Strangers on a Train ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Spoilers for the novel as well as the film follow.

First time seeing this masterpiece since I finally read Patricia Highsmith's novel. (My full review from my previous watch is here.) First off, I strongly recommend the book; Highsmith is such a profoundly great architect of words if not plot, and the extent to which she gets inside Bruno's head is almost frightening. But secondly, the plot of course deviates very sharply at the crucial moment when Guy enters Bruno's house at night. That particular scene was always implausible in Hitchcock's version and makes much more sense in the book, when Guy actually does hold up his end of the supposed "bargain," but since Guy ends up paying for his deed in the end, it can't have been a censorship issue -- the director just saw a further opportunity for more suspense and took it. In fact, Hitchcock's two leads are both more cunning than their literary counterparts. Highsmith's Bruno never recovers from the act of murder, and his attacks of PTSD don't only flare up when he sees women in glasses, and he follows his insanity to an even earlier death than in the film; while her version of Guy is even more oblivious than Farley Granger's all-American good-boy characterization, which of course is lightly subverted by Hitchcock. You can sense in the film how much violence is lurking under the surface in Guy (though neither version is unaware of how much he benefits in the short term from Bruno's machinations), coyly underscored by Hitchcock, who has him clutching Miriam's broken glasses during the phone call from his wife.

But more interesting to me is how despite being clearly unstable from the outset, Hitchcock's Bruno has learned how to use his off-putting social nature -- in the crucial opening scenes, he doesn't think Guy is serious in his sarcastic response to the "murder exchange" idea any more than we do, but he knows exactly how to use the ambiguity and apprehension he elicits in (nearly) everyone he encounters to his own purposes. He has found a way to use the social niceties of avoidance and dismissiveness to make his own warped moral universe a reality -- and that makes him one of the most terrifying villains I can imagine. Robert Walker's performance is one of those beyond-words moments of absolute brilliance in cinema; his every gesture is haunting, and it's not that anyone else is bad (unlike many, I quite like Granger's performance and I love Pat Hitchcock's), it's that he is himself a bold and startling shot of reality in a world of placid proper wealth and decorum, which he disrupts the same way Joseph Cotten disrupts the more common American dream in Shadow of a Doubt. This is what puts Hitchcock's best work a step beyond even film noir: he doesn't just steep us in a foreboding world of unpredictable evil, he shows us our own world and everything that makes sense to us being systematically destroyed by that evil. And even if the wildcard is defeated, the lingering threat seems to remain, as it certainly does at close of business here.