Friday, August 12, 2016

Reassessment of Shyamalan's Signs

M. Night Shyamalan's Signs (2002) is possibly the quietest summer blockbuster ever released. Shyamalan is a writer-director who built his reputation on thoughtful, psychological portraits of figures on the fringes of the supernatural but subsequently ruined his canon with a string of increasingly terrible films reverse engineered around sudden gotcha plot twists. Signs initially debuted to mixed reviews and hasn't seemed to grow in stature the way other misunderstood gems are sometimes rediscovered later by new generations.  That is not to equate Signs with the likes Citizen Kane, Vertigo, or Singin' in the Rain all of which underwent analytical re-assessment with film criticism to join the pantheon of greatness. It's true that at times Signs can be a clunky film; overly stylized and rigid with dialogue that borders on stilted. Yet still, within its 102 minute running time lies a quiet but thrilling drama masquerading in the genre of a Sci-Fi alien invasion film featuring sequences so richly cinematic that Hitchcock himself would have been jealous. Shyamalan understands visual storytelling and in that respect Signs is kind of a masterwork.

Signs begins silently, the Touchstone logo gives ways to a black screen.  Finally, the shrill dissonance of a lone violin cues the fade-in of a single, directional light source.  The orb of light contrasts stark black credits on a background that foreshadows the flashlight imagery which will occur throughout the film.  There is nothing incredibly complex about the design of the title sequence.  Still, the elegiac violin resonates in time, rhythmically, with the light source which glows momentarily bright before dimming as a dying flashlight would.  This sequence is a consistent barrage of alternating light and dark.  This interplay of flickering light and shadow is a self-reflexive reminder of the film's own projection mechanisms. 

Signs' main characters will have to open their minds and reconcile the impossible in this suspenseful mystery.  Ultimately, the opening imagery establishes the motif that Signs is a film about light versus dark.  More to the point, the round light source foreshadows the alien visitation by graphically mirroring the shapes in the crop circles.  Light signifies the dawning knowledge and understanding that comes from learning and enlightenment; a well-trod motif reaching as far back as Plato's Allegory of the Cave. As James Newton Howard's score crescendos into a Bernard Herrman-esque symphony, Shyamalan is playing the audience's expectations like Hitchcock and his proverbial piano.

The narrative is absolutely classical in its design.  A wounded antihero must undergo a significant rite of passage in order attain the necessary growth as a character to reclaim his patriarchal power, spiritual leadership, and his sense of identity.  In this case that antihero is Reverend Graham Hess, a man who gave up his belief in God after a terrible accident left his wife dead.  Hess lives with his goofball brother Merrill, a failed professional baseball player, and Graham's two precocious children on acreage of farmland.  When strange crop circles begin appearing in the corn fields, the family struggles to understand what has made them and the larger implications of why they have been chosen.

At the start of the film, Merrill startles awake alone in the darkened bedroom.  He tours the house, completing rounds like a security guard, and Shyamalan’s manipulation of mise-en-scene adds layers to the storytelling through an abundance of impactful visuals.  The opening sequence is wordless - and scoreless - allowing the ambient sound of Graham's wake-up routine to lull the audience into makeshift calm.  The sparse sounds of Hess’ footsteps and breathing emphasize the loneliness.  The walls are worn and gray and there is an overall lack of warm light.  The farmhouse does not strike spectators as being particular inviting from these early scenes.  The most telling shot in the opening sequence is a static that frames the bathroom doorway just left of center.  The frame is devoid of human figures (although the soundtrack features the sound of Graham's urination off-screen).  The emptiness leads the viewer to scan the frame for important information: why is Shyamalan lingering on this seemingly non-narrative moment so soon into the film?  Careful viewers will observe the subtle shape of where a crucifix had once adorned the wall, now removed.  Here is where the notion that Graham Hess has recently given up on God is established.

A piercing scream cuts through the somber opening.  Graham stamps through the house (again wordlessly).  His brother Merrill is simultaneously awakened from a deep sleep and shoots out of bed like a Chaplin-esque silent comedy star.  The men tear outside and for the first time dialogue is spoken, sparsely.  Merrill asks, "Where are they?"  The loaded question alludes to a lot more than just the missing children.  Still, the single line of dialogue indicates that this will be a story focused primarily on the familial unit.  The Hess children scream for father and Uncle Merrill from deep within the cornfields.  Graham and Hess charge after them through stalks of corn taller than themselves.  It is in this opening sequence that the predominant style and visual motifs of Signs will be established.

