Strangers on a Train

17/12/2021

Good Form

In Strangers on a Train, Alfred Hitchcock meets Patricia Highsmith, the first adaptation of the writer’s work and it seems that the Hitchcockian wins, — or perhaps that while other filmmakers, including Rene Clement and Wim Wenders, were interested in the perversity of Highsmith’s inter-relational conflict, Hitchcock is always first and foremost a master of suspense. Thus very early on Hitchcock shows Bruno Antony’s all too abrupt proposal that he and the man he meets, Guy Haines, ought to swap murders. Guy has shown frustration over his ex-wife Miriam who won’t grant him a divorce, and Bruno (Robert Walker) is keen to off his father, so why don’t they exchange homicides? Antony will take out Miriam and Guy (Farley Granger) in turn will murder Antony’s dad. They will be motiveless murders from any investigative point of view, as inexplicable as the sort of killing Andre Gide explored in The Vatican Cellars, where a character pushes someone off a train for no reason other than to explore a notion of absolute freedom. 

It was the sort of notion that existentialists like Sartre and Camus were fascinated by, seeing in such behaviour an escape from the deterministic and the creation of proper choice. “…The Texas-born Highsmith was deeply influenced by European existentialists such as Albert Camus and Søren Kierkegaard…” (Guardian) Edward Helmore says and yet we wouldn’t be likely to say the same of Hitchcock. Hitchcock is Anglo-American, a director fascinated less by the intricacies of psychology (despite Vertigo) than the mechanics of action. He was often more interested in determinism than existentialism, how once an action was set in motion he wanted to emphasise the difficulties involved for a person to escape the momentum of the initial deed. It is why so often Hitchcock’s characters are caught in situations. Guy Haines isn’t quite like the figures in The 39 StepsThe Wrong ManThe Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest, but he too is someone who doesn’t quite know how to deal with circumstances that haven’t been of his own making. When Bruno kills Guy’s ex, he isn’t just expected to murder Bruno’s father but now he is the main suspect over Miriam's death. There he is expected both to prove his innocence and be hounded into killing someone. 

Whatever pure Hitchcock happens to be, this scenario must be close to it, and Hitchcock uses Highsmith for the tension he can extract rather than the psychological complexity of obsession and envy that often interested the writer. “It was in her diary that she described becoming sexually obsessed with a customer at Bloomingdale’s in New York”, Helmore notes, “whom she later followed to her home, provoking observations about murder and love.” (Guardian) Clearly there is plenty unhealthy obsession in Hitchcock too, but perhaps only Vertigo feels like a Hitchcock film where the psychological trumps the suspenseful, with Hitchcock usually shaping his stories around incidents that generate tension over revealing inner intricacies. When the film cuts to scenes of Bruno at home with his doting mother and his disapproving father, Hitchcock plays them for no more than their capacity to reveal an unhinged mind, someone who is capable of making life very difficult for our proper hero. His purpose is to be a villain, and as Hitchcock insisted to Francois Truffaut, “the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture..” (Hitchcock

And so Bruno’s behaviour needn’t be complex, only properly villainous, allowing Hitchcock to work his tenterhook, to put the viewer in a state of high anxiety. One can think here of the scene where Guy is playing an important tennis match and Bruno is heading back to the scene of the crime where Miriam was murdered, intending to plant Guy’s lighter, thus providing the vital evidence to show Guy has murdered his wife. Guy left the engraved lighter in the train when Bruno and Guy first met, and now Bruno takes advantage of his alertness and Guy’s forgetfulness. Though the lighter has potentially psychological and sentimental value (it is a gift from Guy's new love) Hitchcock is interested in it as a plot detail. When Bruno picks it up on the train we know it is likely to have narrative significance later on, and sure enough Bruno knows he has something over Guy when he doesn’t go through with the killing. 

