This is perhaps the most elegantly designed of Hitchcock’s movies next to the much earlier Ring, the story here visualised from the outset (as that movie’s was by the boxing ring, the arm band, the wedding ring) by the “criss-cross” of the railroad tracks on which hero and villain fatefully meet. It’s an insanely simple set-up: a slightly unhinged character Bruno (played with exuberant relish by Robert Walker) suggests to tennis pro Guy (Farley Granger) that they, both having reasons to want someone out of their life (and who doesn’t?), swap murders, thereby providing an alibi for each other and committing the perfect crime. The good Guy clearly wants no part of it and assumes Bruno is joking; Bruno mistakes Guy’s reaction at their first meeting as a contract.
There’s the same sick thrill as Rope here about the “Let’s do a murder!” aspect, and I love it. As in Rope Granger plays the unwilling participant, though here of course even more unwilling. But along with this sense of near-glee, there’s also plenty of genuine creepiness. As Bruno stalks Guy’s “victim” at the fairground, one truly gets a sense of the girl’s absolute innocence and humanity, even as you laugh at Bruno’s cruel quirks – bursting the balloon of a little boy who gets in the way, for example. Even after the brutal crime, we’re given even more of a chill as Bruno calmly helps a blind man across the street – it has the same effect as, say, Hannibal Lector’s etiquette would have decades later. This is one of cinema’s most horribly dimensional bad guys.
Following Bruno’s enacting of his part of the “deal” he thinks was made, the movie begins to resemble another much earlier Hitchcock, Blackmail. There are further chilling appearances of Bruno observing Guy, waiting for him to reciprocate and murder too, in Washington, but most memorably at a tennis match, one of Hitchcock’s most brilliantly creepy shots, as in among the clichéd heads going side to side following the game, there is Bruno’s head, completely stationary, looking right at us/Guy. Robert Walker as Bruno actually reminds me a lot of the blackmailer in Blackmail, as a matter of fact, something about the overly confident way he holds himself, adding I suppose to the villainy… he truly sees nothing wrong in all of this.
There’s more lightheartedness too, however – that high society woman at a party talking delightedly about murder that I mentioned in my Shadow of a Doubt review is at last here … it’s like the whole movie is about that fine line where the deep-seated sympathy for certain criminals we all carry to an extent becomes itself something too dark – in Bruno, it’s terrifying, but in this old lady? Joyous. There’s Pat Hitchcock’s character too, who I just loved in all her precocious dead-pannery. She’s one of those characters who seems to be the only one who knows exactly what’s going on, only nobody will ever ask her, her insight all stemming again from a chilling exchange of looks between her and Bruno, who almost kills the aforementioned old lady when Pat’s glasses (similar to the ones worn by Guy’s “victim”) distract him. And there’s the wonderful little boy at the electrifying finale on the carousel, as the whole thing spins horrifyingly out of control, giggling like it’s the best ride he’s ever had. This movie’s juxtaposition between these extremes of terror and delight knows absolutely no bounds. I’ve actually fallen in love with it even more just writing about it months later.