I live in New York City. I’ve had ample opportunity to meet strangers on trains, and know full well that the way to deal with someone who seems not quite all there is to deflect, placate, defuse, or ignore them.
That’s what our lead in Strangers On A Train tries too. The two strangers that meet on this particular train are Guy Haines (Farley Granger), an up-and-coming tennis star, and Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), an overfamiliar fan of Guy’s. At first Guy is flattered that Bruno recognizes him and gushes his admiration; but then Bruno brings up the stuff in the gossip columns – Guy’s pursuit of a divorce from his first wife, Miriam, so he can marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), a senator’s daughter. Guy tries to get out of the conversation, but Bruno insists that he’s got a genius idea. Bruno has someone in his own life he’d like to get rid of too, you see – an overbearing father. Now, if Bruno killed his father, he’d be immediately suspect, just like if Guy killed Miriam. But if the two of them swapped murders – Bruno killing Miriam, and Guy killing Bruno’s father – it’d be the perfect crime, since they’d only just met by chance right then and neither could be tied to each other’s crime. How about it?
The understandably alarmed Guy decides to humor Bruno with some vague “sure, whatever you say” non-responses and then gets the hell off the train as soon as he can, no doubt consigning Bruno to being one of those weirdos you meet sometimes. Except – Bruno actually takes Guy’s comments at face value, and goes through with killing Miriam. And then spends most of the rest of the film going to greater and greater lengths to push Guy into holding up “his end of the agreement”.
Let me say right now that there are some amazing moments of film storytelling in this. During a scene set at a tennis match, there’s a shot showing the audience, with everyone’s head swiveling back and forth as they follow the ball – except for one person sitting right in the middle, whose head isn’t moving. Because it’s Bruno, come to watch Guy. Another sequence has Bruno traveling to the scene of Miriam’s murder to plant some incriminating evidence there – a cigarette lighter of Guy’s – but then he drops it down a storm drain, and struggles to reach it as Guy is rushing to the scene himself, from another match, to stop him. A climactic scene sees our two leads fighting each other on an out-of-control carousel (long story that make sense in context) as an elderly carny painstakingly crawls just underneath the carousel, making his way to the controls so he can stop the ride. I found all of these moments gripping.
However – one detail early on kept nagging at me, and that is that Guy didn’t simply go to the police right when he discovered Miriam was killed to tell them what he knew. He knew Bruno’s name, he knew about their conversation. He knew Bruno came from money – Bruno talked about that during their conversation – so surely he came from a prominent family and would be easy to find. Guy even has the perfect opportunity to turn him in – Bruno stops him as he is coming home one night, draws him into an alley and tells him the news, insisting that now it’s Guy’s turn. The police show up on Guy’s door seconds later to speak to him about Miriam’s murder – but Guy chooses to hide with Bruno, instead of grabbing him and dragging him out, saying “yo, this guy just confessed to everything.”
In the film, Guy’s reluctance is explained away by his uncertainty that the police would believe him. He did say to Anne a couple times that sometimes he felt like he “wanted to kill” Miriam, and Bruno’s whole scheme is pretty unlikely. But on the other hand, Bruno is clearly nuts, and Guy does have an alibi for the time of Miriam’s murder (there’s some fluff about the witness who saw Guy having been drunk at the time, but there are other ways to verify someone’s whereabouts). So while I understand why the story unspooled the way it did, I didn’t fully agree with it, and it was just enough to keep me from really diving in the way I could have.