Strangers on a Train (1951)
1.33:1 (Full Frame)
Digital Monaural
Warner Home Video, $26.99

“What is a life or two, Guy? You do my murder, I do yours — crisscross,” preens Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), the dapper psychopath at the center of Alfred Hitchcock’s cat-and-mouse classic Strangers on a Train. Unlucky tennis champ Guy Haines (Farley Granger) makes this acquaintance on a train trip to meet his estranged wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers as Laura Elliott), to finalize divorce proceedings. Bruno is well aware that Guy plans to marry Ann (Ruth Roman), a wealthy senator’s daughter, and that the shrewish Miriam is in his way. Guy laughingly declines the offer of “swapping murders” and leaves his curious new fan on the train. But things get ugly when Bruno tracks down Miriam and murders her in an amusement park. Tension mounts as Guy, the prime suspect in the crime, enlists Ann, her father (Leo G. Carroll) and her sister (Patricia Hitchcock) to help prove his innocence and dodge the vengeful Bruno, who stalks the group, ready to snap and kill again.

One of Hitchcock’s strongest efforts during his first decade in the Hollywood system, this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train remains one of the director’s most popular films. Although Hitch had worked with Granger, Carroll and other production-team members in the past, the film marked his first pairing with cinematographer Robert Burks, ASC (The Fountainhead, The Spirit of St. Louis). Burks’ crisp, expressionistic compositions in the film not only earned him an Academy Award nomination, but also cemented his relationship with Hitchcock, who called on him to photograph nearly all of his subsequent projects until Burks’ death, in 1968.

Warner Home Video recently released a two-disc special edition of Strangers on a Train that, like the two-sided DVD released in 1997, contains both the 101-minute version of the film that was theatrically released and the 103-minute “preview” version.

The first disc contains the original theatrical release. Though the 1997 DVD transfer was accurate and clean, this new picture transfer is outstanding and appears sharper, with better contrast and less source-material wear than its predecessor. The monaural audio track has been cleared of age-related defects and sounds full and vibrant. In addition to the film’s original theatrical trailer, this disc contains a feature-length audio commentary that is best described as overproduced; Highsmith biographer Andrew Wilson, film critic Richard Schickel and director Peter Bogdanovich headline more than half a dozen voices of varying degrees of interest fighting for the microphone, with Jaws author Peter Benchley inexplicably among them! Though this commentary offers some insights, it’s simply too disjointed. Its only true asset is the inclusion of Bogdanovich’s original audio interviews with Hitchcock, who discusses key scenes as they unfold.

The 103-minute preview cut that opens the second disc features a nearly identical picture and sound transfer. The minor differences between it and the release version include a more distinctly homoerotic tone in the initial encounter between Guy and Bruno, and the glaring elimination of the comic “tag” scene that ends the release version. A generous offering of supplemental material fills out the disc; it includes newsreel footage that was included on the previous DVD and four new documentary segments.

The 36-minute Strangers on a Train: A Hitchcock Classic features the audio-commentary participants, with most of the information duplicating what is said on the commentary track. The Victim’s P.O.V. is an amusing, seven-minute piece about shooting the murder sequence. The Hitchcocks on Hitch is an unusually sentimental but engaging 11-minute piece filled with rare home-movie footage of Hitchcock, introduced by his daughter and granddaughters. Finally, An Appreciation by M. Night Shyamalan offers a needless 13-minute recap of the film in which the popular director narrates clips and makes fairly obvious points.

Warner Home Video has done an excellent job of remounting Strangers on a Train. With a sharp new transfer and substantial (though occasionally redundant) supplemental features, this affordable package gives the classic thriller a worthy treatment, and is an asset to any DVD collection. 

— Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.