Yet Hitchcock doesn’t only use the lighter as a moment of plot foreshadowing; he also uses it as a suspense device as well. When Bruno arrives in Metcalf to place it in the fairground where Miriam met her demise, he manages to drop the lighter down the drain and the film crosscuts between Bruno trying to retrieve it, and Guy trying to win the tennis match as quickly as possible so he can get to Metcalf, hoping to stop Bruno from planting the evidence. As Guy plays, he knows detectives are watching, and to quit the game would create suspicion. So there we have Guy trying to win the match as quickly as he can, with tennis a great sport to register time’s flexibility. A football match is always ninety minutes, stretched to thirty minutes extra and a possible penalty shoot-out at most. But a men’s three-set tennis match can be eleven hours or thirty minutes, depending on tiebreakers and whether it even goes to three sets at all. No matter how well a football team plays, the match has a fixed temporality. 

Hitchcock has more interest in the tension of tennis than he does in the sentimental value of the lighter — both serve narrative exigency: the sooner Guy wins, the sooner he can get to Metcalf. But what Hitchcock also offers here is a cross-cutting suspense that isn’t causal, thus bringing out the directorial manipulation all the better. Many if not most suspenseful cross-cutting is spatially consistent and usually takes the form of a chase sequence. “…the chase seems to me the final expression of the motion picture medium…I would say the chase is almost indigenous to movie technique as a whole.” (Hitchcock on Hitchcock) Yet a director as innovative as Hitchcock was always looking to find ways to refresh the form and announce his directorial presence in more than the cameos for which he is famous. It thus isn’t enough that Guy has to chase Bruno but that he must do so while initially elsewhere and win the tennis match as quickly as possible. Bruno, meanwhile, after losing the lighter down the drain, must retrieve it as promptly as he can. We are following two lines of suspense, interconnected but not causal. 

We are also following two lines where we are simultaneously interested in the individual outcomes. It is clear Guy is our hero and Bruno his nemesis but Hitchcock has always been great at putting the viewer into the specifics of a scene so that what matters more than anything isn’t the goodness of a character but the focus of our attention. A bad director in this context would be someone who wants the hero to succeed but doesn’t care enough about how the villain wishes also to succeed, and if the director is giving time over to a villain’s actions then unless we are involved in them, that is a waste of screen time. This may be the difference between a typical Bond villain and a typical Hitchcock one. Even if some Bond villains are memorable, it is more for who they are rather than the suspense generated out of their existence. They are exaggerated figures ready to blow up the world but how they intend to do it lacks the intricacy Hitchcock gives to his baddies. Whether it is Uncle Charlie in A Shadow of a Doubt, Bruno here, or Rusk in Frenzy, or the less present villains in Vertigo and Rear Window, Hitchcock wants to detail with precision their evil ambitions and, more importantly, show their frustrations as if they are our own. When Bruno loses the lighter down the drain, Hitchcock watches his hand reaching down and trying desperately to grab it. Why should we care whether he retrieves it or not? Hitchcock might say because what matters is not the good and the bad but a Hitchcockian beyond good and evil: the importance of film form as audience control. Interviewing Hitchcock, Truffaut said of the crosscutting sequence, “time is tightly compressed - like a lemon” (Hitchcock) and then notes that time is expanded again, almost like real-time, when Bruno waits for nightfall to frame Guy. If Truffaut is right, then unless the form finds its rhythm, the film has little point: moral throughlines are secondary to narrative undulation. 

Truffaut also notes, however, “the great problem with this type of picture, you see, is that your main characters sometimes tend to become mere figures.” (Hitchcock) If Hitchcock is much more detailed in his delineation of villainy next to a Bond film, some might wonder if his interest in character can often seem weak next to Highsmith’s. In European adaptations, transpositions and transformations, like Plein soleilLes biches and The American Friend, they are all focused much more on the development of character and the emotional nuances of friendships between men (in Plein soleil and The American Friend) and women (Les biches). The films are less interested in the mechanics of suspense than the machinations of minds determined to usurp others. We sense with Hitchcock that he almost always seeks from characterisation what it can give to formal manipulation, so that our purpose isn’t to believe in the characters psychologically but to muse over how they will be put to use by the properties of film. According to Gerald Peary, Highsmith regretted “Hitchcock’s decision to turn Guy (Farley Granger), an architect in her novel, into a championship-winning tennis player but if we see the importance of engineering tension as vital to Hitchcock over the development of character, then turning him into a sports star allows for the type of complex cross-cutting Hitchcock sought to show. 

