Gift Giving in "Strangers on a Train"
a commentary by Tony McRae

Let's look at Bruno Anthony's good side.  Throughout Hitchcock's "Stranger's on a Train" Bruno shows an uncanny perception of other people's needs.  And in a certain sense, he wishes to be helpful.  Here are a few instances:

  • Once he and Guy Hanes strike up a conversation on the train, Bruno offers to buy them each a drink (which Hanes at first refuses than changes his mind).  Soon after, in his compartment, he proposes that each of them do away with the other's "problem":  He, Bruno, will dispose of Guy's wife so he'll be free to marry Ann Morton, the senator's daughter; and in return Guy can murder Bruno's father.  Bruno proposes this in all seriousness, as though they were exchanging telephone numbers.  Guy thinks he's nuts, an effete playboy who has nothing better to do than to indulge his fantasies.  He's willing to play along.
    • Bruno: "We do talk the same language, don't we?" 
    • "Sure, Bruno, we talk the same language."  
    • "You think my theory's okay--you like it?" 
    • "Sure, Bruno, sure.  They're all okay."  Though Guy's answer is condescending and dismissive (1), Bruno doesn't take it that way.  He's zeroed in on the one obstacle to Guy's happiness--his wife who refuses to give him a divorce.
  • Back in his home Bruno's mother expresses her concern for her son's future.  Bruno, who clearly loves his mother, assuages her worries by joking with her.  "You're a naughty boy, Bruno...you can always make me laugh."
  • In the amusement park he quickly intuits that Marion is looking for excitement.  She blatantly comes on to Bruno.  To him this woman is a slut, one of those people whose death would be of no consequence.  The killing of Marion is Bruno's generous gift to Guy.  It is not a selfless act--he does want Guy to kill his father--but he does put himself on the line without guarantee of fair exchange.  
  • Bruno is not without feeling however.  As he is leaving the amusement park he helps a blind man cross the street. (2)
  • Outside Guy's apartment in Washington, DC, Bruno gives Guy "a little present," his wife's shattered glasses.  Though Guy thinks he's crazy, Bruno is patient--he has time on his side  Guy will come around.  All he needs is a little coaxing.  
  • His subsequent shadowing of Guy is persistent but not mean-spirited, that is, until Guy starts calling him a "crazy fool."  Bruno is genuinely hurt.  After all, he has given Guy the gift he dearly wanted, his freedom to marry Ann.  He simply wants Guy to return the favor, certainly not unreasonable from his perspective.
  • A short time later, at a Washington cocktail party, a matron is entranced with Bruno and his theories about murder.  When he offers to show her the best method for doing away with someone she is eager to loan him her neck.  The fact that he loses control and almost strangles her to death is not so much his fault as that of Barbara, Ann Morton's sister, who bears a striking resemblance to Marion.  Bruno simply gets carried away. (3)
  • Even as he lays dying at the end of the movie, he maintains that it was Guy's murder.  "I'm sorry, Guy.  I want to help you.  I did what I could do."

Seen from Bruno Anthony's point of view everything he does is reasonable and fair.  No doubt he proposes this crisscross of murders as a means of getting rid of his father, but he also admires Guy and sees his murder as a gift to his new friend.  When Guy refuses to go along with the arrangement Bruno is hurt.  "I don't like being double-crossed," he tells Guy.  "I have a murder on my conscience...but it's not my murder.  It's yours."

Some critics have alluded to Bruno's sexual proclivities.  He's clearly a Momma's boy, and his admiration for Guy verges on the homoerotic.  Robert Walker's Bruno is wonderfully insinuating, with just the right amount of sexual frisson to call our attention to Farley Granger's influenceable nature--it didn't take much for Bruno to get him to drink after a firm refusal.   (Hitchcock originally hoped to get William Holden for the role of Guy Haynes, but Holden's strong personality would have undercut a key element of the film, the Doppelganger motif in which the line between good and evil becomes blurred, especially in the mind of Guy.  "You've got me acting like a criminal," he tells Bruno.(4)  And why not?  He knows Bruno has gotten him out of an unsolvable situation.  Now if only he would go away.  Bruno's solicitous so-what-are-friends-for? expression tells us he won't be that easy to dispose of. 

As with most gifts the giver builds up what Pierre Bourdieu calls "symbolic capital."  In Bruno's eyes, Guy has no choice--the only honorable thing he can do is fulfill his part of the bargain, that is, to repay Bruno by killing his father. 

Hitchcock enjoyed putting his heroes in such situations not because he wanted to knock them off their pedestal--well, maybe there is some of that in his films--but rather he was convinced they somehow brought these predicaments on themselves.  Do we wind up rooting for Guy Haynes in this picture?  I certainly don't.  Bruno Anthony is wacko but Hitchcock never shows him up; rather he's likeable, friendly, funny.  Just don't take that drink he offers.

Read my other views of "Strangers on a Train"

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