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"Strangers on a Train"-Plot Murder

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"A couple of fellows meet accidentally, like you and me. No connection between them at all. Never saw each other before. Each of them has somebody he'd like to get rid of, but he can't murder the person he wants to get rid of. He'll get caught. So they swap murders."

Oh, hello there. I didn't see you. I was too busy thinking about my horrible father — but you don't want to hear about it. You probably have troubles of your own. Perhaps a shrill ex-wife? And you don't want to pay her alimony anymore, you say? Well, perhaps we met for a reason. Listen: I'll "X" your ex, if you pop my pop. Ah, I knew this was a good idea. We'll each have alibis for the other crime, and we won't have apparent motives for the one we did commit. It's perfect ó we'll never get caught.

A non-lethal version of the trope exists in sitcoms, in which two characters who can't bring themselves to tell loved ones something that will hurt them will swap duties thinking it will be less painful coming from the other character. A similarly non-lethal (or at least "non-lethal" at first) variation is people exploiting their apparent lack of connection to get alibis for crimes like insider trading. Another variation can come in Villain Team-Ups where the villains in question belong to two separate heroes' Rogues Galleries.

Compare with Gift of the Magi Plot, where two characters plot to give each other a gift that is nullified by the sacrifice the other did to get them a gift.

Not to be confused with Thriller on the Express, a thriller set on a journeying train.


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    Comic Books 
  • The entire point of the Acts of Vengeance crossover was to create the largest-scale version of this possible. While this was happening, every single Marvel superhero with a book to themselves faced someone else's villain, usually at a severe disadvantage. Most famously, Daredevil fought Ultron... and won.
  • The Brave and the Bold: Issue #194, "Trade Heroes and Win!" saw the Rainbow Raider (The Flash villain) and Doctor Double X (Batman villain) trading heroes on the advice of a villainous psychologist, who told them they were conditioned to expect defeat against their usual heroes. However, their lack of experience against these new foes ultimately proved their undoing.
  • While the usual version of this in comics is villains trading heroes because they always lose against their usual opponents, Justice League of America #111 has the heroes switching round which Injustice Gang members they go after because they're bored with defeating their usual opponents. Elongated Man suggests they put all the villain names in a hat and pick one and, despite Batman complaining this is ridiculous, that's exactly what they do.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Breaking the Girls: Alex proposes this to Sara. At first the latter thinks she was joking, but Alex turns out to mean it and insists Sara fulfill her part (despite not having agreed). Then it's subverted as Sara gets arrested before committing murder and it turns out Alex set her up.
  • The 1994 straight-to-video movie Dead On. Adulterous lovers Ted and Erin agree to kill each other's spouses. After Ted's wife Marla disappears, he murders Erin's husband... and becomes a suspect in the murder after the affair comes to light. It turns out his wife's body wasn't found for a good reason - Marla is still alive. It was actually a plot between Marla and Erin to get rid of each other's husbands so that Erin becomes a wealthy widow, and Marla (who was already rich) gets to divorce Ted without alimony after he's sent to jail for the murder. Knowing he's going to jail anyway, Ted pulls a Taking You with Me and kills them both. They really should have checked him for a gun before they pulled their gloating reveal.
  • Do Revenge has the set-up of Drea and Eleanor help each other get revenge on the people who ruined their social lives, as neither of them have a public connection to each other before their chance meeting. Then it's revealed the person Eleanor claimed outed her was just a red herring, because the real person she's after is Drea herself.
  • Horrible Bosses name-checks both the above movies. Of course, they miss the important points that they shouldn't know each other, and they should have alibis when the other murders happen.
  • Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. It was probably Adaptation Displacement for Patricia Highsmith's book, too. Interestingly, it isn't a straight example - Guy doesn't agree to the murder swap and doesn't go through with killing Bruno's father.
  • The Strange Vice Of Mrs Ward. They also employ a third accomplice.
  • Happens in the British film Sweet Revenge, an adaptation of the play The Revengers' Comedies. Henry Bell and Karen Knightly strike a bargain for the murders of Henry's boss and Karen's lover's wife. Subverted in that Henry finds himself falling in love with his target.
  • Throw Momma from the Train: A homage, parody, and eventual subversion of Strangers on a Train.