Hitchcock was concerned with the properties of filmic suspense as if almost to emphasise what are the necessary and sufficient properties of the art form. Speaking of how film can show fear he gives an example: your hero in a play has to throw himself over a castle rampart and while all the other characters in a play can say watch out for the crocodiles, the camera can cut to a high angle shot looking down and showing us what is below. In the same piece, he discusses the film Hell’s Angels and a person’s impending death. “We see his face — grim, tense, even horror-stricken — as his plane swoops down. Then we are transferred to the pilot’s seat, and it is we who are hurtling to death at ninety miles an hour…that is good cinema.” (Hitchcock on Hitchcock

Good cinema is thus about generating perspectives, putting ourselves into others’ shoes cinematically, which is why we have suggested Hitchcock villains are much cinematically realised than Bond villains. But it is also why the depth of characterisation often interests Hitchcock less than the width of cinematic representation. The filmmaker’s purpose isn’t to generate sympathy for a character through moral worthiness, or even psychological density, but to create focal moments of tension that can give the film its necessary rhythm. Though Hitchcock often famously uses psychological problems (kleptomania, acrophobia, dissociative identity disorder, etc) he is only interested in them for the cinematic problems they generate, and that he must solve as a filmmaker no matter how trivial the explanation may be to a therapist or psychoanalyst. What matters is the film's tempo. Speaking of the carousel sequence at the end of Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock reckoned “it would have been poor form not to have, at this point, what musicians refer to as a coda.” (Hitchcock) It is a pun and also a dictum: Hitchcock’s films must always be good form. For the complexities of Highsmithian characterisation, we must go elsewhere, as though, a least in Hitchcock’s formulation, good form and good psychology cannot quite go together.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Strangers on a Train

Good Form

In Strangers on a Train, Alfred Hitchcock meets Patricia Highsmith, the first adaptation of the writer's work and it seems that the Hitchcockian wins, or perhaps that while other filmmakers, including Rene Clement and Wim Wenders, were interested in the perversity of Highsmith's inter-relational conflict, Hitchcock is always first and foremost a master of suspense. Thus very early on Hitchcock shows Bruno Antony's all too abrupt proposal that he and the man he meets, Guy Haines, ought to swap murders. Guy has shown frustration over his ex-wife Miriam who won't grant him a divorce, and Bruno (Robert Walker) is keen to off his father, so why don't they exchange homicides? Antony will take out Miriam and Guy (Farley Granger) in turn will murder Antony's dad. They will be motiveless murders from any investigative point of view, as inexplicable as the sort of killing Andre Gide explored in The Vatican Cellars, where a character pushes someone off a train for no reason other than to explore a notion of absolute freedom.

It was the sort of notion that existentialists like Sartre and Camus were fascinated by, seeing in such behaviour an escape from the deterministic and the creation of proper choice. "...The Texas-born Highsmith was deeply influenced by European existentialists such as Albert Camus and Sren Kierkegaard..." (Guardian) Edward Helmore says and yet we wouldn't be likely to say the same of Hitchcock. Hitchcock is Anglo-American, a director fascinated less by the intricacies of psychology (despite Vertigo) than the mechanics of action. He was often more interested in determinism than existentialism, how once an action was set in motion he wanted to emphasise the difficulties involved for a person to escape the momentum of the initial deed. It is why so often Hitchcock's characters are caught in situations. Guy Haines isn't quite like the figures in The 39 Steps, The Wrong Man, The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest, but he too is someone who doesn't quite know how to deal with circumstances that haven't been of his own making. When Bruno kills Guy's ex, he isn't just expected to murder Bruno's father but now he is the main suspect over Miriam's death. There he is expected both to prove his innocence and be hounded into killing someone.

