It’s not difficult to see Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train as “less than the sum of its parts,” as the saying goes. One wonders if this reading has something to do with the film’s lack of a real star presence, or the lack of superb acting in its protagonist. Allegedly, early screenings of Mission: Impossible III had audiences cheering for Philip Seymour Hoffman, the villain, over good guy Tom Cruise. Hoffman’s superior performance and Cruise’s dimming star persona seem to have gotten in the way of ordinary viewer positioning. Strangers on a Train has a villain outdoing his nemesis, the latter who gets by alright playing Hitchcock’s classic implicated-innocent-bystander without compelling the spectator like a Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. Still, whether the position in the first line is true or not, the film’s “parts” are so cinematically worthwhile that they earned attention. Hitchcock and Truffaut conversed about the film and agreed on its many shortcomings…but they still conversed about it.
Hitchcock scholar Robin Wood has commented on Strangers on a Train in an essay by the same name published in A Hitchcock Reader (eds. Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague, Iowa State University Press, 1986). The chapter gives the sort of surface reading that was popular in past film scholarship, essentially translating Hitchcock’s cinematic technique into the underlying intent. Wood restricts his interpretation to the realm of the narrative without exactly moving into critical analysis territory, which is certainly the harder part. But that doesn’t make Wood’s observations unhelpful. He notes a reverse identification between Guy and Bruno. From before their first encounter, the two are set apart. Though they are connected by the shots of their feet, the fashion of their pants and shoes are quite different. Hitchcock gets all the details right by shooting the two pair of feet walking toward one another even before they are in the same area. Once they bump into one another, incongruities between the two men immediately surface. Guy’s status as a celebrity athlete makes him attempt to hide his identity from the world, whereas Bruno wears his name on a tie clip. Bruno’s flamboyant eccentricities stand in contrast with Guy’s more mellow demeanor and desires for a stable and predictable life. But Wood notes that shortly after the two begin talking, their conversation reveals that they are both trapped in relationships from which they want desperately to free themselves. Guy’s casual dismissal of Bruno allows Bruno to misread Guy and believe that he will follow through with Bruno’s crass proposal.
Some misogyny of which Hitchcock has been accused surfaces in this film in all of the main female characters. Miriam is a shameless gold digger. She has the personality of a child, fulfilling her cravings, going out with younger boys, and spending time at a carnival. The carnival, Wood notes, embodies everything about Miriam. It is an empty play area full of shallow pleasures, with circular rides such as the merry-go-round and ferris wheel reflecting the futility of such pursuits. The rather stale character of Ann gives credence to Bruno’s suggestion that Guy is with her merely to further his political aspirations; her father is a senator and will help him climb the ladder. Bruno’s mother is nearly senile, utterly oblivious to reality and, as Wood observes, “an obvious forerunner of Norman Bates.” The only interesting woman in the film is Barbara, Ann’s younger sister (played by Hitchcock’s daughter Pat). She plays a sort of court jester, making the kind of silly and slightly taboo remarks that invite reproach from her proper Senator of a father, but at the same time remarks that identify her with the viewer by accurately evaluating the film’s main dilemmas. Various jokes are inserted, some from Barbara’s own mouth, about her lack of attractiveness compared to Ann. The only scene that prominently features other women is the party when Bruno nearly, and inadvertantly, stangles a judge’s wife. This character reminds one of many Hitchcock women, perhaps most notably Mrs. Thornwell (Roger’s mother) in North By Northwest.
But misogyny may be a moot point, as the cinema of Hitchcock in one sense shouldn’t be expected to vindicate the plight of the woman. His use of horror genre conventions that inherently assume the inferior position of the woman seem to preclude an undermining of the rampant misogyny in those films. Further, one wonders just what Hitchcock’s films and reputation would be like if he didn’t use horror/thriller genre conventions. Probably not the same.
Wood’s strongest point is also his most underdeveloped: Hitchcock’s implicating of the spectator in the crimes and sins of the film’s characters. Certainly Bruno’s personality is the most magnetic and dynamic in the film. If Guy had been played by a Cary Grant, the film’s positioning of the spectator would have changed radically. Bruno’s mother maybe a type of Mrs. Bates, but Bruno is no Norman. Instead of an extremely awkward schizophrenic, Bruno’s amiability is as likely to delight his aquaintances as to disturb them. The scene at the party suddenly shifts from playful to morbid when Bruno’s gaze falls upon Barbara while demonstrating a strangling. The catalyst for the shift is guilt, which Bruno experiences when Barbara reminds him of Miriam. In that murder, Bruno’s quest for Miriam is greeted by a flirtacious eye. By having Miriam carouse with two men, Bruno’s capturing of her eye is positioned not as infidelity on her part but on Bruno’s successful conquering of his goal. The imagery becomes more and more sexual as Bruno pursues Miriam at the carnival, eventually entering the tunnel of love and ending on an island covered in couples, what Wood calls “an island of lost souls.” The viewer is then forced to see the murder in a distorted reflection from Miriam’s glasses lying on the ground. What began as thrilling and even enticing becomes revealed for the perversion that it is. The same thing happens at the faux-strangling scene. The viewer is first identified with Bruno in his playfulness, but once Barbara enters, the extreme close-up of her face connects the viewer with her terror. These are the best examples of the film drawing the viewer in only to incriminate the act of viewing.
Wood argues that another scene of suspense fundamentally differs from these by “cheating” the viewer. The scene takes place at Bruno’s house when Guy arrives to follow through (we think) with the murder of Bruno’s father. Guy has previously received a parcel from Bruno containing a map of the home and a gun. When Guy enters the house illicitly with both items in his possession and shadows cast in every direction, the viewer is left to assume that Guy has collapsed under the pressure and is about to commit the murder. The long walk up the stairs, complete with a growling dog near the top, culminates in Guy entering the bedroom and opening his mouth to reveal that he intends, in fact, to tell Bruno’s father about the depths of Bruno’s depravity. At this moment, the light comes on to reveal Bruno in his father’s bed, calmly expecting Guy to betray him. Wood finds this a fundamental problem of the film, as it artificially sets up suspense scene, again implicating the viewer in a character’s sinister intentions, then shows itself to have been false on both ends. Not only did Bruno himself stage the whole scene, but Guy has no intention of following through with the murder. Wood finds the scene’s execution to be possibly “a major lapse in artistic integrity.” This is possible, but questionable. The scene differs from previous examples by (1) identifying the viewer with Guy rather than Bruno, (2) presenting a scene that is orchestrated on one end, and (3) connecting the viewer with a character with moral intentions in a confrontation. The scene signifies such a breakdown in spectatorship within the film that Wood’s allegation could be misguided. Hitchcock undoubtedly takes advantage of the suspense factor that he has already developed in the film and exercised in his audience. In the same way that both Guy and Bruno have reached their breaking point in the film, so also has the viewer, perhaps without realizing it. But just as the film has manipulated the position of the spectator to this point, the film’s third and climactic act of deception snaps the viewer into a big-picture view of the playing field. Guy’s early laughter at Bruno’s proposal juxtaposes starkly with his fear and desperation at the film’s middle, which hinges from a more conventional narrative thriller to a series of frantic attempts to vindicate or implicate. Guy’s drastic change in tennis strategy toward the film’s end and the breakdown of the merry-go-round destroy the mundane predictability presented in the film’s first half.