(Characters continually stare into off-screen space)

 The emerging visual motif of Signs becomes repeating patterns of obstacles to sight.  Throughout the film there are a number of things that prevent both characters and spectators from fully seeing the "clear picture."  Shyamalan’s visual motif equates seeing to understanding and subsequently to believing (as the old adage states).  To deny Graham Hess and viewers the ability to see is to deny them the knowledge by which to grow.  Also, practically, the denial of visual material to spectators fundamentally enhances the suspense of the film by further delaying the resolution of expectations.  Corn mazes, flashlights, television static, children on a home-video at a birthday party, Graham struggling to see what is on the other side of a pantry door.  All of these moments underpin major sequences throughout the film where vision is impaired and the corresponding knowledge to be gained is withheld, momentarily.

(refusal to make eye-contact)

Graham finds his son staring off into the distance.  There is no point-of-view shot to orient us to the object of his gaze.  They speak to each other without making eye-contact; yet another component of the motif on broken sight-lines.  Many conversations within Signs occur with a significant lack of eye-contact between the conversing parties.  This technique is off-putting, and paces the drama deliberately slow.  The characters speak methodically choosing their words carefully.  Something else in off-screen space is always vying for their attention.   The boy points, his father follows, and slowly Shyamalan’s camera tracks backwards through the stalks until spilling out into a large area of trampled corn.  The entire time Shyamalan resists an establishing shot.  Spectators are subjected to a series of close-ups edited at a glacial rhythm.  Viewers focus on the wandering eyes of Graham Hess as dogs bark ferociously in the background ratcheting up the tension.  Hess’ boots crunch softly on the corn.  Finally the camera backs up to a very long shot that foregrounds two German Shepherds barking at the sky.  Lastly, Shyamalan presents us with a bird's-eye-view of the crop circle.  For the first time the viewer gets a clear sense of space as they see the majesty of the near-perfect circle trampled in the middle of a cornfield.  The family stands in the center, walled-in and helpless, and the journey of exploration begins.

(Framing the family unit)

This opening sequence introduces the film expertly.   It conveys the sense of fear and mystery that will drive the central narrative.  It introduces the themes of family, coincidence, and faith in evocative visual ways.  The lack of dialogue is a powerful choice for a film labeled Signs.  It is intelligent writing to drive the film along on important visual cues rather than allowing dialogue to push storytelling forward.  Along the way, Signs will have moments of perfection (the climax in the darkened basement as the boy suffers a debilitating asthma attack) and moments that border on laughable ("Swing Away, Merrill.")  Still, when writer/directors are as focused on utilizing the visual elements of film form to generate meaning in their pictures as M. Night Shyamalan, we should consider the work carefully.  Signs is a great movie worth re-evaluation.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Derek Dubois to be Featured in Peer-Reviewed Film Journal

This fall, Derek Dubois will once again appear in print in the peer-reviewed film journal SHORT FILM STUDIES which is published by Intellect LTD.  You can find more information on this wonderful journal at the following link:,id=191/

Derek's essay, entitled "Cruel Summer: Decoding Subtext through Shot Design in The Beachargues that filmmaker Dorthe Scheffmann's filmic style, specifically shot design via mise-en-scene and cinematography, adds additional layers of meaning to the story of two intimate friends in a startling dramatic conflict. 

Watch for publication this fall.  In the meantime, enjoy an excerpt from Sheffmann's short film which served as the basis for Dubois' analysis.

Derek Dubois - Filmmaker Guest for Rhode Island College's Film Students

On Thursday 03/15/2015, Derek Dubois was invited by frequent collaborator Soren Sorensen to serve as a guest filmmaker for Film 373 - Introduction to Film Production Course.

The class, featuring upper-level film undergraduates, screened three of Derek's films: Fallout (2012), Lucid (2013), and Sinners (2014) before venturing into a lively discussion on a range of topics from low-budget film-making to feminist film theory.

