This is my fourth and final 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. My third post discussed guilt, and an erotic and suspenseful murder.
As before, this post assumes that you've seen the movie, and what follows may make more sense if you've read the previous posts.
Bruno (Robert Walker) and Guy (Farley Granger) hiding behind a gate in Strangers on a Train (1951) by Alfred Hitchcock with cinematography by Robert Burks, ASC
Every visual element advances and serves the story
The murder of Guy's wife Myriam by the deranged Bruno marks the end of Act 1 of Strangers on a Train. This is followed by a brief scene on a train, where Guy will meet a professor who is so drunk that he will not remember anything, and therefore will not give Guy a sorely-needed alibi.
Much of the power of the filmmaking of Hitchcock and his cinematographer Robert Burks comes from their ability to show the story and the characters' development by means of simple props, set elements and lighting. At this point in the film, the filmmakers will show Guy entering into Bruno's dark prison. Let's look at the scene in storyboard form:
click on first frame to start slide show - frames are numbered 1-9
1. We dissolve to a night exterior of Guy's house. A cab drives up. Burks sets the mood by keeping the foreground in darkness, and lighting the building and tree in the background. A fake capitol building adds depth to the background, while the taxi headlights bring out the foreground of this striking image.
2. The wide shot of Guy going up the stairs silhouettes him with the bright doorway. A tree shadow adds texture to the façade. There is a very slight Dutch angle.
3. We cut to a close shot of Guy entering his house, he turns around when he hears his name called. A strong backlight adds contrast, there is just enough fill to see his face.
4. We cut to wide shot of a gate. A streetlamp motivates the strong hard light, the foreground is defined by a tree with a softer edge light.
5. Dutch angles are very unusual with Hitchcock, and this is a visual indication that something is seriously awry in Guy's life.
6. Bruno appears with a strong dark shadow, beckoning Guy into his world
7. The camera stays close on Guy as he leaves the light of his house.
8-9. Bruno remains faceless, then after a shot of Guy, there is a POV dolly of him approaching the dark gate, the entrance to Bruno's world.
10-12. Bruno grabs Guy, bringing him behind the gate, and hands him the glasses from the murder scene. Bruno is framed on the left behind the bars of the gate, while Guy is in the open. Bruno is enmeshed in dark shadows, while Guy's shadows are a little softer. Guy is in white and is separated from the dark background, Bruno is not.
13. Bruno has previously taken possession of Guy's lighter, a love gift from Anne, and now gives him the broken eyeglasses from his dead wife Myriam. The glasses are linked to the murder throughout Strangers. The murder was first seen reflected in the glasses, making them a kind of witness, and will re-appear as a reminder for Bruno.
14-15. Guy flees from Bruno, exiting the gate into the brighter street, leaving Bruno behind bars as he faces him. Guy appears to be escaping.
16-17. The reverse shot on Guy suddenly puts our hero behind bars, and a hard dark shadow now hits his face. The two men are now both framed behind bars. The bars visually indicate the possibility of jail, and more poetically, the trap that Guy finds himself in. As Bruno explains, he cannot go to the police, because they won't believe him.
18. The enclosure is reinforced by a POV shot of Guy behind soft-focus bars, as he looks at his apartment where the phone is ringing. Burks creates a dark, layered frame by adding softened tree shadows on the façade.
19. Guy's POV of a police car arriving through the sidelit bars. The house façade is marked by strong shadows from a source off-camera right.
20-22. Guy quickly joins Bruno on the other side of the bars, hiding from the police. The shadows on Guy's face are darker than those on Bruno, who has more fill. The two men are in the same cage.
23. POV of the cop leaving Guy's house, silhouetted by the light inside.
24. Guy says "you're making me act like a criminal". This is a turning point in the film. Guy is no longer entirely innocent. He has been drawn into Bruno's world, and is tainted by the murder. Guy is trapped behind bars, and will face the very real possibility of imprisonment, and being sentenced for the murder of the woman he wished dead in a moment of anger.
Bruno is also trapped, in a prison of his own making. His murderous act will haunt him and he is destined to die, as he struggles to bring Guy down with him.
