Blog Directory CineVerse: Playing tic-tac-toe with the Master of Suspense

Playing tic-tac-toe with the Master of Suspense

Thursday, July 14, 2016

"Strangers on a Train," from 1951, kicks off Alfred Hitchcock's astounding run of major and minor masterpieces created in the 1950s that stand among the best of his works--including, chronologically, "Dial M For Murder," "Rear Window," "To Catch a Thief," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The Wrong Man," "Vertigo," and "North by Northwest." We've now advanced to a point in our Hitchcockronology monthly series where the movies viewed and discussed are each worthy of several Wednesday evenings worth of examination; alas, we typically have less than an hour to dissect each. But much was learned during last evening's condensed CineVerse discussion about "Strangers on a Train" that bears repeating. Here are the highlights:

Innocence and guilt, and the transference of guilt: the main motivation for Guy to foil Bruno by the end of the film is Guy’s guilt stemming from the fact that he has overtly wished for Miriam’s death, which is fulfilled
Doppelgangers, doubles, pairs and opposites
Crisscrossing and double crossing 
Good vs. evil, light vs. dark and the shades of gray and ambiguity between them
Suggested homoeroticism and sexual tension: 
The dark side to wish fulfillment, represented by Bruno

Pattern of doubles: two taxicabs, two sets of train rails that cross twice, Hitchcock’s cameo (carries a double bass), similarity between Miriam and Anne’s sister (played by Hitch’s daughter), both of whom wear glasses; two pairs of feet, double drinks ordered, tennis played between 2 people; two boyfriends for Miriam at the carnival; two respectable fathers; two sets of detectives; two old men at the carousel; two little boys near the fairground; two women at the party
Geometric shapes used:
o Xs: crossed legs, x-shaped railroad crossing signs shown; cigarette lighter with crossed tennis rackets
o Parallel lines: silk robe with its parallel lines; large gate with parallel bars; rows of parallel heads swiveling left and right watching the tennis match, the police officer’s uniform patch
o Circles: circles on Bruno’s robe; handles shaped into a strangling circle; white globe atop a lamppost; kid’s balloon; the sun that Bruno glances at
o In this way, using these shapes, the film is like a big screen game of tic tac toe: Xs, Os, and gridlines.
The left side of the screen typically depicts evil characters; the right usually shows good or temporarily dominant characters.
Interplay of shadow and light used in the cinematography and compositions
Key scene: where Guy prepares to enter his property, but hears Bruno whisper from across the street: Bruno stands behind a gate that casts symbolic shadows across his face, while Guy stands to his right, outside the gate. When a cop car pulls up, Guy rapidly moves behind the gate next to Bruno, and now they’re both behind bars, insinuating that they’re both guilty and capable of evil.

Bruno is depicted as subtly homosexual in mannerisms, walk, and flirtatious behavior.
Guy is suggested as possibly intrigued by Bruno’s homosexuality, but rejects it by the end of the film: 
o You could argue that Guy is sexually confused and may be a closeted homosexual: this is substantiated in the scene where he has to pass by the guard dog, who licks his hand, as if to suggest that Guy is like Bruno and is one of the family.
Bruno is disgusted by the heterosexual world: his heterosexual father, Miriam’s repellant flirtatious heterosexual behavior (including her phallic licking of an ice cream cone); and, it could be argued, that he is jealous and resentful of Guy’s success as a heterosexual and had planned to have Guy framed as a premeditated frame up.
What’s interesting about the casting is that Robert Walker was a straight man in real life who was known for playing likable boy next door types and yet he is cast against type here as gay and villainous, and Farley Granger was a bisexual man in real life being asked to play a straight man here.
Bruno, unfortunately, continues a classic Hollywood period tradition of often depicting gay characters as deviant, aberrant, perverse, askew and inclined to commit a crime—as evidenced by famous gay/lesbian characters in classic films like Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca,” Joel Cairo in “The Maltese Falcon,” Waldo in “Laura,” and the gay college roommates in “Rope.”

He’s capable of both great charm and wit as well as great violence and volatility.
He can murder cruelly without compunction, and in the next scene help an old blind man across the street.
He’s a creepy, malevolent, nearly omniscient presence who seems to know where Guy is at all times—in some ways, he’s characterized almost like a vampire who is stalking Guy and, near the end, waiting for the sun to go down so he can fulfill his evil plans.

Miriam’s trampy behavior for a 1951 film: she’s married to Guy, yet pregnant with another man’s baby and philandering with multiple men—in one scene suggesting a ménage a trois.
The fact that you identify with Bruno, just like you’re forced to identify with Norman Bates after Marion Crane is killed in Psycho; you secretly want him to retrieve the cigarette lighter and evade a near capture by police.
Bruno’s strange relationship with his mother, and the mother’s reaction to Bruno.
The shocking chaos of the carousel out of control scene and its powerfully destructive conclusion: it’s obvious that many kids must have been killed, yet their fates are overlooked in favor of resolving Guy’s guilt problem.

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