Hitchcock’s Films: A Holistic Analysis Of Strangers On A Train

In reviewing Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a train, it is an insult only to focus on one part of the film such as the themes presented and leave out intricate details about the adaptation of the novel as well as the techniques that were used to make the motion picture. It is instead a justice to the film if one can cover a broader range of areas that will paint a more vivid picture of the film as well as paint a collage of how all these pieces fit into making the film a big success as it was in its time. As a director who loved the suspense while telling stories, it will be a homage to him and the rest of the cast and crew if this film review touched on as many aspects as possible that will expound the nature which the film took as well as the choice of adaptation. Not forgetting the cast and how they were essential in bringing this great movie to life.

Alfred Hitchcock had one fear in his life, and that was a dreadful feeling that he would one day be accused of a crime he did not take part in. This fear of false accusation can be said to be his main drive in the production of most of his notable films which also happened to include Strangers on a Train. Produced in 1951, it revolves around a man who is considered the main suspect in the murder of his wife[1]. He makes the only logical suspect because of the original plan made by the actual killer who proposed that two strangers exchange murders, each will take up the duty to kill who the other person wants gone.

 Additionally, they would both have airtight alibis that would serve to put them away from the scene of the crime. By doing this, it will ensure no slight connection between the killer as well as the victim. The screenplay is an adaptation base on a novel written by Patricia Highsmith which also happened to be her first novel. The drama which she had the passion for is also present in her Ripley novels, and through this film, we get to witness her fascination with above average criminals who are not driven with the passion but through calculated decisions and who managed to get away with it. “Criss-cross” which is the synonym used to represent the exchanged murders would have gone as planned apart from the fact that only one party is okay with the arrangement. The character Guy Haines, who also happened to be a famous tennis player meets with Bruno Anthony when traveling by train. Bruno shows a deep understanding of Guy’s life. He also knows that Guy has been wanting a divorce from his promiscuous wife Miriam who is played by Kasey Rogers and then marry Anne Morton who happens to be the daughter of a senator[2]. Bruno in his cunning ways reveals to Guy his wish to have his father dead over lunch in a private compartment.

He goes on to suggest that they plan a perfect crime in which he would kill Guy’s wife and in return, Guy would also return the favor and murder Bruno’s father who neither of them would be suspected of doing. Bruno’s character in this scene is seen as pushy and in some way insinuating with a touch of homoerotic tendencies that cannot be mistaken. Surprisingly, Guy does not stop Bruno in his conversation though he seems offended at how so much of his private life is in the limelight. He leads Bruno on, but they do not conclude anything concerning the matter as Bruno still persists in luring Guy into accepting his plan[3]. The conversation that they are both having has Guy trying to be polite but indirectly getting rid of him.

In a twist of events Bruno goes ahead and strangles Guy’s wife, he then proceeds to instruct Guy to keep his end of the deal. Regarding the plot, it is well developed in that Hitchcock made it flow easily since we already established that Guy wanted to do away with his wife. This was established when Guy and his wife have a public fight earlier before her demise. This is also confirmed when he called his fiancée and admitted to her that he would like to end her life. Hitchcock admitted that casting played an important role since the target audience would immediately connect with the qualities portrayed by the actors that did not need further explaining. It also helped save time and a reel since the chemistry between the actors was present. Farley Granger who played Guy and Robert Walker who took the role of Bruno were essential as they held the themes of the movie as well as advanced the plot[4]. Granger takes the role of more elusive and softer character and this he does convincingly so when he slithers himself out of Bruno’s controversial conversation instead of stopping him the sooner he realized what he was talking about. Walker who comes out as flirtatious, as well as flirtatious, does this by sitting in a position that is uncomfortably close when they first meet. He then proceeds to recline in a seat across from Guy all this in Bruno’s private compartment. The meeting that takes place on the train which seemingly has the hand of Bruno in it comes out more like a planned excursion rather than a coincidence.

This scene brings out a sense of two characters who are flawed in their ways one who is too weak to handle his personal life by divorcing his wife and another evil to the very core. This mixed with a hint of sexual tension between the two transforms the film into an intriguing and halfway believable storyline that supports how Bruno could have come to achieve the ends of his means[5]. Highsmith was also a lesbian whose writing had an indirect psychological depth, and this is proven in Andrew Wilson’s biography which reveals that she would often prefer the company of women to the point of falling in love with them. This novel is not an exception as it contained buried subtext that alluded to some gay attraction.

Taking into consideration that homosexuality was not a popular phrase to go throwing around the director was very much aware of Bruno’s orientation and even went ahead and edited separate copies for American as well as British audience. The intensity of seduction was reduced to a minimum in the American version. Alfred’s obsession with deceit and being in a situation that he is wrongly accused is liked on a traumatic episode which saw his father send his naughty self to a police post with instructions in a note to lock him up until his father was ready to come pick him up. The casting of his daughter Patricia Hitchcock as the character Barbara Morton was clever as she and Kasey Rogers are like twins up to the eyewear that they both possess[6]. This has the intended effect in the scene Bruno is busy explaining strangling techniques at a function when his glance falls on Barbara and instantly flashes back to the way he killed Guy’s wife and instantly flips. Hitchcock also instilled a great many visual set pieces that have made this film famous. Among the best is in the scene where Guy scans the crowd during a tennis tournament and he sees all heads swiveling with the flow of the game, all except for Bruno’s head which is fixated at Guy. Another example is whereby we see Guy floating in a boat going through a tunnel (the tunnel of love) which is present at a carnival.