This was an exciting opportunity to highlight the works of this local filmmaker while also allowing for a sharing of advice on DIY methodologies.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Fatal Femme: Bruno Antony and Hitchcock’s Film Noir

Note: This essay was formally presented at Analyzing the 1950s: Media, Politics, Culture Conference held in Forth Worth, Texas (Texas Christian University) on November 15, 2014

Though director - and cinema icon - Alfred Hitchcock’s expert craftsmanship is the epitome of the Classical Hollywood paradigm, he often destabilizes socially normative behavior via the characters of his suspense films.  Strangers on a Train (1951) is a bold and meticulously constructed crime film based on the debut novel from Patricia Highsmith.  It centers on the relationship that develops between two men – the titular strangers - whose paths cross on a train.  Guy Haines is a seemingly straight-and-narrow tennis player with lofty political ambitions. Bruno Antony is the amoral psychopath with a diabolical plan.  When Bruno chillingly murders Guy’s estranged wife, unbeknownst to Guy, he sets in motion a chain of events that implicates the film’s protagonist in her death.  Bruno then stalks Guy, pressuring him to complete his end of the bargain which is a request for Guy to kill Bruno’s father.    Here, Hitchcock subverts the values of 1950s America crafting a masterpiece of visual style; a tale brimming with violence, death, and sexuality.  Utilizing aspects of queer theory, scholar Robert J. Corber has previously decoded Bruno Antony as homosexual.  He posits that Hitchcock synthesizes a homoerotic bond between the film’s two male characters.  Building further upon this, I wish to contend that one can codify Bruno Antony within a femme-fatale archetype.  This, in combination with the film’s atmospheric visual style and its narrative conventions permit a new classification for the film.  Rarely viewed as a director working within the film noir genre, I contend that Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train deserves consideration as a uniquely challenging entry in the noir cannon.

Before it can be argued that Strangers on a Train is Hitchcock’s stirring twist on the genre of film noir, it is important to define the boundaries for film noir classification.  Unlike other genres such as the western or the musical, critics and theorists have struggled to succinctly define film noir.  James Naremore chronicles this difficulty in categorizing the genre in his seminal essay American Film Noir: the History of an Idea.  In it, he notes that “it has always been easier to recognize a film noir than to define the term” (Naremore 12).  He further advises that many see film noir as a genre defined by its visual aesthetic through motifs such as low-key lighting design, men in sharp suits, and eroticized women with legs concealing pistols.  Others see film noir as a set of familiar narrative conventions built around male protagonists investigating a seedy underworld, double-crossing femme-fatales, the fight between good and evil for one man’s soul.  And still there are those who categorize film noir by its moody and nihilistic atmosphere and a cloud of wickedness and immorality.  Film theorist Gaylyn Studlar collects many of these disparate views and has argued that film noir is an archetypal demonstration of all those traits that came to the foreground in post-World War II Hollywood crime melodramas: highly stylized low-key lighting, circular or convoluted narrative, and an atmosphere of corruption in which violence, paranoia, and obsessive desire hold sway...[all in all] a more morally ambiguous, structurally complex and sexually bold American crime film” (Studlar 381). 

Chiaroscuro lighting, having emerged during the silent era through German Expressionism and segueing into Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s, evolved into the low-key lighting patterns of the film noir genre.  This visual style, aided by a mise-en-scene emphasizing dark claustrophobia, aims to manifest the nihilistic attitudes of the genre’s morally-torn protagonists.  The film noir protagonist, an active male agent, is commonly matched with a femme fatale who utilizes cunning sexuality to further her own gains.  Thus, the success of the male protagonist often depends upon his ability to withstand the siren song of the femme fatale.  Strangers on a Train exemplifies many of the traits found in the film noir cycle.  In addition, the screenplay is credited to Raymond Chandler, an enormously successfully writer of hardboiled fiction, who also wrote the screenplay for 1944’s landmark film noir Double Indemnity.  These hallmarks: a distinct visual style, melodramatic crime-centered narrative, and the femme-fatale all signal the genre of film noir. 

If the first criterion of film noir is borne out of its visual patterns, it behooves us to begin an analysis of Strangers on a Train’s mise-en-scene, especially its use of light and shadow.  Hitchcock borrows many of the same visual cues that factor into other more commonly recognized film noirs.  Shadows from Venetian blinds sweep across Bruno’s face (a motif borrowed from Double Indemnity) as he details his plans for murder early in the film.  Additional patterns of low-key lighting invade many of the film’s most memorable sequences including the fairground and tunnel of love where Bruno murders Guy’s wife; outside of Guy’s home when Bruno confesses the crime from behind the symbolic shadows of a wrought-iron fence; within Bruno’s own home the night Guy visits to warn Bruno’s father of his son’s intentions.  Hitchcock’s mastery of the mise-en-scene reflects the visual patterns so often ascribed to film noir. 