Whatever pure Hitchcock happens to be, this scenario must be close to it, and Hitchcock uses Highsmith for the tension he can extract rather than the psychological complexity of obsession and envy that often interested the writer. "It was in her diary that she described becoming sexually obsessed with a customer at Bloomingdale's in New York", Helmore notes, "whom she later followed to her home, provoking observations about murder and love." (Guardian) Clearly there is plenty unhealthy obsession in Hitchcock too, but perhaps only Vertigo feels like a Hitchcock film where the psychological trumps the suspenseful, with Hitchcock usually shaping his stories around incidents that generate tension over revealing inner intricacies. When the film cuts to scenes of Bruno at home with his doting mother and his disapproving father, Hitchcock plays them for no more than their capacity to reveal an unhinged mind, someone who is capable of making life very difficult for our proper hero. His purpose is to be a villain, and as Hitchcock insisted to Francois Truffaut, "the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.." (Hitchcock)

And so Bruno's behaviour needn't be complex, only properly villainous, allowing Hitchcock to work his tenterhook, to put the viewer in a state of high anxiety. One can think here of the scene where Guy is playing an important tennis match and Bruno is heading back to the scene of the crime where Miriam was murdered, intending to plant Guy's lighter, thus providing the vital evidence to show Guy has murdered his wife. Guy left the engraved lighter in the train when Bruno and Guy first met, and now Bruno takes advantage of his alertness and Guy's forgetfulness. Though the lighter has potentially psychological and sentimental value (it is a gift from Guy's new love) Hitchcock is interested in it as a plot detail. When Bruno picks it up on the train we know it is likely to have narrative significance later on, and sure enough Bruno knows he has something over Guy when he doesn't go through with the killing.

Yet Hitchcock doesn't only use the lighter as a moment of plot foreshadowing; he also uses it as a suspense device as well. When Bruno arrives in Metcalf to place it in the fairground where Miriam met her demise, he manages to drop the lighter down the drain and the film crosscuts between Bruno trying to retrieve it, and Guy trying to win the tennis match as quickly as possible so he can get to Metcalf, hoping to stop Bruno from planting the evidence. As Guy plays, he knows detectives are watching, and to quit the game would create suspicion. So there we have Guy trying to win the match as quickly as he can, with tennis a great sport to register time's flexibility. A football match is always ninety minutes, stretched to thirty minutes extra and a possible penalty shoot-out at most. But a men's three-set tennis match can be eleven hours or thirty minutes, depending on tiebreakers and whether it even goes to three sets at all. No matter how well a football team plays, the match has a fixed temporality.

Hitchcock has more interest in the tension of tennis than he does in the sentimental value of the lighter both serve narrative exigency: the sooner Guy wins, the sooner he can get to Metcalf. But what Hitchcock also offers here is a cross-cutting suspense that isn't causal, thus bringing out the directorial manipulation all the better. Many if not most suspenseful cross-cutting is spatially consistent and usually takes the form of a chase sequence. "...the chase seems to me the final expression of the motion picture medium...I would say the chase is almost indigenous to movie technique as a whole." (Hitchcock on Hitchcock) Yet a director as innovative as Hitchcock was always looking to find ways to refresh the form and announce his directorial presence in more than the cameos for which he is famous. It thus isn't enough that Guy has to chase Bruno but that he must do so while initially elsewhere and win the tennis match as quickly as possible. Bruno, meanwhile, after losing the lighter down the drain, must retrieve it as promptly as he can. We are following two lines of suspense, interconnected but not causal.

