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 Screen’s 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 fiancé 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.
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