Halfway through Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines concocts a plan to sneak into Bruno’s house – with a key Bruno provided – and corner Bruno’s father to alert him of his son’s diabolical plans.  In this sequence of crackling suspense, Guy Haines ascends the staircase of the estate and creeps towards a far bedroom down the hall.  Once inside, Hitchcock jolts the audience through surprise when Bruno is revealed to be waiting for Guy in his father’s bed.  Guy stands his ground telling Bruno he won’t go through with the plan and attempts to leave.  Bruno draws a pistol on Guy and follows him down the hall.  Guy carefully descends back down the stairs, unsure if Bruno will pull the trigger at any moment.  Wrapped in darkness, one figure holding a gun to another, viewers are treated to a sequence that would not be out of place in Tourneur’s Out of the Past or Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. 

In addition to the film’s visual aesthetic, the narrative - concerning such low-brow themes as swapping murders - also fits this pattern.  Bruno Antony will emerge as Strangers version of Phyllis Dietrichson or Cora Smith from film noir staples Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice respectively.  Those films concern a femme fatale luring a male protagonist to commit murder in exchange for their wild sexuality.  As noted by Richard Schickel in his analysis of Double Indemnity: these films tend to be “dramas about light, about a man lured out of the sunshine and into the shadows” (Schickel 10).  In fact, during a pivotal moment when offered the opportunity to confess to nearby police officers, Guy literally joins Bruno in the shadows of a wrought iron fence crossing into a mode of criminality himself. 

Throughout Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines lies to the police and schemes every which way to get out from under the weight of Bruno’s devious plans.  Noir’s narrative device of a femme-fatale luring an inherently good man into a world that vies for his soul is what demarcates the genre’s subtext with a penchant for exploring vulnerable American masculinity in the context of a new post-war culture.  And it is the femme-fatale which serves as the seemingly missing link in attributing Strangers on a Train to the film noir cannon.  But one must apply the lens of Queer Theory to look beneath the polished veneer of Hitchcock’s narrative to find it.

It is in regards to this element, the femme fatale, which proves to elude the casual viewer.  As indicated by film writers Benshoff and Griffen, film noir’s femme fatales were “women who lured men into their sphere of influence and would just as easily murder a man as marry him…[the femme fatale] pursued her own desires (sexual and otherwise) instead of passively supporting the male lead” (223).   Having already established two of the three criteria for situating Strangers on a Train as film noir (dark, expressionistic visual motifs and a melodramatic crime narrative centered around wounded American masculinity), I wish to argue that the character of Bruno Antony is Hitchcock’s transgressive version of a femme-fatale, a character (stereotypically female), who utilizes sexuality at the expense of the male protagonist for personal gain and pleasure. 

In Strangers on a Train largely follows that of Highsmith’s novel although several deviations from the source material curiously alter the reading of Bruno’s character.  In the novel Bruno is actually named Charles Anthony Bruno and during the initial meeting on the train the novel offers additional clues to Bruno’s sexual orientation.  Throughout this scene, in both the novel and film adaptation, Bruno liberally asserts himself into Guy’s life with great familiarity.  In the introductory meeting on the titular train, Bruno invites Guy to return to his cabin to dine.  Here, in the privacy of Bruno’s cabin, is where he spills the details on his murderous plan.  Bruno’s body language is relaxed and inviting, his feet up, lounging like a pin-up model.  Bruno’s mannerisms suggest certain femininity.  However, in Highsmith’s novel, Bruno goes so far as to also suggest that he and Guy vacation together in Santa Fe (Highsmith 48).  I believe that Hitchcock cinematically encodes Bruno as a homosexual character through a working knowledge of Freudian psychosexual theory which equates his villainous madness to aberrant sexual behaviors.  It is no secret that Hitchcock was familiar with Freudian theory as his films are rife with characters affected with misplaced psychic energy.  Examples include the transgendered (Psycho), voyeurism (Rear Window), trauma (Marnie), manic depression (The Wrong Man), and masquerading (Vertigo).  In addition, Hitchcock had indeed already worked with themes of homosexuality in the 1948 film Rope (with Farley Granger who plays Guy Haines in Strangers) based loosely upon the real-life Leopold and Loeb murder case. 