 It so happens that Miriam is in another boat together with two boyfriends ahead and shadows cast on a wall make it appear like Bruno has overtaken all of them. Also, in a scene where we witness Guy go upstairs in the dark in Bruno’s residence, Hitchcock revealed at an interview that he came upon an inspiration of using a very large hound at the top of the stairs to distract the viewers from what was actually to happen at the top. The merry-go-round scene in which we witness a fight between Guy and Bruno struggle and while this is happening a carnival employee crawls on his tummy and goes under the revolving ride to reach for the controls was in part real but at great risk to the stuntman. Another amazing shot is where Bruno is standing in the dark and his dark silhouette as well as the whites of his eyes are showing was a remarkable shot full of suspense and a bit of danger.

Techniques

 Techniques employed by Alfred to control the visual aspects that included the framing were impeccable. He used screen space efficiently to especially underline the way he created tension in a manner that the audience is affected without them noticing. He always used the rule that the left side on a screen was reserved for sinister or weak characters, while the furthest right is reserved for forthright characters who are excellent or who appear temporarily. For instance, when Guy is making an entry into a house he owns in Georgetown when Bruno signals him to have words with him[7]. We see Bruno standing behind an iron gate where the bars are creating shadows on his visage while Guy is positioned to his right away from the entrance. In a short while, we see a police car pull up the front of Guys residency, he then quickly moves behind to where Bruno is, and it seems like they are both behind prison bars and then he states, “You’ve got me acting like I’m a criminal (91)[8].”  There is also a classic spectator trap embedded in the film when at a party Bruno is demonstrating the technique associated with silent strangling as he uses Mrs. Cunningham as a volunteer to give a physical illustration of the method.

 As he strategically places his hands around her neck, he sees Barbara who reminds him of Miriam because of the closely resembling features that they share in similarity which includes her round face, glasses, and dark hair. These similarities immediately lock him into some trance which he directly associates with the murder which he instigated under the tunnel. Meanwhile, Mrs. Cunningham’s neck is getting tighter, and he does not realize it. He nearly commits another murder as his grip tightens and as a result, almost chokes his volunteer. The scene comes to an end with the tears of Barbara who after seeing what transpired in front of her is emotionally affected[9]. Initially, the stage is set when the establishment of order is dismissed by the judge. It is then followed up with the dialogue that is shared with Mrs. Cunningham which involves her friend due to the lightness of the context of the conversation.

This allows for the acceptance of the guilt as taking on a familiar stance. To the point of it being closely related to a joke. Thus in this way we the audience are also roped into the game of conspiring to kill Mrs. Cunningham who according to the scene is described as being a dumb wealthy woman. Suddenly, the joke hits us, and we without our knowledge have been nearly roped in on another killing. This is the effect of the clever use of tone that has been used with such finesse that it produced such a disturbing effect.  

Symbolism

 With this scene, we get to see a well-executed symbolic expression to the manner of relationship that exists between the connection they both have together and what Bruno as himself stands for. It is efficiently followed in the next scene whereby we get to witness Guy talking on the phone with Anne who instructs him to come to where she is. We then get to see a shot whereby at the right of the screen we get to see a lamp and next to it is Guy holding the receiver next to his ear obviously talking to Ann[10]. At the left, we experience heavy shadow, and we get to see Miriam’s eyewear dangling down in Guy’s free arm. This is symbolic of a pair of scales. When Bruno closes in for the kill under the tunnel, we are shown the action of her glasses falling and one lens shattering and with the other lens which is somewhat distorted as well as inverted we experience the lake as well as the tunnel which as the two seeks to further the symbol of sexuality.

The shot is one of the essential images that represent perverted sexuality with the murder developing into a sort of sexual culmination for the villain and the victim. This comes to an end whereby Bruno has accomplished his deed and now moves away distancing himself from the body. We get to glimpse on a lighter which has the initials A and G which Bruno dropped on the grass as he was engaging in the act of strangling Miriam and words that were uttered by Guy on the phone: “I could strangle her.” Bruno retrieves the lighter and retraces his footsteps through an ocean of lovers spread across the grass and finally there is a definitive explanation to the Magic Isle as it now due to the murder becomes an island that now gathers lost souls[11]. When Bruno exists the fairground, he helps a blind man to make way across the street. This action which stands alone by itself is in actual sense one that brings up the symbolic nature of the atonement. This is because the atrocious crime of murder that he committed

will forever linger and haunt his memory especially Miriam’s eyes which were the last thing he saw before he proceeded with the act[12]. Due to that, his act of helping a blind person who wore dark glasses is an indirect sign that he is trying to balance the heinous action with that of good hoping it will help him redeem himself. Bruno’s accumulation of symbolic progression that sees him come closer to his goal- his presence lurking in the shadows, distant figure in the tennis court, the telephone conversations with Guy, as an acquaintance talking with Ann. All these represent the coming together of a sum of small efforts that paint a picture of the actual desires and concealment that is suppressed and what makes up all the evil desires that Guy has which is also a part of him.   

