Strangers on a Train

(Check out my previous film noir essay here: Beat The Devil. Or my previous Hitchcock essay here: Foreign Correspondent)

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 psychological thriller film noir Strangers on a Train really begins the classic period of American Hitchcock filmography from the early 50s to the mid-60s when he directed his greatest works. The transformative potential of this film in particular is notable due to Hitch’s cinematographic collaborator on the film, a Hollywood staple named Robert Burks. Strangers on a Train would be Burks’ first film for Hitchcock in what would become a 14-year working relationship during which Burks provided cinematography on I ConfessDial M for MurderRear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble with Harry, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North By Northwest, The Birds, and finally, Marnie in 1964.

Their close working relationship during this time, which included every Hitchcock film from 1950-1964 except for Psycho, developed an iconography of signs and metaphors, of visual cues and expressions that produced Hitch’s most symbolically-laden imagery to date. And practically every film they worked on together are either classics of Hitch’s film output (e.g. Rear WindowThe Wrong ManVertigoNorth by Northwest, and The Birds) or critical classics that showed Hitch similarly at the height of his powers.

On the production end of things, Strangers on a Train is important for another interesting reason: it’s script process. The film is an adaptation of the first novel by Patricia Highsmith who was put on the map by it’s adaptation as a major film by Hitchcock and through the Hollywood system. She would later become known as something of a mistress of the dark for her ability to write great thrillers from existentialist and psychoanalytic angles, low-brow fiction from a high-brow perspective that was unafraid to broach the evil at the heart of all people and its latent potential for brimming over from the unconscious locus of possibility into the light of the day, into reality. She was later given the moniker of ‘the poet of apprehension’ by Graham Greene for her ability to construct a taut thriller akin to the level, at least, of Hitch’s own renowned ability in film, to create complex stories that could keep the average reader on the edge of his/her seat.

After acquiring rights to the book’s film adaptation (for a low-ball $7,500 USD, which Hitch managed to swing by keeping his name out of negotiations, as the knowledge of his attachment to the project would have run up the cost significantly), Hitch hired Whitfield Cook to create a treatment. Cook’s major contribution was the heightening of the latent homosexuality of the book’s protagonist Bruno Antony, which managed to make it into the film in a veiled manner. After Cook’s job was finished, the production began searching for a ‘name’ writer to attach to the project in the role of principal screenwriter.

An extensive search began in which the offer was flatly rejected by John Steinbeck and Thornton Wilder along with five others,. Dashiell Hammett was in talks for a time to do the job before he too pulled out. Finally, the acclaimed hard-boiled author Raymond Chandler was broached by the production and accepted their offer to adapt the screenplay alongside Hitchcock. But the two famously butted heads regarding method as Hitch enjoyed talking about themes and motifs ancillary to the job of actually writing the script, often taking hours to do so. Chandler was as hard-boiled and straight-forward as the protagonists in his own works and as such, rebelled openly against Hitch’s methods and wanted nothing more than to get down to the nitty gritty of writing, and of finishing the script. After making a crack about Hitch’s weight and spending some weeks unable to accomplish anything on the script, Chandler was fired from the production.

A search for a new screenwriter began and was quickly found as the studio recommended Czenzi Ormonde. She proved up to the task and began work on the script just at the same moment that Hitch began shooting scenes in Washington D.C. Alongside the associate producer Barbara Keon and Hitch’s wife Alma Reville, Ormond worked on the script, only finishing the final scenes days before they were shot. In the end, much of the film was shot off the cuff and the ending sequence wasn’t decided upon until the very last minute. All of which, I believe, adds a certain kinetic force to the filmmaking. Hitch couldn’t, as he was characteristically won’t to do, storyboard every last sequence, and as such, Robert Burks had more power of creative input. As a result, the film is more traditionally expressionist than the typical Hitchcock film and incorporates more techniques with experimental force than on almost anything since his breakthrough film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, in 1927.

The film is the story of a pair of men who are, in a sense, doubles or doppelgangers of one another. It opens with two men leaving two separate taxis, both men wear nice suits and carry briefcases, they both enter the same train, the same passenger car, and sit across from one another. The light character in this play of opposite doubles is Guy Haines, a rising tennis star (tennis being a common Hitchcockian trope) on the amateur circuit with designs on a new woman, a new wife named Anne Morton, the daughter of a Senator who could catapult the young man into a future career as a politician. His shadow, Bruno Antony, a psychotic man with a flamboyant demeanor who suffers from a complex derived, no doubt in large part, to an overbearing and overly protective mother (as is so common in the cast of characters within a Hitchcock film).

Bruno hates his rich father who, quite logically and rightly, wants his son to work to gain his keep and build his own fortune. The old man refuses to give Bruno a large stipend with which to while away his time and insists that the middle-aged man work for a living and develop himself in the process. Bruno wants to bump off the old man, but he wants to do so without being caught. So he has tracked down Haines in an attempt to make him an offer. Bruno will knock off Haines’ current wife if Haines kills Bruno’s father. This way, Bruno reasons, both of them will have an alibi as they can arrange to be elsewhere when the murders are committed. Second, since the two of them have no connection to one another, the real murderer in each case cannot be identified as the suspect by the police (unless someone makes a grave mistake in the process and leaves themselves open to being caught on grounds of some strong material evidence). In a few words: the perfect murder (another trope common to Hitchcock’s films).

