Guy: Swap murders?
Bruno: Each fellow does the other fellow's murder. Then there's nothing to connect them. Each one has murdered a total stranger. Like, you do my murder; I do yours.
Guy: We're coming into my station.
Bruno: For example: your wife, my father. Criss-cross.
Guy Haines (Granger), an amateur tennis star, chances to meet the eccentric Bruno Anthony (Walker) on a train. Bruno has read about Guy's romantic troubles in the paper, and suggests that he might want to... dispose of his wife, the unfaithful Mrs. Miriam Joyce Haines (Kasey Rogers under the alias "Laura Elliot"), so he can marry Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a U.S. Senator (Leo G. Carroll). Bruno tells Guy of his own unhappiness with his father, and outlines his plot for the perfect murder: two strangers who each have someone they want dead "exchange murders" so that neither's motive can be uncovered. Guy laughs the whole thing off and gets off the train but, as he learns a few days later, Bruno wasn't joking.
The film, based on a novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (of Ripliad fame), had a screenplay originally written by Raymond Chandler (before he was fired and replaced). The book and film together are the Trope Namer, Trope Maker, and Trope Codifier for "Strangers on a Train"-Plot Murder, although there's a lot more to the plot than just that one trope.
This was the final completed film for Robert Walker, who died suddenly of drug and alcohol abuse less than two months after release.note
The story was loosely remade in 1969 as the film Once You Kiss a Stranger, with the Bruno character Gender Flipped into a woman, who wants the protagonist (now a golf pro) to murder her psychiatrist in exchange for her killing a rival player for him. The 1987 comedy Throw Momma from the Train is part remake, part Homage, and part Affectionate Parody of this film. In 2015, yet another prospective remake was announced, to be directed by David Fincher, written by Gillian Flynn, and starring Ben Affleck. However, this film — simply titled Strangers — has gotten stuck in Development Hell due to the schedules of those three people.
This film provides examples of:
- Adaptational Heroism: In the original book, Guy tragically succumbed to Bruno's pressure to murder his father.
- Adaptational Name Change: Charles Anthony Bruno became Bruno Anthony, while Anne Faulkner became Anne Morton.
- Adult Fear: Concerned mothers are seen helplessly watching their children trapped in the dangerously spinning carousel.
- Almost Dead Guy: Bruno, under the carousel, is able to deliver some final incriminating words against Guy before dying. Not that it does him much good, as Guy has basically already been absolved thanks to a carnival worker who correctly identifies Bruno as the murderer.
- Ambiguously Gay: Both lead characters. Bruno, the Sissy Villain, is almost overt about it; Guy (whose actor was openly bisexual) is more of a "sexually ambiguous" ingenue. The film, with an up-and-coming man with a future in politics who gets involved with another man who acts in a flirtatious manner, has been read as commentary on the anti-homosexual hysteria of the 1950s, when the HUAC was on a witch hunt for "sex perverts" and other subversives in the government.
- Amusement Park: The scene of Miriam's murder and of the film's climax.
- Angry Guard Dog: Subverted. After sneaking into the Anthony house late at night to find Bruno's father and warn him, Guy encounters a growling Great Dane on the stairs. However, as he gets closer the dog comes up and licks his hand.
- Artistic License Gun Safety: The cops chasing the clearly unarmed Guy through a carnival break every police firearm procedure by firing at him as he runs through a crowd of children. One of the shots hits and apparently kills an innocent bystander, who happened to be operating a merry-go-round, causing it to careen out of control.
- Asshole Victim: Miriam Haines is an extremely selfish adulteress who cheats on Guy and uses the resulting pregnancy to keep Guy from leaving her. All of this softens the blow when she gets killed by Bruno.
- Badass Bystander: The random Cool Old Guy who volunteers to stop the speeding carousel... by crawling underneath it to get to the mechanism at the center.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Miriam. She's a rather pretty and proper-looking woman, but she's an extremely selfish adulteress who cheats on Guy and uses the resulting pregnancy to keep a justifiably-pissed Guy from leaving her. Downplayed in that anyone who knows Guy knows about Miriam's dalliances.
- Chekhov's Gun: Bruno's tie pin which Anne notices later.
- Clutching Hand Trap: Bruno, a remorseless murderer, gets his arm stuck in a drainage hole by the sidewalk. This is played for suspense, as it helps buy time for Guy to finish his scheduled tennis match (though Bruno makes it to the amusement park first anyway), though it does have Alfred Hitchcock's trademark dark humor. Subverted, as Bruno is able to easily pull out his hand clutching the lighter from the tight grid where he struggled to slide his forearm through just moments ago.
