Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Strangers on a Train

Coleridge famously scribbled “the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity” about Othello in his copy of Shakespeare’s works. Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) offers three propositions at the beginning of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, which recently was exhibited as part of the Hitchcock retrospective at Film Forum: ”I’ve got a theory you should do everything before you die...My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer...Each fellow does the other person’s murder so there is nothing to connect them.” QED, the world is an evil place, courtesy of Raymond Chandler who wrote the brilliant script, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel. Bruno when you think about it is a character right out of the Elizabethan/Jacobean theater. Like Iago  he attempts to plant insidious notions in his innocent foil, a tennis star named, Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Strangers on a Train is a series of oppositions that verge on paradox. Miriam, Guy’s slutty unfaithful wife wears thick glasses and looks more like a librarian than a temptress. Her murder is foreshadowed by the screams coming from a so called Tunnel of Love. Bruno’s dotty mother is painting a horrific portrait of a saint (Francis in this case).  She shares a countervailingly pathological misperception of her son, i.e. that he's sweetness and light, when he's in fact horrifying. The one person who can provide an alibi for Guy, a tipsy professor of mathematics offers a definition of integration (“a function is given and the differential is obtained”) while defying moral calculus. By so skewering reality, the movie turns Bruno’s cynical hypothesis on its head. It's impossible to hide motive by the simple act of switching perpetrators, as Bruno suggests, since everyone and everything is, in fact, connected. And the reversals are almost symphonic.  The director makes his obligatory cameo appearance carrying a cello which is the counterpart to the music store that Miriam works in and in which she and Guy quarrel. Miriam's glasses reflect her own murder and again appear on the face of the innocent Barbara Morton, played incidentally by Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia who cheerfully mimics the murder plot when she says, “I still think it would be wonderful to have a man love you so much he would kill for you."  Bruno creates the sound of a bullet shot as he bursts the balloon or bubble of the young boy who is shooting at him with a fake pistol. Guy’s tennis match is paralleled with Bruno’s attempt to retrieve the incriminating lighter (Desdemona’s handkerchief). And lastly let’s not discountenance the homoerotic connection between Bruno and Guy, which continues to provide a pay day for psychoanalytic interpreters of the movie. A runaway carousel is the finale of Hitchcock’s apocalyptic battle between good and evil, and it’s a dazzling scene in which the dark forces of misunderstanding and enlightenment—a child’s screams of delight are countermanded by horrifying spectacle of a wooden horse leg turned into a weapon. The movie begins with a brilliant series of crosscuts, in which we see the shoes and luggage of the two antagonists before we actually meet them. Just as montage creates meaning in cinema, the fate of the film’s two strangers is sealed before they ever meet.

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