Suspense

            It is built in successive shots where Guy takes the gun that Bruno hands to him. Additionally he eludes his trail by using the fire escape as his escape route and onto the well-manicured lawns of the Anthony residence and into the night as a silhouette in the shadow. At this point we do not know what will happen or become of him. Another instance is he makes entry into the house using the key that was provided to him by Bruno[13]. He then checks the map to locate the father’s bedroom. On his way there he encounters a mastiff at the top of the stairs. There is little suspense here but it quickly ends as soon as it begins as he is able to subdue it. He locates the room and finds the gun in his breast pocket, and he becomes hesitant as he transfers the weapon to his side pocket.

He then makes his way silently into the bedroom and when he has approached the bed he begins to say in low undertones, “Mr. Anthony…I want t speak to you about your son….about Bruno.” Suddenly the dark figure wakes up and switches on the light to reveal none other than Bruno. Hitchcock plays with the spectators minds leading us to believing that Guy has finally decided to execute Bruno’s bidding and end the life of his father[14]. Up to the point where we see Guy become a little hesitant at the bedroom door whereby there is something like an internal conflict with himself as to whether he should go on with the murder. The audiences mind is already set to receive the drastic ending but it is quite a different scenario as it comes to the way things play out. After he realizes that it is Bruno who is in bed Guy calls him “sick “to which he adds that he does not have a complete understanding of those things. At this point the suspense then has meaning as the audiences uncertainty as to what action Guy is going to follow it up with matches with the inner doubt.

This moment that leads to this final decision is what brings about the turning point in the film. From this point we see Bruno being openly against Guy not interested in anything apart from exacting revenge. The conflict changes direction and turns into a challenge of trying to preserve life as Guy is now on the wrong side of Bruno as well as the wrath he will receive as a consequence of leading Bruno to believe that he was okay to go along with his idea to murder each other’s choice of person. This is brought about by the hesitation that happened right outside the door before entering Mr. Anthony’s bedroom[15]. The famous encounter at the tennis match was another example of suspense but more straightforward than the others and less disturbing in quality. The tension that is brought about in this scene is smooth for the viewers to identify and is uncomplicated by the direct responses. It is also evident through this that the struggle for self-preservation has begun and now the forces that were good and evil have now parted ways and are more distinctive. It is therefore established that Guys fate depends on how good his skill is at playing tennis. The commentator points out that he has abandoned his long-term strategy in favor of one that will give him quick results in a match that has him battling openly.

Conclusion

          Hitchcock has a beautiful way of including intricate details in his films that give him an edge over other filmmakers. His strategy was mainly centered towards creating films towards suspicion then expertly he changes the mood and motive of the whole film in favor of a direction that leaves the audience amazed at how they did not see the unfolding of events coming. His love for movies which had drama as well as a script that accommodated his childhood fears of deceit and being falsely accused of a crime he did not commit inspired a generation of films that are masterpieces in their right. Rebecca as recently reviewed centers around the same notion of deception as in both movies we get to see how deceit is used on a personal and public level[16]. We see in bot how characters lead each other on only to turn their backs on their partners later.

An example is a false relationship that was thought to exist between Maxim de Winter and Rebecca. It was just a public spectacle that did not go past that. The same is seen in the relationship between Guy and Miriam who is understood to have more than one partners just like Maxim de Winter. In both murders of their spouses take place with each one covering up the actual events that lead to the murder with a cover story. The storyline is then filled with enough suspicion to implicate some characters into the saga. Both films are directed in a manner that makes an audience become wholly engrossed in the film and at some point participate in the film without their knowledge. The end is films that are well balanced and directed in a manner that is pleasing both for connoisseur as well as the ordinary viewer. 

                   Bibliography

Ebert, Roger. “Strangers on a Train Movie Review (1951) | Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com. January 01, 2004. Accessed November 28, 2017. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-strangers-on-a-train-1951.

Rubin, Martin. “The Psychological Crime Thriller: Strangers on a Train (1951).” Thrillers: 203-25. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511624414.007.

Wood, Robin. Hitchcocks films revisited. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.


[1] Ebert, Roger. “Strangers on a Train Movie Review (1951) | Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com. January 01, 2004. Accessed November 28, 2017. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-strangers-on-a-train-1951.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Wood, Robin. Hitchcocks films revisited. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

[5] Ibid., 90.

[6] Ibid., 90.

[8] Ibid., 91.

[9] Ibid., 92

[10] Ibid., 92.

[11] Ibid., 93.

[12] Ibid., 94.

[13] Rubin, Martin. “The Psychological Crime Thriller: Strangers on a Train (1951).” Thrillers: 203-25. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511624414.007.

[14] Ibid., 34.

[15] Ibid., 37.

[16] Ibid., 42.

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