Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"I admire people who do things." HITCHCOCK MARATHON

Strangers On A Train-1951-Alfred Hitchcock


So two fellows meet on a train eh? Bruno is the more effeminate one with a peculiar way about him, Guy seems confident, but only on the outside. Bruno just happens to know a lot about Guy. Guy is a tennis player with a wife named Miriam. He also has a girlfriend named Ann Morton, who is the daughter of a senator. Why is guy two timing his wife? Well his wife is a selfish, money grubber who could really care less about Guy. He wants a divorce but she doesn't because she can get more out of him without one. When Bruno, a self professed mama's boy(not in those exact words), proclaims his hatred for his father he lets a little plan slip out. If two strangers had someone they wanted to kill and they had each other do it, no one could fault them for it. It is a win-win situation. Bruno explains that he could kill Miriam and Guy can kill his father. Guy refuse's but Bruno insists. Does Guy give in to the temptation? Well Bruno goes ahead and forges on with the plan as if Guy had said yes, and expects Guy to follow through after he has in fact killed Miriam. How can he get Guy to give in? Well Guy happened to leave his lighter with a tennis logo and the phrase "A to G" engraved on it.

Hitchcock's 1951 film Strangers On A Train is a lot like his other work. We have someone with mother issues, we have a wrong man situation, we have murder and love and betrayal. So, as we see, in many ways, Hitchcock is using his by the numbers directing playbook here. He is a veteran at the time Strangers On A Train is released. But some things that struck me were the lack of a blonde female lead. The lack of a macguffin here is also interesting to note, unless you could argue that the lighter was in fact a macguffin.

This film's major aspect is that of the criss cross, or double cross. Constantly we see things like Guy talking about being able to strangle his wife and then a dissolve to Bruno making a strangling motion with his hands. In the scene after Bruno kills Miriam he takes a look at his watch and then a cut to Guy on a train looking at his watch. It builds the tension really well. What connects these two men?

"Everybody is a potential murderer" says Bruno on the train. Bruno furthers this point at a party when he discusses murderer with a Mrs. Cunningham, telling her the perfect way to murder someone in his eyes.

One of the most magnificently planned out and shot scenes in the film is the lead up to, and actual act of, Miriam's murder. While we see Bruno follow her to the amusement park with her two guys(neither of them her husband) she keeps looking back noticing him, but kind of smiles as if he's following her because he is attracted to her. After walking into the park a little boy walks up to Bruno going "Bang, Bang" and shaping his finger like a gun, pointing it directly at Bruno. This foreshadows the fact that Bruno will eventually murder Miriam, while also being a portrait of him. He is murdering for attention. He is murdering Miriam to in turn get his father murdered. He wants all the attention of his mother, and can only have that with his old man out of the way. Lastly this foreshadows Bruno's eventual end.

During the same scene we get another foreshadowing of a future scene in the film. Miriam and her boys get on the merry-go-round, while Bruno does so also. This is when Miriam really notices him following her, but thinks nothing strange of it. The Merry-Go Round plays a significant part in the ending of this film. Bruno then follows them onto the Tunnel Of Love. While on the ride we see Bruno's shadow catch up to Miriam's and then cut to the outside of the tunnel and hear Miriam scream, but then see her and her boys pop out. It turns out it was only a scream of excitement or just her having fun. They go to an island that the Tunnel of Love's river leads to and begin playing around, Bruno follows and waits in the bushes. While Miriam is running around she notices Bruno. She playfully says hello, and he says it back and then begins to strangle her. We are not seeing this first hand but as her glasses fall off we see her being choked through the reflection of the glasses.

Miriam's glasses and the reflection of her murder hold an important place in the film. Later on, when we meet Ann's sister Barb, it is noticed that her glasses are similar to Miriam's. When Bruno meets her he can see the murder happening in the reflection of her glasses. Is this Bruno's guilt being summoned, or does he feel guilty at all? Could this simply be reminding him of how his father has yet to be dead although he has done his side of what he thinks was a deal? We aren't told for sure, but when Bruno is explaining to Mrs. Cunningham the perfect way to murder someone he puts his hands around her throat playfully and tells her to try and make a noise. As soon as he begins play strangling her he sees Barb and becomes fixated on her. His choking of Mrs. Cunningham becomes real and he chokes harder and harder until he faints. Barb explains to Ann that it felt as if he was choking her, and Ann confronts Guy about it as she feels she has put two and two together. Guy tells Ann everything, but they mustn't let anyone else know he says.
Something I really noticed was this films major film noir use. While many of Hitch's films deal with film noir issues they are usually in color, or lack any other significant feature that would make it predominately noir. What we get here that really brings it into the noir mode is the chiaroscuro lighting. I especially noticed this in the scene in which Bruno tells Guy he has murdered Miriam. They are talking through a fence and it seems as if they are behind bars, trapped in a cell. The lighting shows both of their faces in half light, and half darkness. Sticking to that half theme, Strangers On A Train is said to have a doppelganger theme. Bruno is Guy's desire to kill Miriam, sort of a real life subconscious wish fulfillment fantasy. Bruno may represent Guy's inner mind. Guy obviously desires her dead, as he did scream on the phone with Ann that sometimes he wishes he could strangle her. Be careful what you wish for, some might say. I am more reminded of the Bible verse.

