STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) B/W 104m dir: Alfred Hitchcock

w/Robert Walker, Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Patricia Hitchcock, Leo G. Carroll, Marion Lorne, Laura Elliot, Jonathan Hale, Howard St. John, John Brown

One of Hitchcock's most masterful films, the plot concerns Bruno (Walker) who meets Guy (Granger) on board a train and suggests that they "criss-cross" murders, that Bruno get rid of the wife who is giving Guy grief and that Guy reciprocate for him by killing his father.

From Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films: "Some of its editing effects (the cross-cutting between the tennis match and Bruno with the lighter) and photographic images (the murder of Miriam reflected in a pair of glasses with one lens shattered) are famous and the dramatic final chase and climax [staged in an amusement park] are among Hitchcock's most unforgettable sequences. Robert Walker gives a memorably disturbing performance as the unbalanced killer, especially in the scene at the Mortons' party where he discusses murder and demonstrates silent strangling techniques."

Robert Burks was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography.

Notes for a lecture on the film:

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN: Hitchcock's 1st film with Robert Burks: his cinematographer on 11 subsequent films including:


Patricia Highsmith: rough outlines of her book kept: Guy changed from architect: more conflict with tennis player: idea of criss-cross:

novel: Bruno's father murdered: Guy must stand trial / the object: volume of Plato: changed to lighter

STRANGERS: scenario by Raymond Chandler & Cenzo Ormonde: adaptation by Whitfield Cook & Hitchcock:

adaptation: changed Guy's potential father-in-law from millionaire to senator: disquieting element: potential scandal

Highsmith novel: spread all over country: Hitchcock: centers film in Washington DC, Forest Hills, Metcalf:

Chandler: responsible for tough-minded school of literature: created Philip Marlowe: was brought in to work on dialog:

Hitchcock to Truffaut: his work not satisfactory: maybe Chandler's work too much Chandler not enough Hitchcock

Hitchcock's use of doubling: linked to technical influences of German studios: German expressionism: more importantly:

serves as vehicle for Hitchcock to express his views on modern world as morally ambiguous & chaotic in nature:

result of doubling: disorienting to viewer: keeps us off-balance

Hitchcock dealing with fears on 2 levels: surface fears: murder, etc.

underlying fears: SHADOW OF A DOUBT: incest / STRANGERS ON A TRAIN: homosexuality

STRANGERS: another pair of Hitchcock doubles: hero: Guy / villain: Bruno

parallels with SHADOW OF A DOUBT: Bruno: like Uncle Charlie:

attractive figure / somewhat psychopathic / strangles women / dominated by mother

what traits do Bruno & Guy share? both: men / about same age / use trains as transportation /

have someone in family causing problems &need to get rid of person / interest in tennis / same social class? murder?

also many differences between Bruno & Guy: Bruno: a psychopath / Guy: backbone?

Bruno's energy makes him attractive: especially next to Guy who's bland & apathetic:

casting: Granger no match for Walker's magnetism

Bruno: most compelling character in film: smoothly elegant villain: like Uncle Charlie:

his character: associated with darkness: calling out to Guy from shadows / amusement park: "what time does it get dark?" /

dresses in dark clothing / dog standing guard: Cerebus: guardian of underworld /

Bruno's boat in tunnel of love: Pluto: god of underworld

all this: used by Hitchcock to his advantage: clouding moral climate of film: Bruno most attractive character in film

Guy: full of ambiguities: refuses to murder Bruno's father: but compromised in other ways:

1. at least partly: his interest in Ann motivated by political contacts & career her father would help him with after tennis

2. very clear: he wants Miriam dead: "I could strangle her": dissolve to close up of Bruno's hand's in correct position: manicure

also: when Bruno comes to Metcalf to murder Miriam: he looks up her address in same phone booth where Guy said this

maybe only Guy's cowardice keeps him from killing Miriam himself: rather than any innate morality he has

Hitchcock to Bogdanovich: "he felt like killing her himself"

Hitchcock to Truffaut: "for Guy, it's just as if he had committed the murder himself"

opening sequence: technique similar to that used in SHADOW: camera in separate shots tracks along with 2 pair of feet going to board train:

Bruno: ostentatious shoes, trousers: walks left; Gut: conservative (dull) shoes, trousers: walks right: crosscutting between them:

crosscutting: cutting back & forth between 2 or more different locations where action happening simultaneously:

lets us compare & contrast what's going on in each location: example: cutting back & forth between:

heroine tied to railroad tracks / hero riding to her rescue: cutting: gets faster at end

Bruno's feet walk left, Guy's feet walk right: crosscutting between them:

feet going in opposite directions: moving thru space diagonally: diagonal important to visual dynamics:

diagonal movement: not literal crisscrossing seen of 2 men: but pattern of movement of feet:

displaced pattern: 2 arms of cross

shot of turnstile: when men pass thru same space in train station: camera waits until both have crossed space

pattern of cross confirmed when we see crisscrossing of railroad tracks: 2 intersections: double cross

same crisscrossing pattern of feet continued on train & when characters' feet collide:

Guy crosses his legs & knock's Bruno's crossed legs: a double crossing

this crosscutting pattern repeated at end of film: most of last 20 minutes of film: virtually silent movie without dialog:

cutting back & forth between Guy at tennis match & Bruno on way to amusement park:

Guy: playing tennis: bright sunlight / reaching up // Bruno: retrieving lighter: below street grate: darkness: reaching down

visual identification between Guy & Bruno: consistent thruout film:

1. Hitchcock consistently crosscuts between them: Bruno checks his watch / cut to Guy looking at his watch

2. Guy's lighter: Bruno has it: simultaneously represents Guy's relationship to 2 women:

to Ann: gave it to Guy with their initials on it

to Miriam: Bruno uses it to get her attention (so he can murder her; later he tries to plant it as evidence

3. when Bruno comes to tell Guy of murder: they face each other thru barred gate: until:

Bruno says: "you're just as much in it as I am" / they hear police car coming / Guy steps behind bars with Bruno


2 pairs of doubles: a double double: 2nd pair: Miriam & Barbara: Barbara: not coincidentally played by Pat Hitchcock:

Barbara: looks like Miriam: & the glasses: called "doubles by multiplication": both represent same person to Bruno:

evident in 2 scenes: 1. meeting at tennis club / party scene: Bruno "murders" Mrs. Cunningham

Barbara: terrified of what happens to Bruno: being identified with Bruno's victim:

but she's 1st to pas judgment on Miriam: calls her tramp: like Uncle Charlie

another link between Miriam & Barbara: their reactions to Bruno the same: explicit equation of sex & violence:

each is attracted to him: Bruno's response seen by each as sign of sexual interest:

but he's really interested in excitement of murdering Miriam: & reliving it thru Barbara

Miriam's murder: on island of tunnel of love at amusement park: begins like seduction: ends with her being strangled:

this process: reenacted metaphorically when Bruno sees Barbara while he's strangling Mrs. Cunningham

doubling elements: do more than establish identities:

relate to world order: Washington DC, business, sports / relate to world of corruption, sin, death:

worlds: not hermetically sealed from each other

scenes of Washington DC: Guy's apartment in shadow of US Capitol building:

building's illuminated dome ironically "oversees" Guy's meeting with Bruno

Bruno: hiding behind ironwork fence: his face crisscrossed with shadows: Guy joins him in shadows

Bruno: on steps of Jefferson Memorial: dressed in dark clothes: clothes stark vs. white steps, building, sunlight:

subjective moving camera shot: 2 times: dizzying effect

proximity of great national edifices: symbols of law & order powerless: no protection:

cannot impose order on irrational universe: like Hitchcock's use of other national monuments:

British Museum, Mt. Rushmore, UN building, Statue of Liberty

other pairs of characters: 2 little boys / 2 pairs of strolling guardians / 2 old men / 2 old ladies: especially interesting:

parallel between Bruno's mother & Mrs. Cunningham: links Bruno even more strongly with Uncle Charlie:

who murdered to revenge himself on predatory women

also: doubling reinforced structurally: 1 example: 2 scenes in amusement park

balanced pairs:

close ups of pairs of feet hurrying from opposite directions

2 sets of diverging rails

lighter: crossed tennis racquets

2 carousel episodes

2 women with eyeglasses

2 young men who accompany Miriam: 1 on each side of her

strangling of Miriam: reflected in her eyeglass lens

twin lenses in her eyeglasses: 1 good / 1 broken

Miriam's glasses & blind man's glasses: neither can be seen thru

2 songs played at amusement park: "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" / "Ain't We Got Fun"

carousel song: repeated twice: "Strawberry Blonde"

2 fathers: representing politics (Senator Morton) & big business (Mr. Anthony)

Hitchcock's cameo: carrying double bass: double of his own form

also: numerous matched shots: showing Bruno & Guy sequentially:

as they perform analogous actions, take same position, stand in complementary light & shadow

final doubling of film: minister: "aren't you Guy Haines?": scene: matched double of earlier scene:

Guy on train to Metcalf to intercept Bruno: he sees 2 men start conversation when their crossed feet accidentally bump:

final irony of film: stranger a minister this time: omen beneath humor:

Guy & Ann: should be moving toward minister, not away from 1: outcome of marriage: problematic?