Haines views the offer with suspicion and pegs Bruno from what he is: an insane man. He leaves the train and stops off in his hometown of Metcalf to arrange his divorce from his wife Miriam. We find that not only is she an extremely promiscuous harlot who has pushed Guy into moving on to Anne Morton by seeing another man and becoming pregnant by him, but Miriam has also found out about Guy’s D.C. aspirations (which hinge on his marriage to Anne) and has decided to make him into an even bigger cuckold. She blackmails Guy into not filing for a divorce with the information that she will claim the child is his and that he is unjustly leaving her, which will damage his reputation and his chances in Washington. She wants Guy to bring her to D.C. with her and continue their marriage, though she has no plans on aborting the child, or becoming faithful to him once they move.

Guy is incensed, as he should be. Miriam had been asking him for a divorce for months and finally, once he has gained the funds to go through with the paperwork to do so, she is now blackmailing him. Miriam deserves to die. Guy shows his anger in public against her, handling her physically and trying to coerce her into signing the divorce papers she had agreed upon, indeed insisted upon, mere days prior by telephone. Later, on the phone with Anne, he tells her that he could just strangle Miriam. So, when Bruno goes through with his side of what he thought was an agreement and strangles Miriam to death at a local fair in a secluded spot known as ‘Magic Isle’, Guy is an immediate suspect.

But he has an alibi, he thinks. When returning to D.C. from Metcalf, he met a man on the train who was a professor. The man spoke with Guy about mathematics and told him where he taught. However, the man was drunk and when called upon the next day for verification that he met Guy on the train at the time the murder took place elsewhere, he doesn’t remember Guy at all. Guy is under suspicion of the crime and will be followed by undercover officers for the remainder of the film as the psychotic Bruno increasingly impedes upon Guy’s private life and promises to ruin Guy if he doesn’t kill Bruno’s father.

We have here a classic Hitchcockian set-up with Guy as the Wrong Man (who also happens to be an ordinary person: another Hitchcockian trope), all evidence pointing to him as the murderer in a crime he didn’t commit, but is nevertheless ideologically guilty for as he would have committed it if he had a stronger will. The cultured villain appears as the upper-class, well-read, and eminently moral (though psychotic) Bruno. Bruno gains an item of Guy’s while on the train with him: Guy’s lighter, engraved From A to G (From Anne to Guy). Bruno also fits the trope of charming sociopath, which is connected to the concept of the cultured villain. This serves as a playing chip in Bruno’s leverage over Guy, but is also a MacGuffin that reappears throughout the film: first in Bruno’s lifting of the object, later in his dropping of the object at the crime scene and his return to grab it, and finally in his attempt to place it back at the place of the murder to incriminate Guy with hard evidence.

The Lighter MacGuffin functions to drive the plot forward as an item with power over circumstances, which incites desire in both Guy’s and the police department’s wish to acquire it within the right context (Guy’s context of owning it once again to prevent Bruno from incriminating him any further and the police’s context of finding it on ‘Magic Isle’ as a tool to incriminate Guy and call to a close the case). Also crucial to the definition of a MacGuffin is the innocuousness of the item and relative unimportance of its particular characteristics. The lighter could have been another existing object that linked the crime scene to Guy like a piece of identification in a wallet, or a piece of clothing belonging to Guy, for example.

In the novel, the parallel between Guy and Bruno as doubles, and of Bruno as Guy’s dark eternal opposite, is even stronger as Guy goes through on his end of the bargain. Hitchcock establishes them as doubles only through mutual guilt. Bruno has the guilt of killing Miriam, while Guy has a different guilt through his association with Bruno after the fact, their many back-alley dealings that make them, at least seemingly, accomplices, and Guy’s real desire to kill his wife. All of these things produce a guilt in Guy not associated with Christian morality (as is so often common in Hitch’s narratives), but more strongly with the Freudian psychoanalytic concept of transference of guilt that Guy gains through collaborating in the secret of how the murder was accomplished.

This secret is what draws the ordinary person qua wrong man into the domain of ideological collaboration with the cultured villain/charming sociopath, which illustrates the point of Highsmith’s original novel: that within each person lies the ability to become monstrous, to come to terms with the abyss that is the primal Ground of Being by accepting it. That anyone can become horrible through understanding the Real of traumatic experience always on the threshold, the Real of total freedom ceded us in the postmodern age through the death of god. The total freedom that at once opens up new vistas of action it calls upon moral creatures to recognize and respect. The domains of action today’s cultural conservatives believe each person too stupid and corrupt to properly negotiate. Except for themselves that is.


Cody Ward

[Next up: The Chase]

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