on Guy for the more obvious reason.
Strangers on a Train is a wonderful plot, although it's also a plot that, because of its outrageousness, is easy to lampoon. Depending upon your point of view, it either helps the movie tremendously, or is a bit of a problem 60 years on, that Hitchcock also used visuals that are ripe for imitating: there are some striking visuals of Washington DC that make me want to get out my copy of Blackmail to check whether the shots of the British Museum in the earlier movie are a precursor to what Hitchcock would do in Strangers on a Train. But the one big difference in any case would be the presence of Robert Walker in the shots, who is really the focus, with everything around him being framing. That's even more true in the famous tennis match shot. The idea of spectators moving their heads back and forth to follow the tennis ball is exaggerated in most movies, and even more here. But Bruno is absolutely still, eys fixed on Guy. Robert Walker, in fact, is excellent throughout the movie. Everybody else is at the very least good enough. Of note is Alfred Hitchcock's daughter Patricia, playing Ruth Roman's sister.
Strangers on a Train has gotten multiple DVD releases, including one of those four-film bare-bones box sets that TCM likes to advertise.
For the record, Reggie Miller's other three selections are:
Chain-gang member Paul Newman eating 50 hard-boiled eggs in Cool Hand Luke at 10:00 PM;
Dustin Hoffman being pursued by cougar Anne Bancroft, in the days before such women were called cougars, in The Graduate at 12:15 AM; and
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy meeting their daughter's black fiancé (Sidney Poitier) in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner at 2:15 AM.