Alfred Hitchcock, “murderous Fairy”, Breaking Bad, Citizen Kane, Criss Cross, Drama, eggs, Farley Granger, Film, Film Presentations of Gay Men, film review, Homosexuality, Homosexuality as mental illness, Laura, Martin Scorsese, murder, Psycho, Queer Longing, Queer Theory, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Walker, Strangers on a Train, Suspense, Vertigo, Waldo Lydecker
Alfred Hitchcock was afraid of eggs.
I honestly don’t have any amusing lead-ins for that fact, except that my little sister taught me that. She went through a Hitchcock kick somewhere about the time she was in middle school and during that time she managed to rope me into watching Psycho with her which literally made me jump. For the record it wasn’t the shower scene that got me because I’d watched too many commercials and comedy routines that parodied that moment to really frighten me. It was actually the scene with the detective who’s investigating the Bates mansion on the hill before he tumbles down the stairs. She tried, unsuccessfully, to get me to watch Vertigo with her too, a film which recently kicked Citizen Kane from the long held No.1 spot on the American Film Institute’s top 100 films of all time, and a film that I admit to great personal shame, I have never actually seen. There was a period for a time in which my little sister was the Hitchcock expert, but life has its own rhythms and after a few years she poured her energies in Dante. Nice dude, sick tats on his biceps of an Eagle ripping a robots head off its shoulders.
That’s a poor joke Jammer. My bad.
Hitchcock is a director that I actively avoided because at the time I became aware of his name and artistic street cred I was spending most of my time with Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. These two men exemplified what was cool and awesome about film, not to mention genius, and so like Breaking Bad and Walt Whitman I put aside any and all efforts to dig deeper into the man’s work because I was already observing, absorbing, and regularly studying cinematic genius. The thought process was, that’s genius fine but it’s not the genius that has sword fights and gangsters. I can’t explain then what compelled me to purchase Strangers on a Train on Amazon one night. The only explanation I have is that I have a friend of mine who’s the noted film buff of my social click and I think I wanted to talk shop with him since most of my conversation topics deal either with writing or Queer theory.
My reader has probably heard of the movie and is probably aware of the plot-line of the film since it has been repeated in numerous Crime Dramas like CSI and NCIS and BYOB…okay that second one wasn’t a real show but, wait, is it? Not important.
Guy Haines, played by the young and unbearably handsome Farley Granger, is a professional tennis player riding back to his home town to try and get a divorce from his wife, who he has recently discovered has been cheating on him with numerous men. While on the train an effeminate stranger named Bruno, Robert Walker in his next to last role before he died, with a tie bearing the same name I shit-you-not recognizes him and invites him to eat with him in his private car. The two men get into a conversation and while Guy is mostly just entertaining Bruno begins to discuss his father and shitty home life. It’s this conversation that leads to Bruno explaining his perfect idea for a murder. The plan is laid out so that neither men would be implicated in the deaths. Bruno would murder Guy’s wife and Guy would murder Bruno’s father. Guy believes this is just Bruno being weird and crazy and so he leaves the train, confronts his wife who refuses the divorce, and shouts how he’d like to strangle her to his girlfriend over the telephone. Bruno is a busy bee however and goes ahead killing guy’s wife. When he informs Guy about it Guy is horrified and refuses to kill Bruno’s father but Bruno blackmails him trying to push Guy into the murder.
The movie is unique for subverting the “who dunnit” method of traditional murder films and instead attempts to transform this casual interaction into a suspense as the viewer is left wondering and anxious as to whether Guy will actually go through with it, or whether Bruno will successfully frame Guy for the act. This perspective is interesting from a narrative perspective but like many of Hitchcock’s films the real genius is never simply in the acting, it tends to be in the precision of each shot and the delivery of the lines. From afar Strangers on a Train possessed a wonderful capacity to flop because after all it is ultimately a film about murder…and queer longing.
The character of Bruno, as the film goes on, becomes obsessed with Guy, following him at first, but then steadily introducing himself into Guy’s inner circle of family and friends always and ever reminding Guy what he did for him. Watching Bruno behave and speak there is the cold-blooded-insane-murderer-character many people would recognize on the surface, but if one is to watch the original British Cut of the film (which is really only two minutes longer than the original release) an entirely different dimension to Bruno’s character begins to manifest. Bruno becomes not just a crazy murderer obsessing over Guy, but in fact becomes a gay man longing for Guy’s affection. One interaction hints at this:
Guy Haines: You crazy maniac! Would you please get out of here and leave me alone?
Bruno Anthony: But Guy… I like you.
[Offended, Guy punches Bruno in the face]
The reader might object that the writer is assuming too much on an old film, but I am not alone in this observation. Film critics looking back at the film have begun to observe Bruno’s motivations and obsession with Guy, noting that they tend to be queer and the character’s mannerisms and presentations reek of the infamous “murderous Fairy” character that sprang to prominence in 1940s cinema.
For many years the prissy, effeminate man was often the homicidal character in film and this tradition can be traced back to the film Laura which was released in 1944. Within the film there is a character named Waldo Lydecker who, while it is never openly declared, is presented as homosexual and over the course of the film he becomes the villain of the piece before being killed at the end. Spoilers. The “Fairy” character became a trope appearing in such films as The Maltese Falcon as well as Strangers on a Train. This idea of Bruno as the “murderous Fairy” was heavily censored and condensed, but if the viewer is careful they are able to recognize the subtle motions and behavior. In one such scene Bruno is having his nails done by his mother while wearing a paisley robe.