3 years later: DIAL M FOR MURDER: may be seen as sequel to STRANGERS:

Ray Milland: ex-tennis player who tries to murder his wife

if we see film as courtship of latent homosexual by psychopathic killer: drawing back from marriage makes perfect sense

Barbara:"I think it's wonderful to have a man love you so much he'd kill for you:

words: true of Bruno's attraction to Guy

importance of Barbara: Pat Hitchcock: 2 important scenes with her:

1. Barbara calls Miriam tramp: says what other think: refuses Miriam her common humanity:

is chastised by her father for her insensitivity

2. Barbara's horrified recognition of Bruno: like she's been violated / raped

in both scenes: daughter speaks or sees what mustn't be spoken of or seen: what others fear to speak or see

father-daughter interplay in film: wholly absent from novel: Spoto: "malevolent humor":

scenes between Barbara & father: "oh, come on, Daddy"

but scenes of malevolent humor: connected to scenes of malevolent violence:

1. between Bruno & Miriam / 2. between Bruno & Barbara

scene between Bruno & Barbara: metaphor for Hitchcock & Pat's mutual recognition on set:

suggests that daughter's gaze might be intimidating to father

Corber: "Hitchcock's Washington":

STRANGERS: images of federal government: Capitol Building / Jefferson Memorial

Hitchcock's use of national monuments in his films: usually obvious connection to plot:

NORTH BY NORTHWEST: Mt. Rushmore: cold war conflict translated into visual terms

not case with STRANGERS: no communist spies plotting to overthrow government: just psychopathic killer:

so: why images / icons of government in film?

STRANGERS: linked to anti-communist hysteria: result of McCarthy hearings:

cold war: construction of "the homosexual" as security risk: Senate Appropriations Comm.: used Kinsey report to rid State Dept. of "perverts":

Kinsey Reports: 1948 / 1953: forced Americans to reexamine established norms of male / female behavior:

Kinsey: stressed instability of sexual identities: unexpected result of survey: high incidence of same-sex behavior:

in every age group, every social level, every occupation:

conclusion: homosexual behavior was "an inherent physiological capacity & should be tolerated

Kinsey Reports: eventually undermined restrictive norms of male-female behavior:

but most immediately: fanned flames of emerging homosexual panic

Senate Appropriations Comm.: Republican leaders: wanted to discredit Truman administration:

accused President of tolerating homosexual employees in federal government

homosexuals said to be as big a threat to government as communists: full investigation followed: investigation into same-sex behavior:

redefinition of homosexual / lesbian identities:

report disputed popular stereotypes: effeminate homosexual / masculine lesbian:

stated no outward characteristics or physical traits to identify gay men & women

committee: sought confirmation from medical community sowing gays as mentally unstable;

should be treated medically or psychiatrically

this meant: even gay men & women who seemed "normal" should be expelled from government:

their emotional instability made them vulnerable to espionage agents

committee: used Kinsey Reports, medical testimony, legal arguments, etc. to encourage homosexual panic: why would they do this?

to help contain certain dramatic shifts & upheavals: both social & sexual:

men: had difficult readjustments returning from WWII

women: resented pressure for them to return to domestic sphere

construction of gays as security risks helped to contain these dramatic shifts in attitudes & behavior:

politicizing of sexual practices: linked gays to crisis over national security:

& coerced straights to police their own behavior

suddenly: connection established between individual's politics & sexual identity: membership in communist part, e.g.:

indication that individual was unpatriotic: also potentially perverted

individual's sexual orientation: no longer determined by conformity to norms of behavior:

now: could be determined b politics of individual

STRANGERS: participated in attempts to contain political-sexual upheaval thru deployment of homophobia:

setting film in nation's capitol sheds new light on homosexual subplot: from Highsmith's book:

legal crisis: precipitated by fact that gays could look "normal": translated into visual terms:

Guy does not look homosexual: almost too clean-cut to threaten security: but he initiates meeting with Bruno:

accidentally kicking him under table on train

on train: circumstances show Guy to be security risk: Bruno knows all about him:

meeting with Bruno: exposes Guy to threat of blackmail

if gays can appear / behave "normally": how can they be represented cinematically?

Hitchcock: uses stereotype of effeminate homosexual:

Bruno: 1st shots of his feet identify him as outside mainstream: striped trousers, saddle shoes

his dependence on his mother: he seems to suffer from unresolved Oedipal complex:

fantasies of replacing his father

mother: constantly mediates between father & son: encourages Bruno's dependence on her:

she manicures his fingernails

STRANGERS: invokes homophobic categories of cold war discourse: represents Bruno as emotionally unstable gay:

who threatens national security: Bruno: 1st tries to pervert Guy: then tries to implicate him in Miriam's murder

Hitchcock: condenses scenario of homosexual menace: 1 of film's most powerful images:

Guy's point of view (POV): Bruno on steps of Jefferson Memorial: camera follows Guy's gaze: pans Jefferson Memorial:

composition of shot: focuses on Bruno: stands near center frame:

motionless & looking straight into camera: unlike other figures in shot

although Bruno dwarfed by memorial: stark contrast between his dark silhouette & white marble:

makes government appear vulnerable & unprotected

threat to Guy's future too: as senator: cannot expose Bruno without exposing himself too

scene is powerful because it's shot from Guy's POV:

spectator: positioned as "heterosexual" of legal discourse threatened by homosexual menace