In a few minutes, Hitchcock and Burks manage to show Guy entering through the gates into Bruno's dark world, accepting a memento of the murder, trying to escape from Bruno, and then joining him in the darkness behind bars. Their cinematic vocabulary is simple: darkness and light, soft and hard shadows, an iron gate, a pair of glasses, men standing together or apart. In this scene almost every visual element contributes to the story-telling.
Guy will spend the rest of the movie trying to escape from Bruno, and from the dark prison they share.
One of the keys to Hitchcock's cinematic structure is the leitmotif, a term used for a recurring musical theme associated with a person, idea or situation. With Hitchcock, leitmotifs are often intertwined. For example the murder in Strangers is evoked with eyeglasses, the lighter, and the fairground organ music.
When Bruno shows up at a café sitting next to Anne and some of her friends, Anne's sister Barbara (played by Hitchcock's daughter Patricia) is attracted to him, and introduces herself.
lighter flashback frames 1-3
1. Bruno barely nods to Barbara, and stares intently at the young woman.
2-3. The camera starts with a wide shot of Barbara and quickly dollies in to a close-up. On the sound track we hear music from the fair and the words Bruno spoke to his victim before murdering her: "Is your name Myriam?".
Then in a striking image that shows Bruno's identification of Myriam with Barbara, the lighter he used at the murder is lit, superimposed on Barbara's glasses. These audio and visual hallucinations put the audience in Bruno's troubled mind for a moment, and also indicate that Bruno is haunted by his murder. With Hitchcock, even the cold-blooded sociopath cannot escape his guilt.
This memorable shot also combines the two major props in the Strangers: Myriam's glasses and the McGuffin, Guy's lighter. It's telling that this new pair of glasses is reflecting the murder, just as the one's on the ground did in Hitchcock's lengthy murder shot.
When Bruno attends an elegant soirée hosted by Anne's family, he has another, more troubling flashback, after he entertains two older ladies by discussing the best way to murder someone.
4. Bruno shows his murderous hands, a gesture that is a leitmotif in the film, notably in the phone booth and at the fair. He asks one of socialites: "may I borrow your neck?". The scene is brightly lit with some glamorous backlight.
5. The woman appears delighted to have this young man's hands around her neck. Barbara appears in the background, out of focus, with her glasses glinting.
strangling flashback frames 4-12
6-8. Bruno looks at Barbara with intensity. The camera dollies in quickly on Barbara. This time the sound track has a hint of the music from the fairground, which suffices to evoke the earlier lighter eyeglass shot, and the murder itself. We cut back to an extreme close-up of Bruno, accompanied by the soft sound of someone gasping for breath.
9. We cut to a close-up of the woman's neck, as hands reach in to loosen Bruno's grasp.
10. Bruno falls backward and faints.
11. The traumatized woman is soothed by other hands.
12. A few shots later, there is a shot of a visibly troubled Barbara. She knows that she was Bruno's intended victim.
By evoking the murder several times with a variety of visual and auditory cues, Hitchcock makes the scene reverberate through the film.
The French director François Truffaut wrote a letter in 1963 to the head of publicity at Universal, to explain why he wanted to do a week of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock and write a book about him. Truffaut wrote:
"Certain filmmakers are specialized in the screenplay, others in the direction of actors, others in the mise en scène, Alfred Hitchcock is a specialist in all the aspects of cinema. He masters the film, he masters each scene in the film, he masters each shot inside the scene and he succeeds this tour de force of combining an analytical and a synthetic mind. He never loses control of his work in progress, which is the greatest danger for filmmakers.
Alfred Hitchcock has understood that cinema, which is a branch of entertainment, is an art of time like music, and like music, is subject to the laws of progression and rhythm which have nothing to do, for example, with the laws of a novel. Many films resemble novels, those of Alfred Hitchcock resemble a symphonic concert."
Looking back at my posts on Strangers on a Train, I am indeed dazzled by the complex structure of the entire film, with its intertwined leitmotifs, and its themes of innocence and guilt, as well as the mastery of each scene -- be it the opening shoes, the amorous murder or the scenes above -- and, most of all, I am struck by how every single element in the movie advances and serves the story.
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)
Cinematographer Robert Burks sitting next Alfred Hitchcock, looking astonished