This is my third commentary on the classic thriller Strangers on a Train by Alfred Hitchcock.
My first post discussed the opening sequence, comparing the shooting script to the film, and Truffaut's vision of Hitchcock as auteur. My second post discussed the Bruno character as a great bad guy, the director's penchant for cinematic trains, and his seamless blend of locations and rear screens.
I now turn to the event that happens in every Hitchcock film: murder.
This post assumes that you've seen the movie, in other words: spoiler alert! Also, what follows may make more sense if you've read the previous posts.
Myriam (Laura Elliott) illuminated by the MacGuffin in Strangers on a Train (1951) by Alfred Hitchcock with cinematography by Robert Burks, ASC
Truffaut said that Hitchcock filmed lovemaking as if it was murder, and filmed murder as if it was lovemaking
There is a decisive moment in Strangers on a Train that occurs in a phone booth towards the end of Act 1, about 15 minutes in.
Our hero, Guy (Farley Granger), has just left an emotional meeting with his unfaithful wife Myriam, who is pregnant from another man. Myriam doesn't love Guy, but has stated that she will not divorce him and therefore prevent him from marrying his true love, Anne, a senator's daughter. Guy calls Anne (Ruth Roman) to tell her the bad news, and, perturbed, shouts out his hate for Myriam over the noise of a passing train: "I could strangle her".
These murderous words are spoken out of anger by a man who would never commit murder. But in Hitchcock's universe, everyone is guilty, and our hateful thoughts and feelings are destined to have consequences.
The film dissolves from Guy in the phone booth to a pair of hands belonging to Bruno (Robert Walker), the sociopath who proposed exchanging murders with Guy when they met by accident in a train. Bruno's mother is giving him a manicure, but Hitchcock is showing the audience that these same manicured hands will enact Guy's murderous thoughts. Cinematographer Robert Burks, ASC, gives a bright edge to the hands to help them pop out of the shadows of the phone booth. Hitchcock and Burks often succeed in illustrating complex themes with simple graphic images.
The dissolve from head to hand links Guy's thoughts to Bruno's actions, a visual indication that the two characters are really one, or, as François Truffaut states, "one character split in two". Bruno is Guy's dark side made real. Like many of Hitchcock's films, Strangers on a Train demonstrates an ordinary man's guilt by blowing it out of proportion: angry resentment leads to murder.
When Hitchcock was a child, his father is said to have sent him to the police station with a note instructing the officers to put him in a jail cell for ten minutes. His father's cruel punishment seems to have been a formative event for the filmmaker. He was an innocent child in jail. But this may also be where Hitchcock's Catholic upbringing came into play: if he was in jail, it must be because he was guilty of something, because no one is truly innocent. In any case, innocence, guilt and unjust accusations are constant themes in Hitchcock's work.
In a previous post about Rear Window, I quoted Truffaut saying that Hitchcock filmed lovemaking as if it was murder, and filmed murder as if it was lovemaking.
While Rear Window features a threatening dark kiss, Strangers on a Train provides a striking example of an amorous murder, when Bruno stalks Guy's wife Myriam as she goes to an amusement park with two young men, and then strangles her in a secluded spot.
In the film, Myriam is a bad guy. In Myriam's first scene with Guy in the music store, she is greedy, spiteful and threatens to "play" the abandoned wife and mother to keep her husband from leaving her. Hitchcock does everything he can to render her un-attractive, including distorting her eyes with extremely thick glasses.
Later Myriam goes out to the amusement park with two young men who seem to be hoping for more than friendship. Hitchcock humorously refers to Myriam's pregnancy, as the guys marvel at her enormous appetite for ice cream, hot dogs and popcorn. This is a form of dramatic irony: the audience knows something the young men don't.
At the park, Myriam takes an immediate liking to Bruno, and continually flirts with him. I put together the following video storyboard of the looks that Myriam and Bruno exchange in the amusement park, and the murder that follows.
view on YouTube
The fairground sequence starts out as the mutual seduction of a woman and a tall dark stranger. Yet the audience also knows that Bruno is out to kill Myriam, a dramatic irony that creates suspense. In this sequence Hitchcock treats the audience to a strange mixture of erotic tension and murderous suspense.
When Bruno shows Myriam his hands before demonstrating his strength by striking a puck up a pole to win a prize, he is also showing his victim the murder weapon.