  • Done in a fairly easy Clue tie-in mystery book. There are three failed attempts at murder, in each case, two people with motive are missing. Since one was missing on all three occasions, the two killers are obvious.
  • Used as a plot point in Death Will Attend, the second book in the Caching Out series by Morgan C Talbot.
  • One of Us is Lying: This is what's happening in the sequel, where one party wants the person who caused their father's fatal accident to have a (non-fatal) accident, and one wants revenge on the lawyer whose investigation caused their brother's arrest by bombing his whole wedding party''. Except that, as it's done online, one of the members is confused about who their buddy is. Complicated further when their original buddy backs out, but someone else takes over without either original knowing.
  • In A Pen-Knife in My Heart, a novel written by future Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis under his Nicholas Blake pen name, Stuart Hammer takes weak-willed author Ned Stowe out on his boat and makes him a proposal. Stuart will kill Ned's wife so that Ned can be with his mistress Laura. In return, Ned will murder Stuart's uncle, who's also his boss. Published eight years after Strangers on a Train and six years after Alfred Hitchcock's movie, the plot was close enough so that Day-Lewis had to make some last-minute changes in order to avoid a lawsuit from Highsmith's publisher.
  • The Shadow Club begins as the PG version of this, with various bullied teens exchanging pranks. Then someone begins to commit more serious misdeeds, some of them dangerous, and none of them are sure who's gone too far. Everyone except the narrator did one and only one of the serious misdeeds on the unknowing behalf of one other club member they cared deeply about. The narrator winds up accepting guilt for his girlfriend's "prank," which permanently crippled a Jerk Jock.
  • One of the Eve Dallas novels, Strangers in Death.
  • In the short story "Strangers On a Handball Court" by Lawrence Block, two men exchange their ex-wives' murders. One of them conceals the fact that he is still married to the target and having an affair with the second man's wife. He then kills the "stranger" who broke into his house and murdered his wife.
  • The Trope Maker, Patricia Highsmith's novel Strangers on a Train, also isn't quite a straight example. From the start, Guy Haines explicitly refuses to be part of Charlie Bruno's plot and leaves him to find somebody else. Unfortunately, Bruno is fond of Haines and kills his wife anyway as a favor. Then he starts stalking Haines to try and make him follow through with his end of the "bargain". Unlike in the Hitchcock movie, Haines becomes so demoralized that he does kill Bruno's father. The plot is eventually found out by the police, in large part because Bruno ignores the "strangers" bit and starts wedging himself into Haines's personal life.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Bones did a three-way "Strangers on the Internet" version of this once in "The Bodies in the Book".
  • In the Castle episode "The Double Down," it was Strangers on a Boat. Castle even does the "criss-cross" gesture. As a writer, he is understandably excited.
  • City Homicide has the detectives investigating two murders, each man stabbed several times and equations written over them. Each had a child who basically hated them, but each has an alibi. At which point, the captain suggests each agreed to kill the other's father with the equations to make it look like a serial killer. However, they're given away by the minor differences such as the depth of the wounds and the cops set up a sting to trick one of them into confessing.
  • The Closer has a non-murder (at least initially) variation. A group of teenagers whose parents are all well-off make a plan: each time one of them goes on vacation with their family, the rest of the group will break into their house and steal laptops and stuff because they figure that they want stuff, and since their parents are rich they can just replace the missing things. It backfires when one of them decides he doesn't want to do it anymore, but the others decide to break into his house anyway when he and his parents go on vacation and accidentally kill the house-sitter.
  • Done in a Columbo episode "A Friend in Deed", although the perpetrators are not really strangers. They almost manage to get away with it.
  • Criminal Minds episode "The Pact" has a pair of women who've had a child relative killed by people who escaped justice deal with each other's target this way. Reid quickly figures this out and references the trope namer.
  • In an episode of CSI, it was Strangers in a Movie Theatre (coincidentally watching Strangers on a Train). Someone even points out how well that plot worked in the film (i.e. it didn't).
  • Done in the Death in Paradise episode "A Dash of Sunshine", although the first murder is not seen; having already taken place in another country.
  • Dick Van Dyke subverted this trope in an episode of Diagnosis: Murder. A deranged psychiatrist killed a hospital administrator who was going to recommend that Dr. Sloan(Van Dyke) be dismissed from Community General when he protested her bone-deep budget cut recommendations. The psychiatrist then called up Dr. Sloan and told him, "Now you owe me a favor." Dr. Sloan refused to play along.
  • Due South does a version in "Perfect Strangers" with one murder in Chicago and the other in Toronto. One of Kowalski's informants is stabbed to death while a few days earlier a flight attendant in Canada is murdered. Fraser finds the primary suspects have airtight alibis and no obvious ties. Yet Fraser plays a hunch that there is a connection.
  • FBI: Most Wanted has the team realizing two seemingly unconnected murders are this although it gets complicated when one wife has to eliminate the other's stepdaughter as well as the husband.
