Monday, March 21, 2011

Fatal Femme - Bruno Antony as Hitchcock's Homosexual Femme Fatale

Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) is a bold crime film expertly constructed and suggestive in its subtext.  The plot, based on the debut novel from Patricia Highsmith, centers on the relationship that develops between two strangers who meet on a train ride: Guy Haines, a seemingly straight-and-narrow tennis player with lofty political ambitions and Bruno Antony, an amoral psychopath with a brilliant plan for murder.  Guy desires a divorce from his current wife Miriam in order to marry another woman.  Bruno himself wants his own father out of the picture and therefore he suggests to Guy that they swap murders.  Bruno will kill Guy’s wife and Guy, in turn, will murder Bruno’s father negating any motivation that could link either of them to the crime.  When Bruno chillingly murders Miriam, unbeknownst to Guy, he sets in motion a chain of events that implicate Guy in the murder of his own wife.  Bruno begins to stalk Guy in an attempt to pressure him to complete his end of the bargain initiating an immensely effective experiment in suspense.  The visual and narrative style of Strangers on a Train carries many trademarks of the film noir genre.  Reading Bruno Antony as a homosexual villain positions him as Hitchcock’s version of a femme fatale subverting 1950s norms and ushering in a new sexual deviance in cinema that creates a unique spectatorial experience.
Before it can be argued that Bruno Antony serves as Hitchcock’s version of a femme-fatale it is important to place Strangers on a Train within the ambiguous genre of film noir.  Unlike the western or the musical, critics and theorists have long been at odds about what exactly comprises film noir.  Gaylyn Studlar 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 of dark claustrophobia, aimed to manifest the nihilistic attitudes of the genre’s morally-torn protagonist.  This 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 hard-boiled fiction, who also wrote the screenplay for 1944’s landmark film noir Double Indemnity.  These hallmarks: a distinct visual style, an active male protagonist, and the femme-fatale all signal the genre of film noir. 
As the first criterion of film noir is found in its visual patterns it behooves us to begin an analysis of Strangers on a Train’s mise-en-scene, especially lighting patterns.  Hitchcock, though not often credited as a film-noir director, utilizes many of the same visual cues that factor into the film noir genre.  Venetian blind shadows sweep across Bruno’s face (a motif straight out of 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.  Next, the narrative, concerning such low-brow themes as murder plots also fit this pattern.  Film noir staples from this period such as Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice concern a femme fatale luring a male protagonist to commit murder in exchange for her wild sexuality.  This narrative device circumscribes the genre with a penchant for exploring vulnerable American masculinity in the context of a new post-war culture and positions the femme fatale as the missing link in attributing Strangers on a Train to the film noir cannon.
It is in regards to this element, the femme fatale, that proves to be so carefully designed as to elude the casual viewer.  As indicated by 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 obviously typically female, who utilizes sexuality at the expense of the male protagonist for personal gain and pleasure. 
The narrative arc of Hitchcock’s 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 versions, Bruno liberally asserts himself into Guy’s life with great familiarity.  He invites Guy to come back to his room to dine.  Here, in the privacy of Bruno’s cabin, is where he spills the details on his murderous plan.  His body language is relaxed and inviting, his feet up, lounging like a pin-up model.  But 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 builds from Highsmith’s characterization and further 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 which established homosexuality as an abnormal mental disorder.  Freud 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).  He 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, is cunningly plotting to have his own father executed.  The narrative 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.  Regardless, the quest for moments in the film that “prove” Bruno to be a homosexual character should be subordinate to the primary intentions of the film’s auteur.  In an archival audio interview with filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich, Hitchcock 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. 
Hitchcock utilizes homosexuality as one aspect of classifying Bruno Antony as The Other for the purposes of creating a stronger villain.  Here it also becomes fruitful to revisit one of the changes Hitchcock made to Highsmith’s source material: Bruno Antony as a reconstruction of the name Charles Anthony Bruno.  In addition to relegating Bruno’s sexual orientation as an Other, Hitchcock has constructed a villain whose very name signals an exotic foreignness.  Bruno Antony symbolizes a very-real threat to the normative values of 1950s America by offering the possibility of pleasurable alternative lifestyles that clashed with those dictated by ideological institutions.  Theorist Robert J. 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 played 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.  It goes without saying, of course, that Freud’s theories on homosexuality are completely un-testable and homosexuality has thankfully been removed from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual as a mental illness but 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.  If femme fatales are characters who uses a venomous sexuality to further their own gains it becomes essential to investigate whether or not Guy Haines reciprocates these feelings for Bruno as well as whether Bruno’s attempts to have his father murdered are initiated less through the surface level plan of swapping murders but rather through quid-pro-quo exchange of sex.  Robert Corber has written that as the initial meeting scene on the train progresses, “Guy becomes increasingly uncomfortable with Bruno’s flirtatious behavior.  When Bruno suggests that they spend a couple of days together in Santa Fe, Guy snaps: ‘Pick up somebody else’ (Corber 70).  Corber also notes that during their first meeting Guy leaves behind a copy of Plato indicating that the choice of reading material may work as “Highsmith’s not so subtle clue that [Guy] is latently homosexual” (70).  There is an antagonism between Guy and Bruno that is often read as Guy’s reluctance to acknowledge his own homosexual feelings in response to Bruno.  Regardless, 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.
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 fatal may seem like a far-fetched notion until the argument is viewed through the lens of the masquerade.  The masquerade as established by Mary Ann Doane “holds it at a distance.  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. 
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).  In turn I would add that it truly doesn’t matter whether Guy Haines reciprocates homosexual feelings for Bruno or whether one can read the two as involved in any level of gay relationship.  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.  Ultimately one of the greatest moments of split between the two is that, in Highsmith’s novel, Guy Haines kills Bruno’s father.  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
these 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 pos-tstructuralism (Straayer 115).  
This notion of what was acceptable surely has more to do with requirements of censorship and strict codes of behavior governing classical Hollywood cinema that film as a dominant medium of popular culture has been restricted to.  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. 

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. 
Corber, Robert J.  In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the Political
Construction of Gender in Postwar America.  Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
Doane, Mary Ann.  “Film and the Masquerade.”  The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in
Sexuality.  New York: Routledge, 1996.
Freud, Sigmund.  “Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood.”  The Freud Reader.  Ed.
Peter Gay.  New York: Norton, 1995.
Highsmith, Patricia.  Strangers on a Train.  New York: Norton, 2001.
Hitchcock, Aflred.  Interview.  Peter Bogdanovich.  1963.
Neale, Steve.  “Masculinity as Spectacle.”  Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinites in
Hollywood Cinema.  Ed. Steven Cohan & Ine Rae Hark.  Routledge: New York, 1993. 
Screen.  The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality.  New York: Routledge, 1996.
Straayer, Chris.  “The Talented Poststructuralist: Heteromasculinity, Gay Artifice, and Class
Passing.”  Masculinity: Bodies, Movies, Culture.  Ed. Peter Lehman.  New York: Routledge, 2001.
Studlar, Gaylyn.  “Double Indemnity: Hard-Boiled Film Nor.”  Film Analysis: A Norton Reader. 
Ed. Jeffrey Geiger & R.L. Rutsky.  New York: Norton, 2005.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent analysis of one of Hitchcock's finest; Walker was brilliant in this role. Hitch knew what he was doing when he cast him.

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