It is important to establish a link between the cinema of Hitchcock and the psychoanalytic work of Freud (and later Lacan) which established homosexuality as an abnormal psychological disorder.  When diagnosing homosexuality, Freud himself noted, “In all our male homosexual cases the subjects had had a very intense erotic attachment to a female person, as a rule their mother, during the first period of childhood” (Freud 462).  Freud continues to argue that homosexuality is in essence a consequence initiated by misplaced psychic energy rooted in a failed mastery of the Oedipal complex.  This failure in psychosexual development certainly ties back into the plot of Strangers on a Train in which Bruno, a character with a very close attachment to his mother, cunningly plots to have his own father executed.  This storyline is essentially a reworking of the Oedipal journey that Freud states all men must conquer; externalized in Bruno’s desires.  Bruno Antony, though an adult male, still lives at home, shirks work, and has a vicious hatred of his father.  The first scene in Bruno’s home begins with the image of Bruno’s mother filing his nails for him and milks the visual posturing of the character as a not-so-subtle symbol:

“The pampered and indolent Bruno, with his flamboyant clothing – silk pinstripe suit, saddle shoes, outlandish lobster necktie – and purring, aggressively insinuating manner, is…a regression by Hitchcock to the homophobic stereotype, the feminine gay man…[and the result of] a psychological abnormality, the result of an unresolved oedipal complex” (Carringer 372). 

In an archival audio interview with filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich, Hitchcock himself was asked if Bruno was homosexual.  Hitchcock’s reply: “I would think so” (Hitchcock).  Homosexuality, like any variety of threat to American mores in the 1950s classifies Bruno as The Other based upon the abnormality of his psychosexual development.

This notion of homosexuality as a threat to American masculinity intensified in the 1950s in the wake of McCarthyism.  Theorists Robert J. Corber – and later Robert Carringer – explore this period of American history as laying the foundation for the ideology explored symptomatically within Strangers on a Train Strangers on a Train should in turn be viewed through the context of socio-cultural events of the 1950s.  For instance a summary of congressional events during this period reveals:

“The cold war paranoia that engulfed Washington beginning in 1950 and…subsequent inquir[ies] by moral zealots in the Senate disclosed that several hundred ‘moral perverts’ were in the employ of the State Department…Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government, a subcommittee report heavily influenced by medical and psychiatric testimony, declares categorically that [homosexuals] are morally and emotionally unstable, as well as security risks” (Carringer 371). 

Corber contends that Hitchcock, in preparation during the pre-production phase of Strangers on a Train, made strategic changes to Highsmith’s novel to situate Haines in the political world of the US Senate and to explore the homoerotic bond between he and Bruno as a potential threat poised to destabilize normative masculinity.  Lastly, it is again important to note that this was not new territory for Hitchcock.  In a discussion of a previous film Rope, it has been written that

“[Hitchcock’s] interest in the homosexual mind [was] well documented…Significant in this regard [was] that the homosexual characters place[d] themselves outside the law…and provided a vehicle for the discussion of several pertinent topics including the wariness of the ‘other’” (Mangin 58). 

Hitchcock utilizes homosexuality as one aspect of classifying Bruno Antony as The Other for the purposes of creating a stronger villain.  Bruno Antony symbolizes a very-real threat to the normative values of 1950s America by offering the possibility of alternative lifestyles that clashed with those dictated by ideological institutions.  Corber has remarked that Hitchcock’s film

represents the achievement of a fixed heterosexual identity as virtually impossible…this paranoia is directly related to Cold War fears that ‘the homosexual’ was indistinguishable from ‘the heterosexual’ and had infiltrated all levels of American Society (Corber 61). 

If a film’s protagonist is the spectator’s surrogate for identification then the threat Bruno represents to Guy is a threat represented to the viewer as well. 

 Suspense in Strangers on a Train is derived by placing the spectator in Guy’s shoes in a battle with Bruno Antony rife with homoeroticism.  It’s no surprise that, as brilliantly portrayed by Robert Walker, Bruno is an alarmingly attractive and sensational figure who tends to sweep the viewer off their feet with grace and humor.  When Bruno drops the incriminating cigarette lighter down the storm drain towards the end of the picture the audience is left with bated breath in hopes that he’ll be able to retrieve it in time.  By the end of the picture Guy, as well as the spectator, have somewhat been seduced by the allure of Bruno’s Otherness.  Hitchcock’s use of Freud instills his psychotic villain with the “aberrance” of his sexual orientation. 

