As a movie I’ve wanted to see for some time and a part of film noir’s most revered canon Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) struck me as a good follow up on research formerly restricted to 1940’s output, examining how the genre evolved and what features began to become more or less heavily pronounced.
In terms of narrative, of my previous subjects it’s Double Indemnity (1944) that the setup here has most in common with: again rather than having a murder gradually uncovered the emphasis is placed upon the plotter, the act itself and ensuing attempts to cover it up and hide the truth – an unsurprising comparison since Raymond Chandler was involved with scripting both features, there’s even a similar focus on trains and echoes of “Straight down the line” in the ominous phrase near the start “Criss-cross”. In spite of these similarities though, the scenario is a great deal more ambiguous than that of Double Indemnity or indeed any of my earlier subject films.
While formally considered a part of the genre thanks to its typically high contrast style and use of shadow Strangers on a Train has no real mystery and lacks a strong detective figure in the narrative. Instead, viewer interest arises from the moment by moment tension of seeing our hapless protagonist Guy Haines drawn progressively deeper into the life and mind of antagonist Bruno Antony. The aforementioned ambiguity arising from the lack of clear cut motive for his actions: after proposing the “perfect murder” to the unimpressed Guy wherein they both kill a problematic figure in the other’s life, he takes matters into his own hands – secretly killing Guy’s wife Miriam before attempting to blackmail his unwilling partner to kill his father in return.
While he’s allegedly motivated by animosity towards his parent and Guy does stand to benefit from Miriam’s death, our villain doesn’t appear to be driven by conventional reasoning or other common tropes such as greed or romance. To the very end he remains unpredictable, his motives questionable – written off as being insane by most other characters perhaps the mystery is exactly what drives him.
In relation to this the film might be considered a comment on violence as entertainment. In the opening dialogue on the train Bruno talks about how he has “a theory that you should do everything before you die” while the plot is bookended with scenes at a fun fair – the first sees Bruno murder Miriam following a ride on the tunnel of love, but of particular interest to me is the second featuring a fight on an out of control carousel, something comparable to the larger story and matters getting out of hand as Bruno seeks progressively greater thrills. It’s an allegory which gives the movie a greater sense of cultural context and the era’s moral boundaries which were being continually tested, continually under increasing pressure to be pushed.
Being a Hitchcock production the direction is naturally meticulous with layers of symbolism in almost every shot, however a couple of visual features specifically caught my eye. A simple but effective touch none the less is the opposing light dark appearances of the hero and villain: in a couple of the scenes in which they face off Guy will be dressed in light colours while Bruno will be contrastingly dark. Beyond obvious representations of good and evil more interestingly this suggests a negative image of each other, drawing attention to their emotional similarities but also emphasising their considerable moral differences.
Bruno’s black suits also result in some striking shots when seen from a distance against a light background – a solitary dark presence immediately recognisable even as a little more than a vague figure. Inevitably window blind shadows feature heavily too, but it’s intriguing that they are rarely cast across Guy’s face, whereas Bruno’s features are continually fractured by dark lines hinting at his villainy and possible madness.
Perhaps my favourite reoccurring motif though is the prominence of glasses in connection to the film’s initial murder shown in the reflection of the victim’s spectacles; besides being an immensely innovative touch and remarkable technical feat for the time it makes an interesting suggestion of untold guilt on the villains part. Bruno’s later fit like reactions to the resemblance of the bespectacled Barbara to Miriam being both a vital plot point but also an indication of some remorse in the matter and greater character complexity. On the other hand, perhaps Hitchcock’s main reason for showing Miriam being strangled in a reflection was a way to duck under the era’s censorship; allowing the unfettered brutality of the murder to be seen thanks to the excuse of it being indirect.
While the plot largely eschews the detective/mystery traditions of the genre, perhaps what makes the movie a true film noir is its supreme play against expectations throughout. Scenes such as Bruno holding Guy at gunpoint, or the tennis match sequence carefully sustain tension with each being resolved in a truely unexpected manner. It’s no exaggeration to say these scenes are still likely to provoke plenty of armrest gripping and biting of nails today, while at the same time it’s slightly alarming how well it stands against many supposedly innovative modern thrillers.
After such a wealth of chaotic excitement it’s something of shame that Hitchcock seems forced to settle for a relatively typical Hollywood conclusion but regardless, as an innovative take on a story of murder and blackmail Strangers on a Train presents a compelling example of Noir which steps outside of the tried and tested formula and offers something slightly different to the genre’s usual fare.