We are also following two lines where we are simultaneously interested in the individual outcomes. It is clear Guy is our hero and Bruno his nemesis but Hitchcock has always been great at putting the viewer into the specifics of a scene so that what matters more than anything isn't the goodness of a character but the focus of our attention. A bad director in this context would be someone who wants the hero to succeed but doesn't care enough about how the villain wishes also to succeed, and if the director is giving time over to a villain's actions then unless we are involved in them, that is a waste of screen time. This may be the difference between a typical Bond villain and a typical Hitchcock one. Even if some Bond villains are memorable, it is more for who they are rather than the suspense generated out of their existence. They are exaggerated figures ready to blow up the world but how they intend to do it lacks the intricacy Hitchcock gives to his baddies. Whether it is Uncle Charlie in A Shadow of a Doubt, Bruno here, or Rusk in Frenzy, or the less present villains in Vertigo and Rear Window, Hitchcock wants to detail with precision their evil ambitions and, more importantly, show their frustrations as if they are our own. When Bruno loses the lighter down the drain, Hitchcock watches his hand reaching down and trying desperately to grab it. Why should we care whether he retrieves it or not? Hitchcock might say because what matters is not the good and the bad but a Hitchcockian beyond good and evil: the importance of film form as audience control. Interviewing Hitchcock, Truffaut said of the crosscutting sequence, "time is tightly compressed - like a lemon" (Hitchcock) and then notes that time is expanded again, almost like real-time, when Bruno waits for nightfall to frame Guy. If Truffaut is right, then unless the form finds its rhythm, the film has little point: moral throughlines are secondary to narrative undulation.

Truffaut also notes, however, "the great problem with this type of picture, you see, is that your main characters sometimes tend to become mere figures." (Hitchcock) If Hitchcock is much more detailed in his delineation of villainy next to a Bond film, some might wonder if his interest in character can often seem weak next to Highsmith's. In European adaptations, transpositions and transformations, like Plein soleil, Les biches and The American Friend, they are all focused much more on the development of character and the emotional nuances of friendships between men (in Plein soleil and The American Friend) and women (Les biches). The films are less interested in the mechanics of suspense than the machinations of minds determined to usurp others. We sense with Hitchcock that he almost always seeks from characterisation what it can give to formal manipulation, so that our purpose isn't to believe in the characters psychologically but to muse over how they will be put to use by the properties of film. According to Gerald Peary, Highsmith regretted "Hitchcock's decision to turn Guy (Farley Granger), an architect in her novel, into a championship-winning tennis player but if we see the importance of engineering tension as vital to Hitchcock over the development of character, then turning him into a sports star allows for the type of complex cross-cutting Hitchcock sought to show.

Hitchcock was concerned with the properties of filmic suspense as if almost to emphasise what are the necessary and sufficient properties of the art form. Speaking of how film can show fear he gives an example: your hero in a play has to throw himself over a castle rampart and while all the other characters in a play can say watch out for the crocodiles, the camera can cut to a high angle shot looking down and showing us what is below. In the same piece, he discusses the film Hell's Angels and a person's impending death. "We see his face grim, tense, even horror-stricken as his plane swoops down. Then we are transferred to the pilot's seat, and it is we who are hurtling to death at ninety miles an hour...that is good cinema." (Hitchcock on Hitchcock)

Good cinema is thus about generating perspectives, putting ourselves into others' shoes cinematically, which is why we have suggested Hitchcock villains are much cinematically realised than Bond villains. But it is also why the depth of characterisation often interests Hitchcock less than the width of cinematic representation. The filmmaker's purpose isn't to generate sympathy for a character through moral worthiness, or even psychological density, but to create focal moments of tension that can give the film its necessary rhythm. Though Hitchcock often famously uses psychological problems (kleptomania, acrophobia, dissociative identity disorder, etc) he is only interested in them for the cinematic problems they generate, and that he must solve as a filmmaker no matter how trivial the explanation may be to a therapist or psychoanalyst. What matters is the film's tempo. Speaking of the carousel sequence at the end of Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock reckoned "it would have been poor form not to have, at this point, what musicians refer to as a coda." (Hitchcock) It is a pun and also a dictum: Hitchcock's films must always be good form. For the complexities of Highsmithian characterisation, we must go elsewhere, as though, a least in Hitchcock's formulation, good form and good psychology cannot quite go together.


© Tony McKibbin