What Strangers on a Train has that Shadow of a Doubt doesn't is a diabolically good hook. Strangers on a Train is what you might call "high concept" before that idea became popular. What it's about -- two strangers meeting on a train and one proposing they "exchange" murders so they can both get rid of inconvenient people without getting caught -- is right there in the title.
Yes, Guy and Bruno are strangers. And they meet on a train. What seems like an innocuous conversation turns creepy quickly, however, when Bruno, the affable psychopath, offers to kill Guy's greedy wife (she's pregnant, but not by him, and she won't divorce him), if Guy will knock off Bruno's annoying father. It's based on a Patricia Highsmith novel of the same title. Highsmith's Strangers has some significant differences, even if the basic idea -- the murder swap that Bruno proposes -- is the same. Highsmith makes it grimmer and more cynical, but I prefer Hitchcock's version, created by screenwriter Czenzi Ormonde from a treatment by Whitfield Cook after Hitchcock reportedly tossed out what famed mystery novelist Raymond Chandler had provided.
Highlights of the film include Farley Granger's performance as Guy, the handsome tennis star with decent impulses but some definite shades of gray, Robert Walker taking Bruno into unsavory territory and then some, a famous back-and-forth tennis match, more than one pair of eyeglasses, a distinctive lighter, and a dizzying carousel ride. If you're a fan of TV's Bewitched, you may also enjoy seeing Samantha's Aunt Clara (Marion Lorne) as Bruno's indulgent mother.
Strangers on a Train is really, really good at ratcheting up suspense. That will be even more apparent on the big screen at the Normal Theater, offered free tonight at 7 pm as part of Professor Bill McBride's Six Week Film School. You'll find supporting materials and food for thought here on the Normal Theater website.