Acknowledging Bruno Antony as a homosexual character does not in-and-of-itself equate him to a femme fatale, yet.  There is an antagonism between Guy and Bruno that can be read as Guy’s reluctance to acknowledge his own homosexual feelings in response to Bruno.  Guy and Bruno are certainly two halves of a greater whole: the ego and the id, darkness and light, good and evil.  Guy is a model citizen and Bruno is his evil doppelganger, a man who encompasses the darkness that society and civility do not permit successful adult men to acknowledge.   On the outside however both men look strikingly similar: youthful and attractive white American males, clean-cut in suits, especially when inhabited by Granger and Walker; actors with a shared physicality.  The femme-fatale is a character that uses a venomous sexuality to further her own gains.  Barring the gender-specific pronoun, this sums up Bruno Antony quite well.

The realization that Strangers on a Train is a film about an everyman American male overcoming the seduction of a malicious homosexual threat creates the basis of an argument for Bruno inhabiting the role of femme fatale.  But what is to be gained by relegating Bruno to such a position?  I’d argue that Hitchcock’s subversion offers us a unique reworking of the masquerade: Bruno is a homosexual character whose sexuality, manifest through attempted seduction, permits a degree of femininity which in turn permits a masquerade, typical for the femme fatale, in obtaining the role of the phallus.  In the introduction to Screens compendium on feminist film theory the author indicates that the role of the femme fatale “was almost always positioned as phallic in so far as she sought to take the place of the male, to become the phallus herself” (Screen 8).  Exploring the function of this play on established roles in film noir creates interesting new implications on traditional models of spectatorship.

To call Bruno, a male character, a femme-fatale may seem like a farfetched idea until the argument is viewed through the lens of the masquerade.  The masquerade as established by Mary Ann Doane notes that “Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed.  [Its] resistance to patriarchal positioning would therefore lie in its denial of the production of femininity as closeness, as presence-to-itself, as, precisely, imagistic” (Doane 235).  Of course Strangers on a Train doesn’t overtly present us with an imagistic femininity but I’d argue that reading Guy as entangled in a homoerotic relationship with Bruno substitutes for this mask of womanliness on the character of Bruno Antony.  Doane continues to argue that this form of masquerade is not simply for females in the audience but for female characters on screen.  She adds that, “this type of masquerade, an excess of femininity, is aligned with the femme fatale...[and is] necessarily regarded by men as evil incarnate” (235).  Throughout the film, Bruno attempts to woo Guy into his diabolical plan much in the same way a lover may try to woo a partner.  This relationship goes so far as to include a scene where Bruno offers Guy the key to his home.  In addition to events on the narrative level that support this reading, every time we leave Guy’s point-of-view and switch to Bruno’s, we are adopting this position and rooting for his success.  It is humorous when Bruno pops the young boy’s balloon at the fair.  It is nerve-wracking when Bruno drops the cigarette lighter down the storm drain.  This ability of Bruno to at once inspire simultaneous fear and awe is both a credit to Walker’s performance and the film’s careful construction of a masquerading villain.

 If Hitchcock plays with classical Hollywood cinema to construct charming male characters with fluid, amorphous boundaries of sexuality - generally considered abnormal and even deviant by the ideology of the period - then was he actively working to destabilize how a spectator can receive pleasure through processes of identification?  Steve Neale’s pioneering work in positioning masculinity as spectacle raises some interesting points, even if the films he examines put the male body on display for the spectator’s gaze much more readily than Hitchcock is prepared to do in Strangers on a Train.  Neale indicates that when film presents us with the male body it is typically “heavily mediated by the looks of the characters involved.  And those looks are marked not by desire, but rather by fear, or hatred, or aggression…[they seem to] minimize and displace the eroticism they each tend to involve, to disavow any explicitly erotic look at the male body” (Neale 18).  Nevertheless, unlike Neale’s filmic examples, the patterns of looks from Guy onto Bruno do not justify a minimization and displacement of eroticism.  Occasionally, the camera does in fact position Walker’s Bruno in pieces for consumption whether it’s his lounging body in the train car at the beginning of the film, Bruno relaxing in his silk robe at home, or the consistent motif of his hands in close-up that symbolize both aggression and power.  When Guy, and in turn spectators who perform the act of identification through Guy, observers Bruno it is often a seesawing mix of emotions running the gamut from stimulated to horrified.  Within the narrative, Guy receives several honest opportunities to confess Bruno’s scheme to authorities and clear his name but always errs on the side of continuation.  Is it because Guy doesn’t wish the fantasy to end?  Is it because he masochistically enjoys the domination Bruno exerts during the heights of his power plays?