  • Heartbeat. Local rogue Claude Greengrass has just been to see the movie Strangers on a Train and jokes loudly afterward about how he's like someone to burn down his old barn for the insurance money. Unfortunately, someone takes him at his word and gets nasty when Claude doesn't keep his side of the 'bargain'.
  • Highlander has an episode where Duncanís sword fight is caught on tape. The guy asks Duncan to kill his wife and will make the tape public if he refuses. Duncan goes to the wife for the tape but naturally doesnít kill her. Meanwhile, the immortal friend of the guy Duncan killed is after Duncan. The guy shows up at the dojo and tries to get Duncan into a plot, mentioning the story itself. Duncan naturally refuses and kicks the guy out.
  • Law & Order: "C.O.D." has Strangers in a Coffee Shop. Two women are accused of conspiring to murder each other's husbands, but Jack and Serena are forced to try the cases simultaneously and separately.
  • One episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent featured a variation in which the killers are the sisters-in-law of the victims (who are brothers) rather than complete strangers. Turns out to be a subversion, as it's eventually revealed that while this was the original plan, one of the women ultimately tried to back out of the pact, so the other one ended up carrying out both killings herself.
  • A sad twist to it on Magnum, P.I. (2018). A man kills a construction worker who got away with murder in exchange for someone else killing the drunk driver responsible for the first man's death. When they're arrested, Magnum has to drop the bomb the construction worker was actually innocent and the first man rocked he killed someone for a murder they didn't commit.
  • Medium had 5 Strangers On An Airport Lobby combined with Serial Killings, Specific Target: the victims would all be poisoned with the same tainted painkiller so that the deaths would be blamed on a serial poisoner since there was no apparent connection between the victims.
  • In the Modern Family episode "Strangers on a Treadmill", Mitchell suggests to Claire that he tell Phil his jokes are rotten while she tells Cam that he shouldn't wear embarrassingly revealing bicycle pants.
  • Motive: The murder in "Undertow" turns out to be a case of this. However, the second man gets cold feet and cannot go through with his part of the bargain.
  • The Murdoch Mysteries episode "Unfinished Business" has this as a cold case, reopened when one of the conspirators makes a Deathbed Confession, but leaves Murdoch with the impression he killed his own wife, which he can't have done. When Murdoch realises what happened, he even suggests they may have met on some form of public transport.
  • Done on The Mysteries of Laura with a twist: the first murder was committed by neither of the two connected with the plot and the person who agreed to murder the second victim goes through with it to hold up his end of the bargain.
  • NCIS:
    • In the episode "The Inside Man", it was Strangers on a Commuter Train... although the crime was insider trading rather than murder, at least to start with.
    • The episode "Alibi" has this with Strangers at an AA Meeting. In fact, the suspect in a hit-and-run tries to alibi out to his attorney by explaining that he was stabbing a guy to death in another town during the hit-and-run, and she can't tell anyone due to the attorney-client privilege (she still finds a way to leave a hint for Gibbs).
  • Peep Show had an episode where Mark and Jeremy tried to do this; Sophie got a promotion Mark wanted, while Toni (the object of Jeremy's affection) was sleeping with Super Hans. Mark proposed to Jeremy that they "take care of each other's problems" (Even name-dropping the film Strangers On A Train), which works about as well as you'd expect; first, Jeremy makes a threatening call to Sophie while he and Mark spy on her in her backyard (all this does is cause Sophie to get out her airgun and shoot the two of them in the bushes they're hiding in); meanwhile, Mark tries to stage a fake mugging on Super Hans (he's going to pepper spray him, kick him in the nuts, and steal his wallet to make it look like it was a robbery) but Mark can't bring himself to do it. When Super Hans sees Jeremy, Jeremy pepper sprays Hans and then Mark panics and sprays Jeremy.
  • Series two of Psychoville features a parody/homage of "Strangers on a Train." David agrees to kill Mrs. Wren so that her nephew can inherit her money, with the nephew agreeing to "relieve Maureen of her pain" (she is dying of cancer) in exchange; they meet on a train to discuss the plan. It backfires when Jelly escapes with the real Mrs. Wren, leading to her roommate (who was wearing a borrowed cardigan with Mrs. Wren's name sewn into it) being mistaken for her and murdered by Finney, and David finding the body. Meanwhile, Maureen catches Wren's nephew breaking into her house, and kills him - then discovers he wasn't planning to murder her, he was there to give her a disabled parking badge.
  • Used in an episode of Rizzoli & Isles. Two people, each wanting to be rid of their spouses, meet at a dog park and agree to swap murders. They're careful not to correspond on the computer or talk on the phone, being savvy enough to know they could be traced that way. Dog hair left at one of the murder scenes is what trips them up.
  • The Silent Witness story "Supernova" is based around this, with teenage girls plotting via the internet to murder people on each other's behalf.
  • An episode of Supertrain did a literal "Strangers on a Train" homage with Dick Van Dyke as the psycho.
  • Tales from the Darkside: A variant in "Pain Killer" where it is a chain rather than a swap. A mysterious doctor arranges the removal of a troublesome individual from a person's life. The person is later contacted to kill someone in another person's life.

