Strangers on a Train (1951) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
"As Funny As It Is Frightening" by Cullen Gallagher
“When I’m in the swim, I want to be with the goldfish.” – Clara Bow in It
Hitchcock’s famous anecdote about the bomb under the table, and how to create suspense one must let the audience know that the bomb is there in lieu of it suddenly exploding (in fact, after you inform the audience, Hitchcock mused, you must not let the bomb go off at all) lends a great insight into the master’s assembly of humor, as well. By keeping the audience both in the swim and with the fishes, Alfred Hitchcock is able to make wildly perverse turns on the most fiendish of situations. The essence of his performance is that he is able to make the audience laugh at what’s not funny at all; rather, he challenges the notion of couth humor and reveals the darker, unaffected side of comedy that glazes even the most unpleasant of events.
Stalking, in suspense films, is the most normal of events. In some cases the character being stalked is aware of their stalker, and even acknowledges their presence. To the audience, such a scene has one emotional track: suspense: they are awaiting the capture, the acquisition of the subject of desire, for even murder is the climax of a particular desire. Hitchcock has included such a scene in his Strangers on a Train. Bruno visits Metcalf and waits outside of Miriam’s house, the should-be ex-wife of his crush, tennis star Guy Haines. Miriam exits with two escorts and they go to the fair. Expertly (or psychopathically?) Bruno follows and, at the precise moment when she is out of the sight of her escorts, strangles Miriam to death.
This scene, through Hitchcock’s lens, is as funny as it is frightening. Through the collision of characters and their backgrounds humor still pervades (the pay-off for an audience that pays attention!). In his American Cinema, Andrew Sarris argues that, “Hitchcock requires a situation of normality, however dull it may seem on the surface, to emphasize the evil abnormality that lurks beneath the surface.” Though he does persist that there are levels of humor to Hitchcock’s work, one that makes the audience “laugh nervously” and another that manifests as “a lively comedy of manners,” Sarris does not go far enough. He could have continued his argument by saying that Hitchcock requires a situation of evil abnormality to emphasize the ironic humor that lurks beneath the surface (Sarris 57-58).
Miriam’s character culls several layers of deception, each one more childish and immature than the previous. When she exits her house to catch the bus, the sudden appearance of two escorts is unexpected. That both she and them look like teenagers is the first removal of her dignity. The next removal occurs when her suitors celebrate how much she eats: unbeknownst to them, she is pregnant (and with another man’s baby)! She turns and looks past the camera, licking her ice-cream cone (like so many Lolita images, the union of the innocent and the sexual). Her gaze meets up with Bruno, who has been staring at her for a long time now. Their sights now locked, their furtive glances now acknowledged, their attraction mutual. Just as joined now are the sexual and the murderous.
Like Miriam, Bruno is also disrobed of dignity. He comes across a little brat walking with a balloon and pops it with his cigarette. Such an action reeks of immaturity, but in a deeper sense, it identifies a childlike rationale with Bruno’s upcoming murder. Popping the balloon will have no long-term consequences; sure, the brat will cry, but balloon’s are a dime a dozen, and Bruno’s motivation is nothing more than a taunt or, if you will, teaching someone a lesson. There is no connection to the little boy, just as there is no connection to Miriam, which is how he justified the murder to Guy on the train. This moment is the reversal of the Hitchcock pattern I have been describing: beneath the comic exterior is the serious interior of a psychopath’s mind.
Over at the test of strength, Miriam’s suitors both fail, much like Penelope’s suitors all fail and are slain by Odysseus. Miriam eyes Bruno, who then decides to test himself, as well. Before he picks up the sledgehammer, he eyes his hands, marveling at his own strength. He looks over at Miriam and she glares provocatively back at him. The irony is that she is turned on by the hands that are soon to kill her! Bruno picks up the sledgehammer and hits it home: the bell rings, he wins the prize, and Miriam goes off into the tunnel of love with her suitors. Bruno, alone in his boat, follows.
The murder sequence is devoid of the humor that has marked the previous scenes; it is shown through the lens of Miriam’s glasses that have fallen on the grass, and the image is as distorted and perverted as the people in the reflection. They appear in silhouette, as if they have been stripped of the pretty boy and girl images they purported as their ultimate desires are met: his sadism and her masochism. Were the nature of her murder not so fascinating and complex it could seem moralistic, but Hitchcock is not interested in preaching; as much as morals and ethics interest him, it is never didacticism that interests him: it is the exhumation of our fascination with the unmoral and the unethical.
Works Cited Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1968.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.