Hitchcock’s Style in “Strangers on a Train”

by Ellery LeSueur

 

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), two men meet for the first time and agree to swap murders; Bruno (Robert Walker) agrees to murder Guy’s wife and Guy (Farley Granger), who thinks Bruno is joking, agrees noncommittally to the whole idea. The way Hitchcock initially presents the characters of Guy and Bruno gives the audience an indication of who these characters will later reveal themselves to be as the film progresses. Although Guy is the one who the film presents as the “good guy” and an average Joe, Hitchcock intentionally makes the psychotic Bruno the more interesting and sympathetic character. Hitchcock also presents Bruno as sympathetic until the end of the film, at which point he makes Bruno unsympathetic again in order to comply with the production code contexts of the time. Overall, Strangers on a Train is a great study in the way Hitchcock plays with the viewer’s sympathy.

From the very first shots of the film, my first impressions of Bruno and Guy were being crafted. The film’s opening follows two pairs of shoes: one pair of flashy black-and-white wingtips, the other pair a classic black. The sequence doesn’t reveal the characters until the wearer of the simpler shoes accidentally knocks the other man’s foot. We then learn that Bruno is the one wearing the more flamboyant pair, suggesting with his costuming that before we even see his face, this is a man who is eccentric, showy and charismatic. As we are seemingly promised by this costuming choice, Bruno is the one to strike up the conversation with Guy and who is able to manipulate Guy into having a conversation with him. Guy’s famous reputation is one of the first things we learn about him when Bruno recognizes Guy as a well-known tennis player. As opposed to Bruno, who is, despite his unconventionality, immediately likable, the first thing we see Guy do is act standoffish towards this man who seems to revere him. The only other really important thing we know about Guy is that he wants to leave his wife for a woman of higher class. As if all that wasn’t enough, his first interaction with someone he knows is with his hated wife, Miriam, who he then proceeds to shake violently and threaten. Miriam is immediately whiny and conniving, but the reason Guy initially married her is never revealed. This presentation made me more interested in Bruno than Guy because Guy seems to be consistently cynical and displeased, whereas Bruno immediately seems to be the one who tries to make the most of a situation.

My first impressions of Guy and Bruno evolved as we got to know the characters better. For me, Bruno was obviously the more intriguing one. In the scene where the two men meet up by chance on the train, Bruno proceeds to tell Guy about his theories of how to commit the perfect murder. Guy is obviously a bit uncomfortable because Bruno seems to be rattling on about this so casually, but his casualness is also a comfort because it seems to indicate that Bruno isn’t really planning a perfect murder. Guy tells Bruno condescendingly that all of his theories are “fine” and the opening scene in the train car comes to a close, I was inexplicably chilled after Guy’s exit as Bruno lounges in the train car and mumbles to himself, “Criss-cross.” The word is oddly child-like for a grown man who has just been using it to describe the act of killing. The disturbing nature of this moment made me wonder just how mentally stable Bruno was. It seems as though something dark is lurking beneath the surface of his character, something that we may soon see.  Indeed, Bruno does grow darker and darker as the film progresses. His twisted handwriting in the note he sends to Guy while trying to contact him suggests an equally distorted mental state. Wondering how far Bruno will actually go made the film engaging for me.

While I did become more sympathetic towards Guy after he showed his tender side in his first scene with his love interest, Anne (Ruth Roman), the kindness didn’t do much to convince me that Guy was anywhere near interesting. Even the name “Guy” seems to suggest his that not even his name separates him from all the other typical “guys” on earth. He is essentially ordinary, and therefore, a complete bore. Additionally, Guy seems to continually unable to do anything right; first, he has married a conniving girl. Then, he can’t get her to divorce him. His reactionary violence at the record shop makes him look like the abusive one to everyone else. Guy’s lack of ability to succeed at nearly anything in the beginning of the film makes him an especially frustrating character, especially compared to Bruno, who is refreshingly driven and knows what he wants, despite its immorality.

Costuming and dialogue were the two main elements that contributed to giving me the most memorable information about Bruno and Guy. In addition to the symbolic choices of shoes in the opening shots, there is also the matter of Bruno’s tiepin. Shortly into their first meeting, Bruno tells Guy that he has to wear the pin to please his mother. From this comment, we understand that Bruno is, to some unknown extent, manipulative. The fact that he wears a tiepin to please his mother suggests that he is aware of what people want and expect from him, enabling him to use those things as blackmail and to play people for his own purposes.  The dialogue is also used to help us understand what Bruno values when he confides in Guy after having just met him, saying, “I never seem to do anything.” Whether or not this is true, it helps the audience understand that there is a void in Bruno’s life that he’s looking to fill with some kind of excitement or adventure. After Bruno shows up in front of Guy’s apartment and convinces him not to go to the police, the phone rings from inside Guy’s apartment and Bruno looks back over at Guy and says, “Someone has some news for you, Guy.” The fact that he knows who is calling and why they are calling gives him a kind of power over the situation that makes you feel like it’s impossible to escape Bruno’s influence.

Ultimately, Strangers on a Train becomes a film with a likable villain which was made in a time when the film production code required that villains be punished and that the moral of the story be that crime doesn’t pay. This poses a complicated problem for Hitchcock: can a likable villain also be a punished villain without alienating the audience? I argue that Hitchcock does this by functioning on the principle of plausible deniability of Bruno’s evil until the very end of the film, at which point Hitchcock shows us the extent of Bruno’s evil for the first time. Whereas before this, each event when Bruno revealed he had a dark side also had a way which the audience could excuse him for that dark side. Because Hitchcock makes Bruno more vulnerable and open, the audience knows Bruno much better than Guy by the end of the film, and therefore, our sympathy is with him. Even though Bruno is causing Guy so much trouble, Bruno seems to be doing all of it because he wants Guy’s approval and although he seeks this approval in the wrong way, the film makes you feel like there has to be some better way to handle the situation than the way Guy does, repeatedly calling Bruno things like “maniac” and “lunatic”. The struggle on the carousel at the end of the film was the point during which it became clear to me how much Bruno really had distanced himself from empathizing with others. When he pushed the young boy to the edge of the carousel, Guy saved the boy from falling to his death just in time. For me, this action proved how dangerous Bruno had really become and made it undeniable; if not for that obviously villainous moment, Bruno’s death would have felt a lot less justified, despite his many evil actions. In the end, the fact that carousel was what killed Bruno seemed of great significance. Since a carousel is so associated with childhood, it seemed to represent the idea of Bruno’s child-like mindset (of getting whatever he wants without any consequences) literally spinning out of control and wreaking havoc. By the end, when Bruno’s manicured hand falls open to reveal Guy’s lighter, I still can’t completely side with Guy because I pity Bruno for lying about the situation with his last breath.

Overall, Strangers on a Train made me question the way that an obviously immoral character can clear themselves to an audience purely by being inscrutable. This film felt like a study of how an evil character can be made appealing to an audience and how that appeal could be revoked again. In future Hitchcock films, I will look for more clues as to how Hitchcock gets us to side with the villain and watch for the way he plays with our sympathy.

Ellery LeSueur is a writer and cinephile from Chicago, Illinois. Fascinated by American cinema history, her favorite Hitchcock films are Psycho, Spellbound, and The 39 Steps.

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