  • Parodied in Season 2 episode 3 of John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme: Leonard (the Bruno character) knows that Nicholas (the Guy character)'s wife is always nagging him about vacuuming, and explains that his mother is always on about his cat's litter tray. After an increasingly blatant set-up, which includes the phrase "strangers ... on a train" several times, and a cameo by Alfred Hitchcock as the guard, he finally suggests ... they swap chores. While protesting that this is a stupid idea, Nicholas suggests the murder thing, at which Leonard is absolutely horrified. He calls the guard in, demanding that Nicholas be arrested because "He's a psycho and obsessed with my mother!" And that gives Hitchcock an idea...

    Video Games 

    Visual Novels 
  • A variation of this is a key part of the plot behind the The Great Ace Attorney duology. The "exchange program" is actually an assassin exchange, where the heads of the English and Japanese judicial systems send an assassin to kill a target in each other's country, and the judicial heads will claim immunity if the assassin is caught, forcing the country to send the assassin back without prosecution.

    Western Animation 
  • The Amazing World of Gumball episode "The Pact" is a Whole-Plot Reference to Strangers on a Train—including the part where only one partner fulfills their end of the bargain, though they're welching rather than refusing it. The task agreed upon is innocuous (Principal Brown tells Penny her laugh sounds annoying and Gumball tells Ms Simian her breath is bad), but one side gets entirely the wrong idea at first.
    Gumball: Yeah, I take care of Simian and you take care of Penny, right?
    Brown: But it'll have to look like an accident!
    Gumball: What!? I meant take care of the laugh and breath thing!
    Brown: Oh yes, that's a much less illegal idea!
  • Batman: The Brave and the Bold: In "Triumvirate of Terror!", Batman teams up with Superman and Wonder Woman when their arch-enemies Joker, Lex Luthor and Cheetah team up to defeat them by adopting a strategy of attacking a different hero: Wonder Woman vs Joker, Superman vs Cheetah, and Batman vs Luthor.
  • Brandy & Mr. Whiskers: In "Dog Play Afternoon", Gaspar and Brandy are understudies for the main leads of the play. Gaspar suggests Brandy to play dirty:
    Brandy: Come on! If something happens to the stars, It would be obvious we did it!
    Gaspar: Ah, what if I took care of your problem, and you take care of my problem. If anyone asks, we both would have alibis. (aside comment) It is a totally original idea, nobody has ever thought to use it in a movie plot.
  • Family Guy: In "Brief Encounter", Stewie's and Doug's subplot involves both of them killing each other's "enemy". However, while Stewie's enemy is a stuffed toy, Doug's is a real cat that he sees as a rival for his mother's affection.
  • Fillmore! had an episode where it looked like a vigilante was going after bullies. It turned out that the victims of various bullies had decided to fight back, but they swapped targets so that each of them would have an alibi when the bully they had reason to hate was targeted.
  • The final episode of the short-lived Gary and Mike, titled "Crisscross", parodied this.
  • The Hercules: The Animated Series Crossover episode with Aladdin: The Series had Jafar and Hades try this at first to deal with Herc and Al. Once it became clear that Hercules' strength was enough to overpower Jafar's sorcery and Genie one-shotted Pain and Panic, Jafar suggests a Let's You and Him Fight scenario instead.
  • Robot Chicken parodied this mercilessly, to the point of Crossing the Line Twice, in a sketch where O.J. Simpson is unwillingly roped into this by Roger Rabbit.
  • Played With as part of a Hitchcock parody in the The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror XX" short Dial 'M' For Murder or Press # to Return to the Main Menu. Bart and Lisa aren't strangers, but they do agree to swap revenge on their teachers... except Lisa only thought they were swapping pranks, while Bart saw it as the classic murder swap.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Murder Swap, Murder Exchange


Brief Encounter

Stewie and Doug's subplot involves both of them killing each other's "enemy".

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / StrangersOnATrainPlotMurder

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