- Creator Cameo: Hitchcock appears lugging around an upright bass the first time Guy gets off the train.
- Defiant to the End: In the face of a witness to his murder, his possession of incriminating evidence, and his imminent death, Bruno never stops trying to frame Guy.
- Depraved Homosexual: If Bruno is gay he definitely fits this trope.
- The Ditz: Bruno's mother. Anne had to bluntly spell it out for her that her baby boy killed a woman, for his mother to ask if Bruno told her any of this and if not, that it isn't true.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: Much like in Shadow of a Doubt, there is a pre-occupation with strangulation in this film, Bruno strangles Miriam and Guy expresses a desire to strangle Miriam. Their desire may very well be a response to subconscious sexual urges, namely that of erotic asphyxiation. It's also important to note that Miriam, declared a tramp and adulteress by numerous characters before and after her murder, is double teamed by two men in the tunnel of love and goes to the secluded island, which is referred to as a hot spot for 'smoochers', with them. For comparison, in the book at least one of her companions is noted to be her brother.
- Erotic Eating: Miriam really makes a show of licking that ice cream cone while making eye contact with Bruno at the carnival.
- Evil Is Petty: Shortly before murdering Miriam, Bruno pops a child's balloon for fun.
- Expy: Barbara Morton could be seen as an older version of little Ann Newton from Shadow of a Doubt, since they're both bespectacled and both seem to think that life should play out like fictional plots do.
- Faux Affably Evil: Bruno. While showing a calm demeanor throughout his scenes, he gets extremely agitated and rude to bystanders when the lighter drops into the drain hole which jeopardizes his plan.
- Feet-First Introduction: For both Bruno and Guy, the first of many times the movie contrasts the two.
- Flashed-Badge Hijack: When Guy takes off in a cab after the tennis match, the two cops shadowing him decide to hijack a car in order to stay on his heel.
- Foil: Bruno and Guy, very intentional (see Numerological Motif below).
- Forced Perspective: The final scene of the so-called American version has Barbara and Anne Morton waiting for Guy to call on the telephone. Alfred Hitchcock wanted the phone in the foreground to dominate the shot, emphasizing the importance of the call, but the limited depth-of-field of contemporary motion picture lenses made it difficult to get both phone and women in focus. So Hitchcock had an oversized phone constructed and placed in the foreground. Anne reaches for the big phone but actually answers a regular one.
- Hand Stomp: Hugo stomps on Guy's hands when the latter is hanging on to a steel bar to keep him from being propelled away from the spinning carousel.
- Homoerotic Subtext: Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Walker (Bruno) worked out an elaborate series of gestures and physical appearance to suggest the homosexuality and seductiveness of Bruno's character while bypassing censor objections.
- Identical Stranger: Barbara Morton and Miriam Joyce Haines. Not quite identical, but similar enough that it becomes a plot point.
- Imperiled in Pregnancy: Miriam is pregnant at the time of her murder. (In the book, she has suffered a miscarriage shortly before that point.) Oddly, nobody seems particularly concerned by this fact. She's not yet showing (or if she is, her outfits hide it) so her pregnancy might not be widely known yet.
- Informed Attribute: Bruno claims his father is a horrible person, but we have only the word of a madman to go on. Indeed, the one time we see him he appears genuinely concerned for his son's well-being. More so in the novel, where the aforementioned scene never takes place and the reader knows nothing about Bruno's father right up until Guy kills him, at which point a private detective in Bruno's father's employ tells Bruno that if he honestly thinks his father didn't love him then he really didn't know him at all.
- Inspiration Nod: Throw Momma from the Train is built around the same let's-trade-murders plot. This is directly referenced in the movie when writing teacher Larry tells his hapless student Owen to watch some Hitchcock for inspiration. Owen watches the first few minutes of Strangers, immediately recognizes the similarity to his current situation, and runs off to kill Larry's wife.
- In the Back: Subverted. It looks like Bruno is going to shoot Guy in the back as the latter walks out of the mansion but he refrains from doing so, noting that the noise would wake his mother.
- Karmic Death: Bruno.
- MacGuffin: Guy's lighter.
- Mama Didn't Raise No Criminal: When Anne comes to talk to Bruno's mother about his deed, the latter wouldn't hear any of it.
- Manipulative Bastard: Bruno, to an extent. He tries his damnedest to get Guy to go along with the plot, which doesn't seem to work, but his threats to frame Guy succeed in getting Guy to refrain from turning him in to the police. He also manages to keep his mother from suspecting anything bad about him.
- Meganekko: Ann's younger sister, Barbara "Babs" Morton (played by Hitchcock's daughter Patricia).