Matthew 5: 21-22
'You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement'

I know, Hitchcock's film is not religious by any means, but what I am saying is that thinking something in her your heart makes it basically a done deal in your heart and truly torments you, and this can be accounted for by anyone who has ever been alive. We all wrestle with daily grudges and arguments, and if we let them seep into our hearts they ruin our lives. This is a common thing whether you are religious or not. This basic theme is something I think Hitch was getting at. This point is more driven home when Bruno proclaims, "Everyone has somebody that they want to put out of the way. Oh now, surely Madam, you're not going to tell me that there hasn't been a time that you didn't want to dispose of someone. Your husband, for instance".

Bruno fulfilling Guy's desires can also be found in the ways they are constantly criss crossing. They are constantly crossing railroads to get to certain places. They meet by crossing their legs and accidentally bumping each others feet(although I suspect Bruno predestined it). Also the criss crossing of the tennis racquet's on Guy's lighter.

The tennis racquet's could be said to foreshadow the tense tennis match when Guy is trying to hurry and sneak past his shadow. I am completely amazed at how Hitchcock can make a tennis match tense and suspenseful in the midst of a murder mystery. This and Bruno's dropping of the lighter into the sewer drain and subsequently reaching to get it are some of the most heart pounding scenes in the film(and Michael Bay thinks explosions cause the same effect, watch some Hitchcock Mr. Bay).

"Since you're the one profiting from this I think you'll need to end up paying for it." Bruno shouts this at Guy near the end of the film, but what he doesn't know is that Guys hands are clean. Bruno eventually pays for what he has done.

Another element of foreshadowing was done at first with a picture Bruno's mother painted. It seemed to be a man burning in flames, Bruno thinks it's his father. It turns out it is really him. This is proven when he first lights the lighter and sees a flame in the reflection of Miriam's glasses just before he murders her. Through this it could be said to mean that when Bruno had the lighter it was the idea fermented in his mind. He was going to kill Miriam and frame Guy if he didn't go through with the side he never agreed to go through with.

When Guy does sneak out to go to Bruno's place and we think he is going to kill him, something strange happens. To get the full circle of what happens we have to go back to something Guy said to Barb about Hennessey, his shadow.

Guy: Doesn't that bloodhound ever relax? He sticks so close he's beginning to grow on me... like a fungus

When Guy sneaks out and goes to Bruno's house, we see him check the map to find Bruno's fathers room. Hennessey is not Guy's shadow at this moment, Hammond, the more paranoid of the two is shadowing but doesn't see him leave. Guy walks into Bruno's house and around the corner to go up the stairs. He is carrying a gun. At the top of the stairs is a dog(a Great Dane, but to me the connection still fits) who at first growls at Guy but then licks his hand, as if to wash his hands of the situation. When he enters Bruno's fathers room we see Bruno appear and say his father is out of town. Guy explains that he wasn't going to go through with it, but he was going to tell his father of his psychopath of a son. Was he really planning on going through with it at first? I have my suspicions, but maybe the dog(Hennessey) saved him. Guy also refers to Hennessey as his guardian angel. In many scenes do we see Hennessey literally save Guy from being turned in by stopping Hammond from turning Guy in before it is revealed that Bruno is the murderer. Of course this is only a theory, I have recently read a completely different theory at (the article is under the link) about the homo-erotic symbolism of Strangers On A Train.

"In this case, a long and narrow revolver represents Guy. Similarly, earlier in the same scene, a Great Dane represents Bruno. The dog's association with Bruno is set up earlier in the film, when Mrs. Antony chides her son, "You're a naughty boy Bruno"- more the sort of thing one would say to a dog than to a man- and then giggles and looks at the dog in the background. In addition, "Bruno" is typically a dog's name, and the dog itself is never named. As a result, the dog growling at Guy, but then inexplicably licking his hand, can be viewed as Bruno threatening yet desiring Guy. A slow motion shot as the dog licks Guy's hand draws attention to the sensuality of that act."

I truly found Strangers On A Train to be one of Hitchcock's best films. It isn't as often talked about as his other classics but I found it to withhold a lot of depth and emotional pull while still being entertaining.


darkcitydame4e said...

Deadpan said,"I truly found Strangers On A Train to be one of Hitchcock's best films. It isn't as often talked about as his other classics but I found it to withhold a lot of depth and emotional pull while still being entertaining."
Hi! Deadpan,
Personally, I have no other choice, but to agree with you about Hitchcock's "classic masterpiece" "Stranger On a Train" I would go out on a limb and say, this film along with "The Lady Vanishes" and "Rear Window" are also 2 of my fave Hitch films.
Btw, I own 2 copies of the dvd SoaT the first one I purchased not knowing that a 2nd dvd would be released loaded with extras.
A Trivia Moment: This film was remade as "Once you Meet a Stranger" and the parody of SoaT in the form of "Throw Mama From the Train."
Let me end by saying,what a very detailed and interesting write~up! you, about one of my "fave film"

Dead Pan said...

Darkcity---thanks for the comments, and trivia. I had no idea about the remake and parody. I'll have to check those out.

Also, I have yet to see The Lady Vanishes, but I'm guessing you obviously recommend it. =)

Winfred said...

Thank you for your article, really effective piece of writing.