STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1952) Alfred Hitchcock
some thoughts on guilt, villainy, and identity in Strangers and other Hitchcock movies 
by Tony McRae

WHO'S GUILTY NOW?
It has been argued that Hitchcock's films all too often rely on improbable chance and mistaken identity (The 39 Steps, Psycho, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest, etc.).  Chance, yes, but not all that improbable, at least not  in Hitchcock's universe.  We have the hero and the villain, each with desires that on the surface seem antithetic to one another, yet each shares traits that in the course of the film nudge hero toward villain.  Some may attribute this urge to original sin or simply humankind's propensity toward the dark side of our nature.  In most of the world's mythologies the hero always falls victim to his own hubris; he carries with him the seeds of his own destruction.  The fact that most Hitchcock protagonists do not self-destruct (the prime exception being Scotty Ferguson in Vertigo) has less to do with their own inner worth than with un-heroic self-preservation--their acts of bravery are almost always the result of their efforts to extricate themselves from dangerous situations, e.g., mistaken identity or being in the wrong place.  But even in those cases Hitchcock takes care to show that it is more than bad luck that plagues his protagonists.  Take Richard Haney (Robert Donat) in The 39 Steps.  Why does he take the beautiful spy to his apartment?  "May I come home with you?" she asks flat out.  When he asks why she answers, "Well, I like you."  We assume that Haney, a lonely Canadian in London, doesn't mind being picked up.  If he had simply ignored her he would have avoided misfortune--and there would have been no movie. 

The North By Northwest plot has Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) kidnapped because he is mistaken for a man named Kaplan.  Hitchcock paints Thornhill not only as glib and centerless but as a momma's boy to boot.  I sense that Hitchcock would like us to think Thornhill "deserving" of his fate:  this guy's too smug.  It's not the fault of the criminals but rather Thornhill's own character that lands him in trouble.  

MIRROR IMAGES
Character faults shared by the supposedly innocent and not so innocent are common in Hitchcock movies:  Charlie and Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca,  priest and murderer in I Confess, Thornhill and Vandamm in North by Northwest, and of course Bruno and Guy in Strangers On a Train.  By showing these affinities Hitchcock reminds us that the line between good and evil is rarely clear:  we all have reason to feel guilt.  If the supposed hero is punished for something he or she hasn't done, well, we've all done enough bad things and gotten away with it.  When in Strangers On a Train Bruno tells Guy he's killed his wife, Guy is outraged.  "But, Guy," Bruno patiently explains, "you wanted it."  Moments later when a police car shows up across the street, Guy instinctively hides in the shadows.  "You have me acting like I'm a criminal," he says to Bruno.  Precisely.

Let's look at this business of chance in the opening scene of Strangers On a Train immediately prior to the meeting of the two men in the train's club car.  In alternating shots we're shown only the lower half of the two protagonists as they alight from their respective taxis and march (separately) toward their train.  Hitchcock goes to some length to make sure we know that Bruno isn't setting Guy up, that he hasn't planned this encounter in advance.  It's Guy who accidentally bumps Bruno's foot, thereby setting their relationship in motion.  Hitchcock has the "good" guy initiate contact.  

What do these two have in common?  Well, they're both looking for change:  Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) would like nothing better than to have his mother to himself which means the elimination of his father; Guy Haines (Farley Granger) wishes to remarry, once his present wife gives him a divorce.  Bruno has an ingenious idea that can solve both their problems:   "You do my murder, I do yours...for example, your wife, my father.  Crisscross."  Guy humors him ("Sure, Bruno...) rather than walk out of his train compartment.  We the viewers--along with Bruno--are beginning to suspect that Guy wouldn't mind if his wife were "out of the picture."   And Bruno, now the accommodating friend, decides he will be the instrument of Guy's desire, and in return Guy can do him a good turn by ridding him of his father.  Bruno's reasoning, while psychotic, is eminently logical.  To make this premise even more improbable:  the "innocent" man, in this case a tennis player who hopes to divorce his wife and marry a senator's daughter, is somewhat feckless, while the second man, a rich idler with a wacky mother and a domineering father is a psychopath.  

In the Hitchcockian universe human wants are suspect, often sinful.  The villain Bruno is simply the instrument of Guy's needs, what the philosopher Charles Peirce calls  "the willful prosecution of one's desires."  

VILLAINY AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
I find it fascinating that Hitchcock's villains are often more interesting, more sympathetic even, than their counterparts:  Claude Rains ( Alex Sebastian) in Notorious, Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates) in Psycho, Joseph Cotton (Uncle Charlie) in Shadow of a Doubt, Robert Walker (Bruno Anthony) in Strangers On a Train.  Hitchcock is not taking their side but rather he shows us individuals whose murderous motives are mitigated by fears we all feel.  It could be argued that these last three villains are psychotic.  But that's not the point, at least not for Hitchcock, who chooses to show enough of their humanity to give the audience pause.  

Would it be a stretch to think of Bruno Anthony's actions as motivated by love of Guy?  (I'm not talking here about homosexual love, though several critics have thought this to be a possibility.)  The Jesuit-taught Hitchcock was well acquainted with the central message of John's Gospel that God is love.  The logical corollary then is that God does not punish; rather the evildoer punishes himself.  I see this as quite Hitchcockian, for Hitchcock is reluctant to punish.  Bruno, having been spurned by Guy, will go to any lengths to exact his revenge, even to deny his own guilt as he is dying.  This may seem perverse, but it testifies to his conviction that it was Guy who did the betraying.  There will be no death bed conversion here, and none in my recollection in any Hitchcock movie.  The villain's just reward is his choice.  

HAPPY EVER AFTER?
Given the uncertain nature of romantic relationships in Hitchcock's films, it is interesting to ponder the future lives of his surviving couples once their adventures end and they are left with each other.  What will become of Richard Haney and Pamela (The 39 Steps) or Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall (North by Northwest) or Guy Haines and Anne Morton (Strangers on a Train)?  What image does Hitchcock leave us with before THE END?  Do the journeys and experiences these couples have suffered through have a cathartic effect?  Will life be different now, will they live in happiness?  

For most of The 39 Steps Haney and Pamela are inseparable, handcuffed together in fact.  Throughout their ordeal he is domineering and bullying, treating her like so much extra baggage; she is unreasonable.  In the last shot of the movie we see them from behind, holding hands, the handcuffs dangling on Haney's wrist as they both gaze down at a prone Mr. Memory.  Are we to assume they are now bound by love rather than steel?  Perhaps.  It is Hitchcock's most upbeat ending, though the presence of those handcuffs has a niggling effect.

As for Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall, I hold out little hope.  They're snuggled cozily in their upper berth at film's end, but he's still the smooth talker, and she the cool customer who knows how to keep secrets.  Take away the excitement and what's left--conjugal love?

Finally there's Guy the tennis player and Anne the senator's daughter.  Is it casting or was Hitchcock not too thrilled to have Ruth Roman foisted on him?  She's too cool, certainly beyond Guy's grasp.  To wit, her scenes with Farley Granger stop the train in its tracks.  And Farley Granger in politics, his stated ambition?  The mind boggles.  

Top Trips 

 

 

 

 

 

click images to enlarge 
q




who's behind bars? 
Strangers on a Train

StrangersOnTrain2.jpg (9878 bytes)
Bruno sets the hook
Strangers on a Train

StrangersOnTrain-guy&marion.jpg (8152 bytes)
if looks could kill
Strangers on a Train 

rebecca-mrsdanvers.jpg (20186 bytes)
mirror images
Rebecca

StrangersOnTrain-murder2.jpg (10175 bytes)
the killing gaze
Strangers on a Train

strangersontrain-anneguy.jpg (13186 bytes)
happy ending?
Strangers on a Train