- Momma's Boy: Goes hand in hand with Bruno's Oedipus Complex.
- My God, You Are Serious: Guy's reaction when he learns about Bruno killing his wife.
- No OSHA Compliance: Why does the marry-go-round have an option to go dangerously fast? Why isn't there a safety lever that makes it slow down gradually instead of brakes that would only end up making matters worse once physics ensue when a fast moving object stops?
- Numerological Motif:
- The number two and the concepts of doubles and doppelgangers are both important in this movie.
- The theme of crosses and double crossing could fit under here as well.
- Oedipus Complex: Bruno wants to kill his father and is very... close with his mother. More so in the book where Bruno's mother is described as moderately attractive and has a lot of male friends. In the film, she's fairly old and delusional.
- The Perfect Crime: At least as Bruno likes to see it.
- Police Are Useless: The Metcalf police department might be the most incompetent cops in the Hitchcock canon (no easy feat at all). They assume the Tunnel of Love operator is leading them to Guy when he's really incriminating Bruno, then they open fire on an unarmed man on a crowded merry-go-round.
- Psychological Horror: Not as much compared to some Hitchcock movies, but it's certainly there. While he's kind of funny most of the time, there are moments when Bruno is terrifying.
- Psychopathic Manchild: Bruno.
- Punch-Clock Villain: Detective Hennessey becomes friendly with Guy even though he's technically following him around.
- Really Gets Around: Miriam, full stop. She cheats on Guy, gets pregnant with another man's baby, and even after refusing to divorce Guy, still goes on a carnival date with two other men.
- Reflective Eyes: Or Reflective Eyeglasses, anyway; we see Bruno strangle Miriam in them after they're knocked to the ground.
- Rich Idiot With No Day Job: Bruno hates his rich father partly because the latter wanted him to take on a regular job.
- Sarcasm-Blind: Guy's reaction to Bruno's plan is bewilderment, and when Bruno asks if he thinks it is a good plan, Guy sarcastically responds in the affirmative.
- Sinister Suffocation: Discussed. The antagonist playfully asks two women what they would consider to be the best way to murder a person. He then dismisses all of their guesses and replies that strangulation is the only correct answer, as it leaves no bloodstains, produces no noises, and causes death in a relatively quick timeframe
- Sissy Villain: Bruno.
- Slouch of Villainy: Bruno is lazily slouching in his train seat, for most of the scene where he makes Guy's acquaintance and explains his murder scheme.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: Miriam's murder is accompanied by jaunty carousel music in the background (which actually goes twice as fast as it does in the rest of the amusement park scenes).
- Spared by the Adaptation: Guy actually kills Bruno's father in the book. In the film, he doesn't go through with it.
- Spiritual Successor: Once again, Farley Granger plays a nervous man who gets wrapped up in a psychopath's murder scheme in a Hitchcock film loaded with Homoerotic Subtext, just like in Rope.
- "Strangers on a Train"-Plot Murder: Trope Namer, and an Unbuilt Trope: Guy laughs Bruno's suggestion off as a joke, only to discover that Bruno is all too serious. In the end, Guy doesn't go through with it — in the movie, at least.
- "Test Your Strength" Game: Bruno follows Miriam and her two beaus to an amusement park where he impresses her with his strength by winning the "Test Your Strength Game". The vendor half-jokingly says that Bruno broke the bell.
- Tunnel of Love: At the amusement park, Miriam goes through one with her two male companions, and Bruno follows them.
- Unconventional Vehicle Chase: A "chase" on a Merry-Go-Round.
- Undercrank: The climax on the spinning carousel — alongside the prior shot of Guy fainting after nearly strangling Mrs. Cunningham — was achieved this way.
- Villain Ball: Bruno all but outright tells Anne what he's going to do to frame Guy, just to rub Guy's nose in it, even though it gives Guy a chance to stop him.
- We Are Not Going Through That Again: At the end, Guy finds himself in a train carriage with a stranger who recognises him and tries to strike up a conversation. Having just gone through a hell of an ordeal resulting from someone else on a train recognising him and striking up a conversation, Guy gets up and goes to another compartment without saying a word.
- We Need a Distraction: Babs distracts the cops after the tennis match long enough for Guy to slip by them and into the cab.
- Would Hurt a Child: In the climax, after the carousel has accelerated to dangerous speeds, Bruno throws a little boy off his horse. He gets very close to the edge before Guy saves him at the last minute and gets him out of harm's way.
- You're Insane!: Variations of the phrase are frequently used by Guy to describe Bruno, much to his chagrin.