And of course, because it’s Hitchcock there has to be a moment of pure madness a moment later:
Mrs. Anthony: Come see my painting.
[walks into next room]
Mrs. Anthony: Bruno, I do wish you would take up painting. It’s such a soothing pastime.
Bruno Anthony: [prolonged laugh] Oh, Mother, you’re wonderful. That’s the old boy, alright. That’s Father.
Mrs. Anthony: Is it? Oh. I was trying to paint Saint Francis.
Bruno laughing at a portrait of his father who appears a hideously deformed, deKooningesque monstrosity is unnerving, but it also follows the old stereotypes that homosexual men were in fact deformed or broken men, sometimes referred to as “inverts,” and that the cause of their sexuality was entirely due to the fact that they had distant relationships with their fathers. Hitchcock does follow this path, but it should be noted that his presentation of Bruno, while it does rely on outdated psychology and narrative tropes, also depends on class.
Guy is a professional tennis player planning on entering politics once he finishes the season, and he is dating the daughter of a Senator. There are numerous wide shots of Washington D.C. and Hitchcock’s ability as a director shines as he places his characters amidst the Classically inspired monuments. Bruno and Guy becomes figures on an endless stage and their struggle against one another heightens the suspense of the power-play the viewer is watching over the course of the film. Bruno holds his power over Guy in the end because he has an item of Guy’s, his lighter to be precise, that he threatens to leave at the scene of the murder, and as he infiltrates Guy’s inner circle his madness steadily increases.
At a dinner party hosted by Guy’s future father-in-law he explains his ideas about Murder to one of the guests:
Bruno Anthony: Everyone has somebody that they want to put out of the way. Oh now surely, Madam, you’re not going to tell me that there hasn’t been a time that you didn’t want to dispose of someone. Your husband, for instance?
This is followed by an absurd conversation:
Mrs. Cunningham: You know, I read of a case once. I think it would be a wonderful idea! I can take him out in the car, and when we get to a very lonely spot, knock him on the head with a hammer, pour gasoline over him and over the car, and set the whole thing ablaze!
Bruno Anthony: [scowls] And have to walk all the way home? Oh, no.
Mrs. Cunningham: [meek] No? Oh…
Bruno Anthony: No, no. I have the best way, and the best tools.
Bruno Anthony: Simple, silent, and quick – the silent part being the most important. Let me show you what I mean. You don’t mind if I borrow your neck for a moment, do you?
Mrs. Cunningham: [simpers] Well… if it’s not for long!
Hitchcock has a marvelous ability to instill even the most morbid of topics with humor, and this exchange is only one of several discussions of murder interrupted with comedy. When Guy informs his family of the death of his wife his sister-in-law to be offers up a charming epithet:
Senator Morton: Poor unfortunate girl.
Barbara Morton: She was a tramp.
Senator Morton: She was a human being. Let me remind you that even the most unworthy of us has a right to life and the pursuit of happiness.
Barbara Morton: From what I hear she pursued it in all directions.
Once again the sexuality angle is referenced and I think that might be one of the best lasting impressions of Strangers on a Train. The murder of Miriam is reflected back to the reader with her own glasses, and the fact that Bruno follows her through the festival wooing her before he performs the act of strangling her says everything. Bruno isn’t just killing Miriam to get rid of his father, he’s doing it because he wants to help Guy because by his own admission:
Bruno Anthony: I admire people who do things.
Strangers on a Train is a Queer film from the start, and Bruno’s longing gaze and awkward introduction create a sexual tension that becomes heightened by his psychosis. It’s not enough that Bruno ensnares Guy into his personal problems and then blackmails him into a position where he will have to kill another human being, it’s the fact that at the core of everything Bruno obviously is expressing some twisted homosocial/erotic desire in the only means he has available.
There are numerous wonderful reasons to enjoy the film and listing them out one by one really does not do the job of explaining the significance of the movie, or what the reader should even bother with it. Strangers on a Train offers up a wonderful opportunity to observe the queer interactions and consequences of casual interaction. Hitchcock’s ethos was always about capturing the suspense and horror found in life, and instilling that horror within his audience. Referring to drama he once said that “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” This would be a pompous statement if the man wasn’t good at what he did. The Tennis match, Bruno trying to grab the lighter from the sewer grate, and the fight on the Carousel at the end of the film, which includes an elderly man crawling under the wooden platform that’s moving at the speed of most contemporary cars with beams literally inches from his head,* are some of the most anxious inspiring moments in cinema history. Strangers on a Train doesn’t just tell a story about murder, it creates a mood in which the viewer is left constantly on edge as they feel Bruno steal not only into Guy’s life, but also their own. Hitchcock arranges his images, music, and impressions upon the reader so that what was in fact a moment on a train-ride becomes the start of destiny. Guy is forever impacted by Bruno’s mingling, but ultimately overcomes the struggle and survives.
Strangers on a Train is the work of a master, and while it may not be considered his best film, it demonstrates what can be done with film, which, when done right, can be a terrifyingly excellent experience, even if it is a little gay.
But then, that does adds some flavor to the mix after all.
I’ve given a lot of plot points and a bit of analysis but I have gush here and say that if nothing else watch the final 10-15 minutes of the film so you can watch the fight scene on the Carousel. There are few images in contemporary cinema that create the same level of drama and tension that that scene does, plus the old guy who crawls under the base of the ride to shut it down is sick as balls.
I’ve included a link below to a short interview with Hitchcock’s daughter who has a small role in the film, for the record my favorite role in the film, and examines her fathers dedication to his craft. Hope you enjoy.
I’ve also included a link to another blog which provides a brief review of the film: