WHO'S GUILTY NOW?
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.
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
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?
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.
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