The blending of love and death is illustrated by the merging shadows in the Tunnel of Love. First we see the shadows of Myriam embraced by one of her dates. Then Bruno's shadow enters the image, and slowly overtakes the other shadows until they merge together.
Burks cinematography here couldn't be simpler: moving shadows across a textured wall. Bruno's stand-in is close to his lighting source, yielding a big, looming dark presence. Once again Hitchcock and Burks find a simple graphic to illustrate the themes of the sequence.
The Tunnel of Love scene ends with a piercing scream, which turns out to be Myriam playfully shouting at one of her suitors. This ambiguous scream continues the blending of genres, and the audience knows it is being prepared for the actual murder, which will be silent.
murder & macguffin
Myriam and her escorts continue in the boat to a small island across from the park, that appears to be a kind of lover's lane. The murder scene is introduced by a stunning shot, from the island, of the amusement park reflected in the water. Myriam runs across the frame from right to left, pursued by her two suitors.
Then there is a match cut to the lengthy shot story-boarded in the slide show photos below. It starts with Myriam running into frame up close to camera, then looking to camera left to see that she has eluded the two young men. Suddenly a cigarette lighter enters frame and briefly lights her face.
click on first photo to start slide show
Burks' cinematography here is stunning. The camera position uses the distant shimmering background to offset the darkness, and motivate edge light to define Myriam in the darkness. Burks simulates the brief brightness of the lighter with an un-flattering hard low source. When the lighter is off, he adds just enough front light to get a glint in her eyes, and in her jewelry.
Everything about this murder is understated, Myriam's face is dark, the murderer's face is hidden, and the action happens very slowly, as if in slow motion. The sound track has no music, only the ambient sound of the distant fairground music. Myriam's proximity to the camera gives the scene an intimate quality. There is nothing spectacular, and Burks' cinematogaphy is as restrained as the mise en scène.
Hitchcock frames Myriam's strangulation like a standard Hollywood screen kiss. Bruno is hidden, as are his hands, after the initial clasping of her neck. The camera dollies and moves across Bruno's back, ending by placing her face on the right side of camera. This lengthy shot ends with her glasses falling out of frame.
A match cut goes to a brief shot of the glasses falling next to the lighter. We then cut to one of Hitchcock's most famous shots: Myriam's death reflected in the lens of her glasses.
The two figures are reflected against a gray sky, in a frame with almost no contrast, just a rim light on the edge of the glasses. We get a glimpse of Bruno's face for the first time as he bends over and slowly, almost gently, lowers her body to the ground.
This memorable frame was shot with a very large-scale model of the glasses, probably about 5-6 feet, reflecting the actors. This outsized rig allowed for a fake Macro shot without the limitations of macro photography, like narrow depth of field and cramped lighting difficulties.
The murder scene ends with a shot of two motifs of the film: the glasses, and Guy's lighter. There is a close-up of the inscription "A to G", a loving message from Ann to Guy. Bruno picks up the glasses, and comes back to pick up the lighter. As noted in an earlier post, the lighter will become the MacGuffin of the film, and the third act will be driven by Guy trying to stop Bruno from planting it at the scene of the crime. It is only fitting that one of Hitchcock's most famous murder scenes ends with a gloved hand grabbing the MacGuffin.
Large scale models is one of Hitchcock's trademark tricks. The most famous instance is the monster phone used in Dial M for Murder in conjunction with a giant dialing finger. The director used a similar trick towards the end of Strangers on a Train, when Ann and her family are waiting to get a phone call from Guy.
The family are framed in the background behind a giant phone, when Ann rises to answer the phone a tilt up hides the big phone as she walks towards and brings up a normal hand piece to speak with Guy.
wikipedia: Alfred Hitchcock
imdb: Robert Burks, ASC
amazon: Strangers on a Train DVD
the.hitchcock.zone: Strangers on a Train (1951)
the.hitchcock.zone: Strangers on a Train - shooting script
the.hitchcock.zone: Hitchcock Truffaut audio files
amazon: Hitchcock Truffaut
thefilmbook: Strangers on a Train 1 - Shoes, Script, Auteurs
thefilmbook: Strangers on a Train 3 - Murder
thefilmbook: Scene in Stills: The Dark Kiss
(commenting a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window)
Alfred Hitchcock with monster phone used in Dial M for Murder in 1954