Strangers on a Train

(Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1951)


Murderous, transgressive desire suddenly floods mundane, daily life – and all because of one mere, unforseen, random train encounter between two men (Farley Granger as Guy and Robert Walker as Bruno) in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic morality-thriller, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel.


The film is ingeniously structured like an obsessive, inescapable nightmare – with uncanny repetitions of events, ghostly echoes of small details, and an ambiguous, implicitly homoerotic emotional transference between the central characters.


Hitchcock himself suggested that the formal patterns of the film are intricate enough to deserve (and demand) repeated, close viewings; Raymond Durgnat ranks high among those exegetes who have devoted themselves to uncovering this logic. For my part, I shall pick out only one aspect of Hitchcock’s patterning process here: the level of film style I have elsewhere described as social mise en scène. As an artist and storyteller, Hitchcock was deeply drawn to the public aspect of seemingly intimate, private moments – the supervising or prying eyes of others, their looks and gestures of alarm or disapproval – and how all this played out in concretely spatial and architectural forms.


Hitchcock was, in fact, a voracious student of details from everyday life that revealed a social mise en scène of this kind. What attracted him, for example, in Victor Canning’s novel The Rainbird Pattern – which formed the basis for his final film, Family Plot (1976) – was a detail he found delightful and true: if a Bishop were to be kidnapped right in the middle of a Catholic Mass, no one in the congregation would immediately move to rescue him, or even check on what was going on – because such behaviour would be deemed impolite or unseemly in such a refined, ritual setting!


It is dizzying to calculate how often Hitchcock seized on such private/public occasions for his juiciest effects: auctions (North by Northwest, 1959), political rallies (The 39 Steps, 1935) … Even the very title Strangers on a Train instantly cues us to codes of social mise en scène: how do you deal with a pushy stranger encountered in a public place, especially on public transportation, where you cannot easily flee? Hitchcock was particularly observant about how ordinary citizens react – often with great inhibition, indicating an underlying, perhaps irrational sense of shame or guilt – in the face of authorities of various stripes, and within the forbidding architecture of law-enforcement institutions. (Alain Resnais took a leaf from the Hitchcockian book on this score.)


Hitchcock often found ingenious ways to tweak the basic private/public relation, as in the celebrated fairground ride scene of Strangers on a Train. Bruno is stalking Miriam (Laura Elliot) from a distance, with intent to kill; Miriam, sharing an ice cream with her two male companions at the confectionary stand, becomes aware of this handsome stranger’s gaze, and she is instantly caught in an erotic game mixing excitement and menace. As Miriam proceeds through the various zones of the fairground, she casts secret glances back at Bruno, but maintains the facade of her jolly evening out. A key shot in the scene shows her looking, with hope, back into the crowd where Bruno no longer is – but, the moment she turns to the front again, a slight reframing reveals the shock (for Miriam as for us) of him standing right next to her.


The moment of riding the wooden horses on the Merry Go Round arrives, and Bruno climbs on a seat directly behind the threesome. What a splendidly tense and suspended moment of stasis-in-motion: the ride goes around, the song (“The Band Played On”) repeats, and the seeming chase – Bruno on the horse behind, pursuing Miriam – cannot be resolved, since the interval between the bolted-in faux-animals can never be closed.


Yet, even within this ingeniously locked situation, Hitchcock finds a way to introduce nuance: as Bruno leans forward, catching Miriam’s eye, his vocal rendition of the piped song is lifted in the sound mix, and she (unbeknownst to her pals) ‘answers’ him with her similarly, aurally enhanced singing of the next line. What a master of cinematic nuance Hitchcock was!

MORE Hitchcock: The Birds, Lifeboat, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Rear Window, Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt

© Adrian Martin January 1993 / April 2014

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search