The effect of this subversion at the level of representation is intriguing as the repercussions seem unique to this particular film rather than a cinematic movement as a whole.  There is a dangerous quality to Hitchcock’s cavalier attitudes which seem poised to destroy the notions of gender norms and patriarchal ideology at any moment.  As Judith Butler has noted, “the loss of gender norms would have the effect of proliferating gender configuration, destabilizing substantive identity and depriving the naturalizing narrative of compulsory heterosexuality of the central protagonists: “Man” and “Woman” (Butler 146).  Since Guy Haines successfully clears his name and brings about the demise of Bruno Antony, normative American masculinity has won.  Not only is the threat that Bruno represents quelled but so too are the possibilities of alternative representation Hitchcock was hinting at.  As the narrative of film noir often boils down to whether or not the male protagonist can withstand the advances of the femme fatale, so too Strangers on a Train posits the same dilemma.  This may be why the film is often overlooked as a powerful film noir in its own right.  It doesn’t seem to languish in the nihilism or despair attributed to more traditional films of the genre.

Concluding the argument for Bruno Antony as Hitchcock’s homosexual femme fatale yields interesting avenues in representation and spectatorial relationships.  It is still important to consider the fundamental differences between Highsmith’s original novel and Hitchcock’s filmic adaptation.  The disconnect between layers of homoerotic undercurrents within Highsmith’s novel and a filmic adaptation were explored by theorist Chris Straayer in regards to another of Highsmith’s works, The Talented Mr. Ripley, where it is noted that

[the works’] divergent endings are the result of contradictory attitudes toward identity..two texts in relation to masculinity, homosexuality, and… in these realms the novel, unlike the film, endorses a freedom from determination and fixity that is compatible with both existentialism of the 1950s and contemporary poststructuralism (Straayer 115). 

This notion of what was acceptable reflects requirements of censorship and strict codes of behavior governing Classical Hollywood cinema.  Further evidence of this is provided by the fact that the American version of Strangers on a Train has been cut to de-emphasize any overtly homoerotic flirtation between Guy and Bruno as compared to the British release.  Or, it may be by design that Hitchcock simply wanted Guy Haines to be less-vulnerable to the advances of a homosexual femme-fatale and more of a heroic bastion of American masculinity fighting off the Cold War advances of an enemy among us

I return to my argument: Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train should be considered amongst the greats of the film noir cycle.  It exudes the visual cues, the immoral narrative, and centers on the plight of a typical American male protagonist torn between good and evil as manifest in the good woman: Anne Morton; daughter of a senator and Guy’s soon-to-be fiancĂ© or the femme-fatale: Bruno Antony; a homosexual villain obsessed with the destruction and manipulation of Guy Haines for his own personal perversion.  Carringer notes, “The homoerotic relationship is now being negotiated through the exchange of a woman” (Carringer 373).  It is James Naremore who summed up noir best when he wrote, “for all its romanticism, [film noir] was a challenge to Hollywood conventions: it used unorthodox narration; it resisted sentiment and censorship; it reveled in the ‘social fantastic’; it demonstrated the ambiguity of human motives” (Naremore 24).  While Hitchcock’s film ends with good triumphing over evil and the eradication of any implied threat of to traditional masculine norms, the journey was one that tested Hollywood conventions, reveled in the fantastic, and showcased characters with dubious human motives.  If spectators are willing to adopt a Queer Theory reading of Strangers on a Train, it becomes quite easy to view the film as an ideal candidate of that indistinct genre termed film noir.

Works Cited

Benshoff, Harry M. and Sean Griffin.  America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender,
and Sexuality at the Movies.  Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Butler, Judith.  Gender Trouble.  New York: Routledge, 1990.
Carringer, Robert L.  “Collaboration and Concepts of Authorship.”  PMLA, vol 116, no 2,


Corber, Robert J.  In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the
Political Construction of Gender in Postwar America.  Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

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