Stranger and Stranger
Hitchcock and Male Envy
Beyond the queer readings of Strangers on a Train
Men's envy toward other men is a peculiarly anxiety-arousing topic and is rarely discussed, let alone openly admitted. Envy traditionally is deeply taboo, as its symbol, the evil eye, makes clear, and male envy is doubly taboo. Yet men's envy has pervasive and powerful effects on society generally, and not just on men's relations with other men. It certainly affects movies, as a consideration of plot construction makes plain, but also, I would argue, a range of technical factors, including cinematography. When you begin to observe the code of male envy, as it might be called, you begin to see things that are normally invisible. This re-seeing is most revealing in an undisputed master such as Alfred Hitchcock.
Take, for example, Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train
(1951). The common view of Strangers
is that it is a movie about repressed homosexuality. The scary yet strangely appealing bad guy, Bruno Anthony, played by Robert Walker, is in love with the boy-next-door type, Guy Haines, played by Farley Granger, the clean-cut protagonist of the movie. And Guy is more attracted to Bruno than he knows or would admit. This view is not only common it is what might be called the standard view.
This standard view has much to commend it, but it is wrong, nevertheless, not because there is no gay subtext there is but because it is fatally incomplete. Something else is going on in the movie, something much more important, and something that definitely concerns heterosexual men.2
To begin with, however, it is important to note some of the more persuasive features of the standard view. First, the random meeting of the two men on the train definitely suggests a casual "pick up" situation, with its attendant emphasis on alcohol. At the same time, the opening shots of the men's legs approaching the station and in the train car suggest a secret rendezvous: the two men are connected but not connected. The meeting is random, and yet somehow not random, either. It is as if some secret affinity draws the two men together, allowing the meeting to be both an accident and purposeful. But this is in a sense the logic of the "pick up" situation itself.
Second, Bruno, eccentric and flamboyant as he is, has many of the cues traditionally associated with being gay. In particular, one notices the conspicuous presence of his mother in the film. Almost the first thing Bruno talks about is his mother and his mother's gift to him a tie that he is thereby obliged to wear, like the proverbial apron-string. Closeness to mother is a standard marker in the movies of the ‘50s for Something Wrong. Association with mother does not necessarily denote homosexuality; it does denote defectiveness, however, indeed serious if not fatal male weakness. Hitchcock had already used this motif in Notorious (1946), where the bad guy superbly played by the great Claude Rains is conspicuously linked with a mother who appears to control him. But what can you expect from a Nazi? She's the boss, and like every good boss, she knows better what her underling should do than he does himself. Male failure could hardly be more dramatic, underlined by the transfer of the magnificent Ingrid Bergman, his wife, from him, the husband, to a younger, stronger, and better-looking lover.
A man should stand on his own and not be close to his mother: this formula was deeply ingrained in the pop psychology of the post-war years. Under the influence of Freud, the idea that domination by the mother caused the son to be homosexual was widespread (as indeed this belief still is). But even before the category of homosexuality was widely recognized, it was assumed that close association with mama had the effect of emasculating the male. The break with mother was absolutely essential for a male to be really a male. Even in Disney's Bambi (1942), this point is emphatic no matter how traumatic. Better for the mother to be dead, as far as the son is concerned, than to be too close. When Norman Bates fervently tells Marion Crane in Psycho that "a boy's best friend is his mother," you know everything you need to know about Norman. Keep away from this guy! The next thing you know, he'll be dressing up in mama's clothes. And if he does something like that, you know he is capable of anything murder, necrophilia, you name it. Why, he could even be homosexual!
Clearly, Bruno's mother a flamboyant eccentric much like her flamboyant and eccentric son is the dangerous kind of female. Her closeness to Bruno is probably the real cause, in the cultural logic of the '50s, for Bruno's bizarre personality and aberrant and ultimately murderous actions. Above all, the mother is hostile to her husband
and Bruno's father. The grotesque portrait she paints is an artistic murder that adumbrates actual murder and encourages her son's grotesque hostility to the father. Mother and son are Oedipal allies in their hatred of the father. The father, a man of wealth and position, comes across as hopelessly unequal to the task of taming and controlling his bent son, who is evidently in need of straightening. The father's weakness, in turn, predicts the son's weakness/weirdness.
A third demonstration of the standard view that the fulcrum of the plot of Strangers on a Train is homosexuality is the amazing final sequence of the movie, surely one of the most memorable episodes in the Hitchcock oeuvre, namely the death struggle of Guy and Bruno on the out-of-control carousel. This scene is truly a tour de force. It certainly terrified Hitchcock: a man risked his life to crawl under the carousel to shut off the machine as the scene was being shot.
What strikes the viewer now is that the scene of Guy and Bruno on top of each other locked in furious physical contact suggests passionate love-making as well as two men trying to kill each other, and the desperate whirling of the machine they are on even suggests mounting orgasmic excitement.
Scenes of killing which could almost be viewed as lovemaking are not uncommon in Hitchcock for example the scene in Topaz
(1969), in which the Cuban commander shoots the woman (and enemy spy) he loves a scene shot with virtuosic camera work from above looking down. The double visual impression love-making/death-struggle that we find in Strangers on a Train
is not unfamiliar in Hitchcock as a whole. What is unfamiliar is that it is two men
locked in an embrace, and not a man and a woman, as elsewhere.4
Still, Bruno's murderousness is emphatic; while Guy is risking his life to save the little boy, Bruno is attacking him. This is not love-making! No one can forget the shots of Bruno stomping on Guy's hands in an effort to hurl him off the machine or the final moments of Bruno, still trying to frame Guy with literally his dying breath.
There are other indications of the homosexual theme in Strangers on a Train, but these are, I believe, the important ones. They correspond to the three phases of the movie: (1) initiation; (2) conspiracy and counter-conspiracy; and (3) climax.
But a more comprehensive understanding of this brilliant movie is needed than the standard view. The key point here is that Bruno and the homosexual shadow aspect of the movie are a distraction.
They distract us from the real issue of the film, and the real issue is not homosexuality but male ambition.
More completely, it is a complex of male behaviours and motivations that make up a "code of male envy," where the crucial force is hostility between men (not love!). The operating cultural assumption is that males are fundamentally hostile to other males: all men are really enviously competing and in conflict with all other men, apart from tactical alliances. The primacy of hostility between men, in turn, defines female roles, as well as much else. Hence, in practice, it is a determining force in constructing plot, however repressed or denied it is. For few subjects are more anxiety-arousing than male envy: the aggressive hostility of men toward other men is endlessly rationalized, even as it is inculcated and tacitly celebrated and glorified. Winning is everything, and winning means beating other men.
When we consider the movie from this point of view, features come forward into the light that are obscured by the bravura performance of Bruno and of Robert Walker in acting the role, a performance which distracts attention from the real moving forces in the film.
We can get a clearer picture of these moving forces by attending carefully to the changes Hitchcock made to the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. Hitchcock's film is a thoroughgoing re-creation that transforms the novel. It is different in almost every way from the original: the key point of connection is the astonishing, even overpowering, plot device of the criss-cross murder, whereby two strangers agree to murder someone for the other, allowing each to get what he wants as well as a perfect alibi. This is a plot device so attention absorbing that it overpowers every other aspect of the action.
While it hardly makes for realism, it is a brilliant plot device, especially when combined with the further plot device that one "stranger" takes it as a joke, while the other takes it seriously and expects the exchange to be taken seriously as in effect a contract. It is related to the plot motif that scholars of folklore identify as "the rash promise," and as such it is an old and very powerful plot device. Hitchcock was nothing if not dedicated to constructing powerful stories, and no trick was beneath him as a story-teller to accomplish this goal. As Murray Pomerance insightfully notes: "What we always learn from Hitchcock is his method of altering the resources he takes up; his method of applying to them his own forces of sight and arrangement and of perceiving and understanding in them resonances that had gone untapped and unexperienced before" (140).
The key change that Hitchcock made was to the family of Guy's girlfriend Ann Morton. It may seem odd to say so, but everything follows from this one seemingly minor alteration. It gives the story a totally different orientation from the somber and colorless Highsmith novel. The novel is built on that essential cliché of formula fiction: the murderer is motivated by murderous dementia, the motivation that requires no motivation (of the talented-Mr.-Ripley species). In Highsmith's novel, the family are well off, but in no way distinguished. In the movie, by contrast, Ann's family is powerful and prominent. They are also powerful dramatically, for the father has a substantial and conspicuous part to play. The crucial point is that this father is not just any rich and powerful man, he is a United States Senator. The action is thus shifted to Washington D.C., the acme of political power, rather than, as in the novel, somewhere in Texas in the 1940s. As a U.S. Senator, Ann's father is one of 96 members of what was the most powerful political body in history at that point. Hitchcock cast one of his favourite minor actors for the part, Leo Carroll. Interestingly, Carroll had played the envious murderer in Spellbound (1945) a character who secretly shadows the clean-cut protagonist played by Gregory Peck, who resembles Guy Haines in personality and Farley Granger in appearance. The theme of stealing or taking over another man's identity is prominent in Spellbound as it is in Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock is obsessed with this theme in his plot-construction generally, and it could be argued that all of his movies make use of it (a particularly fascinating example is the underestimated I Confess, 1953).
What makes the change to Senator so important is that it alters, even defines, the motivation of Guy Haines. In the Highsmith novel, Haines is simply in love with another woman than his wife Ann Morton. In the movie, Guy Haines is in love with a Senator's daughter,
the daughter of a Very Important Man. This then leads to another interesting transformation Hitchcock made. In the novel, Haines is a young architect dedicated to his calling. He is an earnest professional seeking to practice his craft. In the movie, Guy has no profession, really, apart from his feats on the tennis circuit. Truffaut called him an "opportunistic playboy."6
No: Haines has no profession because what he wants is to be a politician.
He wants to climb the ladder of power. This fact in turn puts a new light on his love for Ann. Ann, played by the refined and delicate Ruth Roman, is attractive physically and has great charm and poise. But for an aspiring politician, what makes Ann truly irresistible is who her father is. A standard way to steal a march on one's competitors is to connect with the daughter of an important man already higher up the ladder to marry the boss's daughter, as it were. It is interesting that Bruno Anthony grasps this point at once. He voices it as no one else in the film does; like the jester at a court, Bruno takes the liberty of uttering truths that otherwise must be silenced. Lesley Brill observes:
Miriam [Guy's unsatisfactory wife] views Guy as a commodity to be exploited, and she looks at herself in the same way. . . . Bruno is similarly unable to perceive any but venal motives in Guy's relationship with Ann. "Marrying the boss's daughter," he says, "that makes a nice shortcut to a career, doesn't it?" (82)
Brill is somewhat moralistic here, as if Bruno were not in fact putting his finger on a genuine truth, that Guy's "love" for Ann can't be separated from self-interest. Guy may indeed love her, but Other Factors are involved. Compare what Martha says in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(1964) as she punctures the pretensions of the junior male professor: "You didn't chase me ... out of mad, driven passion, did you now? You were thinking a little bit about your career, weren't you?" Martha knows whereof she speaks. She is the daughter of an important man herself (her father is the President of the University), a fact that is emphasized from the opening scene.7
A woman such as Ann would bring Guy not only valuable contacts and introductions but the poise, charm, and looks that, in the form of an attractive and dedicated wife, comprise an essential asset for a politician. Hitchcock emphasizes her passionate attachment to Guy. A successful climber must be able to trust his woman absolutely. As the saying goes, behind every successful man, there's a ...
Guy has to have a woman like Ann if he wants to make it.
The obvious contrast to Ann in the movie is Miriam, Haines's non-compliant wife, who gets murdered. Miriam, who wears (ugh) glasses, will not give him a divorce; she gloats loudly and rudely over his "swanky" new friends and political connections. Totally unsuitable as consort of a successful politician, she's not only irredeemably vulgar, pushy, demanding, and immature; she's blatantly sexual and flirtatious. She would be utterly impossible cast in the role of VIP wife. No wonder Guy is desperate. It's not just love that depends upon getting rid (by divorce) of Miriam: his identity as successful competitor and climber would be sunk forever. He would be consigned to that most dreaded of all male identities, that of loser, that which a real man must never be and which, as an aspiring politician he is determined not to be.
Here then is another key change that Hitchcock made to Highsmith. Hitchcock not only made Guy Haines a tennis player, he made the game of tennis one of the visual centres of his movie. The emphasis on tennis is important to the film in several ways. It is visually magnetic. It is all about competition, about winning and losing. Its competitive setting, with crowds watching and prizes hanging on the outcome, is a perfect filmic vehicle for generating the climactic escape-chase-confrontation sequence in the movie. It revs up the tension and energy required for an exciting climax, especially when cleverly crosscut with shots of Bruno statically struggling to retrieve the incriminating lighter from the storm drain.
But the use of tennis also discloses much about the protagonist, and in a sense constructs
that character. Tennis is the game of the upper class not of Miriam's working-class milieu, the milieu that Guy must dissociate himself from. It corresponds to Guy's upwardly-mobile ambitiousness, his drive for the top, without which the aspiring politician cannot be successful. It also shows how intensely competitive he really is: winning is everything as is, in a different way, losing. That is, in the culture of male envy, winning is what existence is about losing is the dreadful abjection symbolized by entrapment to Miriam and her unsightly glasses.
Furthermore, the career as tennis player is perfect training for politics. One is always on stage. One competes openly with other competitor-aspirants. One has to deal with the press and with intrigued spectators and members of the public. One accumulates a following of loyal fans if successful. Above all, the tennis matches are a superb means of ego gratification of personal display of attention-getting. The sport not only trains the prospective aspirant for public position and power it also gratifies and inflates the ego in a manner that important political office also does. It fulfils the same needs as a career in politics. Remember, we have no sense of Guy as having a political identity per se we see no indication of any social or political concerns, no sense of being called by the people to serve them. There is no indication of any political agenda or cause that means anything to this young man. Our only understanding of Guy as politician is of someone who wants to climb the ladder of power and prestige: this need to climb the hierarchy is perhaps fuelled by strong feelings of social inferiority (symbolized by Miriam, the shop clerk) and of threatened identity due to failed ambition.
It goes without saying, too, that the tennis circuit Guy has had such success with is an invaluable means of getting his name before the public. It also is a perfect means of getting in touch with the wealthy and powerful elite who favour tennis with their attendance and patronage, and who are essential to the career of an aspiring politician. The kind of tennis Guy plays is a singles sport: it singles him out for maximum attention, and it is no doubt his association with this elegant and cut-throat sport that has put him in contact with the Senator's daughter in the first place. Nothing conveys more precisely and forcefully the winner-loser axis, its mentality and demands and even obsessions, not to say its ruthlessness, than a high-stakes sport. In an early (1974) study, Raymond Durgnat interestingly observes:
Before Guy can give his [police] shadows the slip he must defeat his opponent in a tennis match. This opponent thus becomes a vicarious "agent" of Bruno's. . . . This might have implied something about cut-throat competition in professional sport, e.g. Guy's friendly-faced opponent murmuring to him, sotto voce," I'm going to kill you!" but doesn't. (220)
Wouldn't it? The critic here draws attention to the essential point the obsessive competitiveness that pushes Guy forward yet denies that it is there! This is not surprising, however: there is an unrelenting pressure to hide, minimize, or deny the powerful role of envious hostility men feel for other men, the need to show off and to intimidate, the imperative to gain the attention of more powerful males and to demonstrate winning force to competitors. Merely to acknowledge its importance is taboo.
If Guy's primary interest in Ann is political, so to speak, one understands better why the Senator and the Senator's family are so prominent in the movie. Social alliances are being built up, and contacts being made, in the manner of the successful aspirant to power. Guy is already "one of the family," "family" being an inner ring of power and wealth. One is struck by his modesty, almost passivity: as a novice to power, he shows the social savoir faire that a successful politician must have, carefully concealing the drive for ego enhancement that, if shown too nakedly, would ruin everything. Guy's somewhat colourless presence masks his ambition he is very modest, modest seeming, that is. The ambitious man cannot admit to being ambitious, any more than a man can admit to envy and envious hostility toward another man. That is what losers do.
It is interesting that Hitchcock preferred William Holden, the male sex star of Picnic
for the role of Guy, not Farley Granger, as if Hitchcock wanted to avoid any suggestion that Guy inclined toward Bruno sexually (Granger had played a gay character in Hitchcock's Rope
). Still, Farley Granger has the understated physical presence that Strangers
requires. As a result, Guy comes across as not merely modest but as unexpectedly fragile, even weak and dependent. He is facing a situation he never dreamed he would have to face, and is forced to find his own way out. That way out may well mean an end to Guy's political ambitions. His bizarre involvement with Bruno and with Bruno's death (not to mention Miriam's death) might not look too good on a politician's résumé. Perhaps in the end he may have to pursue Ann out of love, after all, and not because he's "thinking a little bit about his career," as Martha puts it in Virginia Woolf
One can get a sense of the importance of these issues in Strangers on a Train
by comparing them with a more serious and far more sinister expression of the same concerns: Psycho
. Strangers on a Train
are very different, but there are certain premises necessary to each that both have in common. The most important of these is the motif of competitive male aggressiveness toward other males what I referred to earlier as "male envy." If we look at Psycho
from this point of view, the centre of attention shifts from Norman (and from Marion) to Marion Crane's lover, Sam, played by John Gavin (right
). This figure is what might be termed an "ineffectual lover": that is, he is a man who cannot provide for his lover what she desires or requires; more important, he is not there for her when she really needs him.
Sam is, like the figure of the ineffectual lover more generally, a "loser," to put it in the blunt terminology of male competition, a "flop," as the knowledgeable Martha expresses it. In movies and stories standard markers of being a loser are (1) inability to make money, and (2) preoccupation with some failure from the past that paralyzes the ability to act in the present. Sam's debts, his "career" as clerk in a hardware store (compare Miriam the music store clerk in Strangers
), his preoccupation with paying off his first wife from a failed marriage all are significant indicators from a dramatic point of view. Sam is going nowhere, and Marion knows it: that is why she gives him an ultimatum in the scene that opens the movie: find a way or it's over.
The contrasting figure to Sam in this regard is Tom Cassidy, the boastful older man whom we see at the beginning of the movie entering the office where Marion works; a man who in every way is Sam's opposite. He is a classic winner in the compete/control system, a "power male," as he might be termed, a man of material success whose confidence and wealth he puts deliberately on display. He sits on Marion's desk, invading her space, and he invades her personal life with rude questions, then waves a bundle of bills in her face, tormenting her with the financial lack that has made her life visibly unhappy. He tells her that he buys happiness. This is what the other secretary in the office, played by Hitchcock's daughter Patricia, calls "flirting." ("He was flirting with you!" she excitedly proclaims. In an interesting link between the two movies, Patricia Hitchcock also played Ann's younger sister Barbara in Strangers.) This act a male "winner" boasting and flaunting his power in the face of her frustration is what incites Marion to steal the man's cash and run away, a bizarre aberration that she soon regrets. But it is her way of doing what her boyfriend Sam cannot or will not do, provide the material means for the union of lovers. Marion in her own way attempts to use the compete/control system, like Miriam in Strangers, and, like Miriam, she is murdered.
Marion's lover, Sam, shows surprising weakness in his dealing with the disappearance of his beloved. This weakness is evident in the scene where Sam and the intrepid Lila Marion's bold and determined sister go to the Bates Motel with the intention of investigating the scary mystery house behind the motel.11
In a reversal of gender roles, Lila instructs Sam to keep Norman busy, so that Lila can slip off to investigate the house. Almost immediately, however, we notice that Sam is taunting Norman and "bating" him. Instead of handling this incredibly dangerous situation a situation Sam has himself declared to be dangerous with finesse, he aggressively arouses Norman's suspicions and foolishly incites him. After all, Sam is, as the opening love-making shots in the movie emphasize, muscular and macho. He should be able to handle a wimp like Norman, with ease. Given his conditioning, Sam naturally interprets this meeting with Norman as an opportunity for bullying and in effect showing off his power, instead of insinuating himself into Norman's confidence and getting information out of him, as the experienced (and modest) Arbogast does earlier. But what actually happens is that Norman dispatches Sam efficiently and without difficulty. He does so even despite his nervousness, his paranoid anxieties about the house and his "mother," anxieties already in full throttle because of his encounter with the clever detective Arbogast, a man who is far more skillful than the clumsy Sam in handling difficult people and delicate situations.
This is actually a crucial moment in the story. Norman takes pre-emptive action. Suddenly he strikes Sam. Macho Sam, meanwhile, does not even land a single punch. Norman's decisive act frees him to pursue the unsuspecting Lila back at the house. Lila's life is now on the line. She is unarmed. She is trusting Sam to keep Norman occupied and away from the house while she investigates. In fact, Sam is doing neither he is lying on the ground knocked out. It is, really, a miracle that Lila is rescued at the end. Sam intervenes at the last second to save Lila a necessity if the movie is to have a happy ending, however implausible it may, on reflection, be. Somehow, he recovers from his blackout and rushes up to the house in the nick of time to find Lila (down in the basement) and save her life from the terrifying apparition of Norman in his murderer outfit. The dramatic momentum of this scene obliterates our sense of the implausibility here of Sam's rescue; logically, it is curtains for Lila. He was too busy pushing Norman around, in a foolish display of macho aggressiveness, when he should have been soothing and distracting Norman.
But this is typical of male envy: in the culture of male envy, a man's need to boast (like the rich man with his money in the opening), his need to act aggressively, is a kind of categorical imperative, something he cannot resist if he's "normal," that is.
Clearly, Norman Bates and Sam are not alike, except in one crucial respect: they are both losers in the male competitive struggle. The difference is that Norman has found a way of soothing the offended ego: murder (compare Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt
, 1943). Traditionally, male winning is marked by possession of a desirable woman, just as attacking another male is often accomplished by stealing or damaging his woman, the transfer of a woman from one man to another being a familiar sign of the defeat of the first man by the second. Norman has found that spying secretly on desirable women and "possessing" them is a satisfying way of solving his loser anxieties. What better way to demonstrate possession of something than by destroying it? And that is what he does murder and dispose of desirable women, and he does so with such skill that no one suspects.12
The film emphasizes Norman's janitorial virtuosity, the thoroughness with which he "cleans up" and erases evidence of his acts. He not only flushes the evidence down the toilet, he "flushes" the body and the victim's car into the swamp. He "disappears" her, as if she had never existed, like a mistake that has been erased. His "loser" image becomes a kind of clever screen, an effective disguise for a man of power to operate behind when open competitive struggle fails.
It's no accident that it is Lila who finds the necessary evidence to take Norman down not the loser Sam. In fact, Sam at every point discourages Lila. He never shows the same determination to find and avenge Marion that Lila does. The role reversal is striking.
Hitchcock, the consummate story-teller and builder of tension, understood these issues instinctively. In an interview, Joseph Stefano, who wrote the screenplay for Psycho, revealed that "Hitchcock ... had to cut a scene. We argued in a polite way about cutting a scene I liked very much. . . . It was purely a character scene between John Gavin and Vera Miles, a moment of grief when he realizes ‘my lover is dead,' and she realizes ‘my sister is dead.' As a writer, I felt I owed these characters that" (Caminer 30). But Hitchcock knew better than his writer what the story required. He did not want to emphasize Sam's devotion to Marion because it was really Sam's lack of devotion, his inability to provide what Marion needed, as symbolized by his unwillingness to marry her, that initiates the action of the movie: Marion's decision to take matters into her own hands when her lover failed her.
Significantly, a similar disagreement occurred between Hitchcock and his original choice for screenwriter for Strangers on a Train, the great Raymond Chandler. According to Chandler's biographer Tom Hiney, "Hitchcock was ‘as nice as nice can be to argue with,' but it became clearer as the two discussed Strangers on a Train that they were talking about two different films" (193). Chandler jotted in his notebook: "The premise is that if you shake hands with a maniac, you may have sold your soul to the devil" (103). This "premise" for the story is not Hitchcock's premise, however: it is ambition and male competitive struggle, and Hitchcock understood that perfectly.
The winner-loser axis of male aggressiveness toward other males is essential to Psycho, a groundwork of unspoken assumptions. The inner secret of the plot, Norman's Oedipal obsession with his mother going back years before, underscores this point: the primary reality is male hostility toward other males. Norman had "won" against his mother's lover, by killing him and by totally possessing the mother in the classic transfer of a woman from one man to another.
The two films are very different, but the framework assumption of Strangers on a Train is shared by Psycho. Guy's ambitious drive, his need to climb the ladder of power, and his dread of losing and of social demotion in the male competitive struggle for control are the pre-requisites of the plot; they must be there for the story to work. The pressures exerted by the competitive struggle the need to win against other males and to control objects that yield power and prestige has traditionally dictated the role of women, the way women are viewed, evaluated, and "scripted," so to speak. That is, the male competitive struggle requires that women perform two key functions. First, they provide significant emotional and material resources to their man (husband normally, sometimes father or brother). To put it precisely, they must offer emotional cushioning plus energy for the man, thus enabling him to pursue success in the struggle against other male competitors. Second, women furnish a kind of "male display," to mark winning and to symbolize status in the eyes of other "winning" men. That is, a woman of status or beauty is a prize to be won, and possessing such a woman is a victory over other male competitors as well as a useful resource for further struggles. Possession of a desirable woman the so-called trophy wife signifies winning over other men and is perceived that way by them.
Hence one of the basic markers of defeat in competitive struggles, again, is the transfer of a woman from one man to another man: a humiliation not to be endured lightly by the losing man, any more than female infidelity. By corollary, a standard means of attacking another man is to attack or steal (or rape or in some way damage) the other man's woman. The traditional understanding of rape is implicit here: the assault of rape was less against the woman herself than against the man who "owned" her (whether husband, father, or brother). This is one reason why rape is used in warfare: it is less about sex than about humiliating and damaging the enemy males whose women are being raped. One damages their most prized possession as a means of humiliating and degrading them.
Now consider Miriam in Strangers on a Train. Not only does Miriam not perform the two vital functions of providing material and emotional resources to her man and of signifying his winning status, she is a disastrous liability in this regard. By having sex with other men by merely flirting with other men Miriam is in effect collaborating with Guy's enemies; she is sabotaging her husband's power position. She is the instrument of other men's aggression against Guy. Furthermore, as the opening scene makes plain, Miriam is willing to "make scenes," publicly humiliating Guy, openly disobeying him and expressing her dissatisfaction: an impossible liability for an ambitious male. If he has any hope of being a winner, he must get rid of Miriam. She is a continuing threat to his ambition and hence to his very identity. In Guy's culture and mentality, male identity is a man's competitive power and success: winning is identity, just as losing is demolition of identity.
The fact that Miriam is promiscuous nullifies her capacity to provide emotional/material resources to support her man. From a status point of view, as a marker of male success, she offers nothing. In fact, she symbolizes social demotion. Hence the curious emphasis in the movie on her glasses.
There are many reasons for this emphasis, but perhaps the main point is that she is both intensely sexual and strangely undesirable. That is, she is sexually alive but contributes nothing by way of competitive advantage to her male. Hitchcock went to amazing lengths to get the famous shot of the reflection in Miriam's glasses13
again there are many reasons for this shot. But from the point of view of male envy, she is undesirable and yet actually draws attention to herself, and in the competitive struggle of males against males, for a woman to draw attention to herself is to deflect attention away from where it belongs namely, her man. Miriam wants to be an independent centre of attention on her own, a wish that is a crime in the competition/control struggle that men like Guy are identified with and devoted to.
The contrast at every point with the upper-class Ann, who is never loud, immature, or flirtatious, is marked. Ann's younger sister Barbara, however, has some of the same qualities as Miriam, especially the conspicuous glasses. Barbara's wit and lively interest in others mark her: she is in danger of becoming like Miriam like Marion in Psycho an outlaw in the compete/control system, a woman who doesn't know her place. She is a female who wants to gain attention to and for herself, rather than, like Ann, acting as an enhancer of aspiring men and trained under the expert tutelage of a man who has proved himself successful, her Senator-father. Significantly, Barbara arouses Bruno's murderous compulsion at the party; in this respect, she is like Marion in Psycho. Bruno strikes terror into Barbara. Like Norman, Bruno is in effect an enforcer for the compete/control system, a man whose task is to keep women out of the competitive struggle altogether, and attached to men who are appropriate to them. Or else dead.
So we come at last to the figure of Bruno Anthony.
As noted earlier, Bruno has many of the stereotypic markers of being gay. Yet to explain Bruno essentially in terms of his sexual orientation is to miss the point: it oversimplifies this beautifully constructed, complex film. One interesting indicator is Bruno's physical strength. He is hardly the limp-wristed or mincing creature of gay stereotypes, despite his effeminate manner. On the contrary, Bruno is powerful and muscular. He has a shapeless hulking appearance in his large, tank-like overcoat. He is powerful physically but also in terms of personality. He is like the bear his name suggests. He is persistent, daring, and capable of ruthless action he explicitly tells Guy he is willing to do anything in addition to his verbal facility, wit, and proclivity to speak his mind. He is also crazy. That is, he is unpredictable, uninhibited, murderous, obsessive, unrestrained, and just plain weird, a "psychopathic Peter Pan" in Raymond Durgnat's phrase (228).
Bruno's interest in Guy may be sexual, but it is, again, more complicated than that. First of all, one notices that he is fascinated by Guy. He compares himself unfavourably to Guy. Everything about Guy interests and intrigues him, and while he thinks up the criss-cross murder proposal, one definitely gets the sense that he enjoys doing Guy a big favour by removing the one block to Guy's desire, namely the existence of Miriam, the inappropriate wife. He understands intuitively and immediately why Miriam is a problem, without having to be told. He expects Guy to be delighted with his action on behalf of Guy. He wants to be an ally
with Guy. Far from showing any jealousy, he openly praises Ann, contrasting her favourably with the lower-class Miriam. The snob Bruno is nothing if not class conscious. He does not murder Miriam merely because of a fortuitous and expedient contract, but out of genuine (read twisted) concern for Guy. Yes, he seems to love
Guy. But this love is really not so much love as an overwhelming admiration: Guy is everything Bruno is not and wishes he could be. Guy is good looking, successful, poised, independent, industrious. He has social finesse and knows how to get along with people and how to be liked by people. Guy an all-around "good guy," clearly is handsome and athletic, indeed a professional athlete. He has a goal and direction in life. He is the very exemplar of the all-American boy, "one of the guys." Above all, he is Normal: everything, in short, that Bruno is not.
Bruno by contrast is a monster, and he knows it. Hence his tremendous identification with Guy. He wishes he were Guy. Of course, the shadow aspect of this yearning identification is a kind of envy, a possessiveness that becomes the crazed mania of the "stalker" whose target is someone that the stalker wishes to enclose within his own control, like a prized object. This is Bruno. To call it "homosexuality" would be to do a serious injustice to both gays and to love.
Nevertheless, Bruno's "love" becomes hate, as love so often does, when Guy does not "return" it that is, when Guy fails to do for Bruno what Bruno did for Guy, namely murder someone a rather tall order. The whole action suggests grotesque comedy, which is very different from the novel. It should be noted that in that novel, Guy actually does murder Bruno's father. Hitchcock's change here is dramatic: Hitchcock has Guy attempt to warn Bruno's father of the murderous madness of his son not kill the father. The change is not merely an endorsement of compulsory heterosexuality, as it were: it is not an assertion of normality, whatever that means. It is rather Guy's attempt to preserve the principle his whole life is consumed by, namely the sanctity of power/privilege, the sanctity of the "winning" position, for Bruno's father is a counterpart of Ann's father, the Senator. He is a man of importance and of property: precisely what Guy is determined to be himself. To kill this man would be psychic suicide, whatever the morality involved.
Bruno senses Guy's infidelity to him and easily outwits Guy. Failing to accomplish his warning, Guy reacts by inciting Bruno, much as Sam incites Norman in Psycho.
Bruno "stalks" Guy in the sense that, apart from wanting Guy to complete his half of the criss-cross bargain, and kill his father, he wants to absorb Guy's identity into his own. He wants to "be" Guy the scenario suggests a male version of All about Eve
But Bruno is the apparent opposite, even negation, of everything Guy is. Bruno in his Gothic castle of a mansion has the privileged class status of a winner, but he does not have the social normalcy. In the system of male competition for control, Bruno is a loser, and this sense of being a loser motivates his obsession with Guy, as manifested by Bruno's extreme sensitivity, indeed rage, when the issue of his "sanity" is raised. Bruno's feeling of being a failure and an outcast suggests a motivation ironically close to that of Guy, who wishes above all to shed his loser identity in the social class and culture of Miriam, and become one of the power elite of society. Each wants what the other has because each wants to be in his own way a winner, not a loser.
In fact, Bruno is a kind of parody of Guy. He does everything Guy does but grotesquely, clumsily, murderously, absurdly. One notices how much he attracts attention to himself an essential skill and desideratum of the male competitor but he does so in a way that turns people off, as when he talks of harnessing the life force at the high-class party and then goes berserk and almost strangles a matronly lady. His competitive ruthlessness is evident in his grotesque act of popping the little boy's balloon when the boy "shoots" him with his toy gun. No one is going to beat him! He is a winner after all! He shows off his athletic ability by winning with the strength-testing hammer at the fair, like Guy winning tennis matches. But whereas Guy's competition is the delicate and refined game of tennis, which women also excel at, Bruno's athletic skill is demonstrated as pure macho strength Bruno the bear. Bruno has the capacity to charm and entertain; he has the awareness of others that the aspiring politician Guy shows when, for instance, Guy actually remembers the name, the face, and even the employer of the man on the train he expects to provide an alibi for him. But Bruno has no control over these mental powers, as when he absurdly talks about smelling flowers on Mars with the Senator at the posh party. Guy, however, visibly grows in the movie, unlike Bruno. Bruno is ruthless and determined: when he thinks of a plan, he carries it out. Guy, cautious in his tennis game, becomes more like Bruno, more decisive, daring, and forceful as the movie proceeds.
One of many curious features of Strangers on a Train
is that the audience feels a certain sympathy with Bruno the loser, a certain identification, even. This sympathy, to give it a name that is not quite correct for the identification we feel with Bruno, is extorted almost unwillingly from us, given the sicko quality that Bruno exhibits so abundantly. For example, when Bruno decides to frame Guy for the murder, he does so by planting Guy's lighter at the scene of the killing. As he hurries along, Bruno accidentally drops the lighter into a storm drain. What follows is his agonized effort to retrieve the emblematic object that is to confirm Guy's guilt and then his innocence. This scene is peculiar in its interest, because, while we despise and fear Bruno and do not wish him to succeed in framing Guy, the "good guy" in the movie, we find ourselves tensing with eagerness as Bruno struggles to get his hand through the iron grill to retrieve the fallen lighter. We want him to retrieve it! Morally, we don't want him to succeed dramatically, however, we strain with him to do just that.
Curiously, subversively, we identify with Bruno. I think the sense of identification is also noticeable in the scene I referred to earlier, when the little boy at the fair shoots his toy gun at Bruno. Bruno then reacts by popping the child's balloon with his cigarette. Childish, yes very childish. And yet isn't there something in us that identifies with Bruno in this absurd scene? Let us hope we would not do the same. But there is something in us that in effect cheers and identifies with his childish burst of spite. On closer inspection, Bruno responds on the same level of child as the child himself. Bruno preserves something in his personality that the Guy Haineses of this world have long since crushed out. And despite what I said earlier about Bruno being a parody of Guy, Guy the competitor, still, Bruno is not in the competitive game, and couldn't be. His killing may represent his subconscious sense of exclusion from the game Guy Haines plays (and I do not mean tennis), but the fact remains: Bruno is something that does not play the competitive/controlling game. Something that wants out. Something that wants something different, however misguided the expression of his wish.
What is it that motivates Bruno? It is hatred of his father. No doubt this hostility is sick and reprehensible in every way. But looked on symbolically, the hostility to the father suggests hostility to the loser-winner system, the very system that Guy himself embodies.
In this sense, Bruno brings out the horrors and absurdities of Guy's own "normalcy" normalcy meaning obsessive competitiveness, a drive to be a winner above all; treating love as an adjunct to successful climbing rather than as something valued in and for itself; male display and compulsive needs to take control of the attention of others; a conviction that ego inflation is the purpose of existence and so on. Thus Bruno makes it possible for Guy to pursue his ambition by getting rid of Guy's vulgar and attention-getting wife Miriam. But Bruno also blocks Guy's ambition by stalking him, by demanding that Guy fulfil his "promise" to Bruno (a promise which Guy disclaims even though Bruno counts upon it) by insisting that male obligation is the primary value, however grotesque and absurd the content of that obligation. This power gives Bruno his eerie, haunting, and memorable role we remember him long after Guy has faded from our mind's eye. He is a revelation of the horrors and the monstrosity of male envy.
Bruno Robert Walker's playing of Bruno is truly a tour de force, because of the complex fusions, and not merely doublings, that he generates. He is a dastardly villain, and his murder of Miriam is utterly horrifying ("she felt no pain," he tells Guy consolingly), and yet we find ourselves not only entertained by him but identifying with him and to a certain extent sympathizing with him. A number of critics have emphasized this complexity. What it yields, in turn, is moral complexity, in the sense that Bruno emerges as a tragic figure who evokes divided feelings and therefore a suspension of judgment, easy judgment that is. He is like Hedda Gabler in Ibsen's play in that respect (see my "L'Homme Fatal"). According to Donald Spoto, "it is this detachment from the machinery of punishment that is the means Hitchcock took or better, the hope that he entertained for the re-establishment of order of a higher kind than mere legality. Hitchcock, after all, placed little trust in the unfolding and disbursement of legal justice.... Hitchcock arouses in us a curious kind of magnanimity" ("Love" 172).
A further complication is the bizarre anti-realist plot of Strangers, whose doublings and game-like intricacies are like an extended joke. Pauline Kael calls the movie "Bizarre, malicious comedy" (100). "The conclusion is comic" says Ronald Christ (111). Thomas Leitch convincingly analyzes the movie in terms of "games or amusements run out of control" (158). Lesley Brill's insights are especially illuminating:
Its comic byplay tends toward the grotesque or the dangerously crazy: Bruno breaking a juvenile cowboy's balloon, his mother playing loony hostess to Ann, the police idiotically firing at Guy and killing the merry-go-round operator. Yet ... the movie remains at bottom a comedy, however odd its sense of humor. ... tall-tale exuberance.... Its self-indulgent razzle-dazzle gives us the distance we need to laugh at what we might otherwise find painful or shocking ... One need only suffer through the grinding claustrophobia of the novel . . . to understand with what relative gaiety and relaxation Hitchcock treats the same materials. The director flaunts his manipulativeness unapologetically near the end of the film in the sequence that cross-cuts between Guy's excruciatingly prolonged tennis match and Bruno's journey to plant Guy's incriminating monogrammed lighter at the amusement park. This sequence turns the movie into a sort of melodramatic cliffhanger.... The outrageous contrivances ... assure us that everything will turn out safely for the sympathetic characters. The foolishness, Hitchcock reminds us, is only a movie. (75-76)
But Strangers is much more than "foolishness."
In a famous scene, the dark figure of Bruno is glimpsed by Guy as Guy is explaining to his policeman-shadow that he has decided not to pursue the lucrative professional tennis circuit he will not have to get a job because he is going to go into politics!
Just then he notices Bruno standing, dark against the white marble, in front of the Jefferson Memorial, with its gleaming, massive columns.16
Hitchcock was fascinated, of course, by monumental architecture one thinks of the great scene of Kim Novak against the Golden Gate Bridge in Vertigo
(1958), or the early Blackmail
(1929) with its fabulous British Museum sequence, or the climactic scene of Saboteur
(1942) on the Statue of Liberty, or above all the closing sequence of North by Northwest
(1959) on Mount Rushmore. Typically, these are scenes of death death and survival,
when the bad guy falls and the good guy survives or rescues someone. The monument symbolizes the separation of life from death, and by extension of good from evil. But in Strangers on a Train
, the monumental vision is brief and calm Bruno is seen just standing there, not moving, giving this brief moment tremendous symbolic resonance and power indeed, a monumental quality. For Bruno is like that small, a loser, eccentric and yet a still shadow on the scene of power and authority, a darkness that cannot be erased.
1. Thus, for example, Boze Hadleigh asks, "Why would an ambitious, possibly gay man marry a plain-Jane tramp? The question goes unanswered in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train" (The Lavender Screen: The Gay and Lesbian Films: Their Stars, Makers, Characters, and Critics, New York: Citadel, 1993, 181-2). Vito Russo, author of the influential Celluloid Closet, quotes Arthur Laurents, the screenwriter for Hitchcock's Rope: "The homosexuality between the two men, after all, in Strangers on a Train, isn't in the script, yet it's there'" (The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, New York: Harper, 1981, 94). This is what Laurents reports in his autobiography. Lesley Brill notes that "Guy responds, however grudgingly, to [Bruno's] homosexual adulation" (The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock's Films, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1988, 81). Ellis Hanson insists on "Queerness as the monster who threatens the heteronormative coherence of the narrative in films such as Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train" (Introduction to Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999, 14). Donald Spoto, the Hitchcock biographer, goes even further: "Hitch knew what he was doing in transforming Patricia Highsmith's novel of a lethal gay courtship into a fight to the finish; he has turned it into a love story, with Freudian images strewn like confetti" (The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Boston: Little, Brown, 1983, 168). In an extreme variant on the "standard view," Theodore Price argues that "the story line of the film, as so often in Hitchcock's work, is about a passive homosexual trying to extricate himself from the gay world, desiring to ‘go straight' and having difficulty doing so" (Hitchcock and Homosexuality: His 50-Year Obsession with Jack the Ripper and the Superbitch Prostitute: A Psychoanalytic View, Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1992, 356). There was a "standard view" before the current one; this earlier standard view was that "subversive, destructive desires exist in all of us, waiting for a momentary relaxing of our vigilance" this is how the influential Robin Wood puts it: this "underlying assumption of the film ... becomes explicit" at the party where Bruno says everyone wants to murder someone sometime, and pushes what seems to be a party joke to an actual, murderous assault (Hitchcock's Films Revisited, New York: Columbia University Press, rev. ed., 2002, 93).
2. The now dominant variant on the standard view is what might be called the "Fifties Cold War" view, of which a forceful exposition is Robert J. Corber's In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the Political Construction of Gender in Postwar America (Durham, NC, and London: Duke UP, 1993). Here cold war anxieties about communism, homosexuality, and keeping women in the home are fused with Lacanian psychoanalysis. For a partial critique of the "Fifties Cold War" view, see Thomas M. Leitch, "It's the Cold War, Stupid! An Obvious History of the Political Hitchcock," Literature / Film Quarterly 27.1 (1999): 3-13. Bueka is particularly good at illuminating the sociocultural backdrop of the period ("Imagining the Postwar Small Town: Gender and the Politics of Landscape in It's a Wonderful Life," Journal of Film and Video 51.3-4, Fall/Winter 1999-2000: 36-47). I have not found most of the reigning critical theories (e.g., Laura Mulvey) of much help in getting at the inner logic of this film. The analysis that follows in this essay draws on the theory worked out in my Male Envy: The Logic of Malice in Literature and Culture (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 1999).
3. Corber even notes that "'merry-go-round' was used in the 1950s to refer to the gay subculture" (239n24). Compare Harry M. Benshoff's analysis of "U.S. culture's relative comfort with violence compared to sexuality" (179).
4. Though one might cite perhaps the scene on the mountain in The Secret Agent (1936) where Peter Lorre murders the innocent Englishman.
5. As I argue elsewhere, "Walker's portrayal is so striking, so fascinating to watch, that it cleverly distracts attention from the real framework of the film, which is male hostility and aggressive ambition," the assumption "that all male-male relations are hostile, and anything that deviates from that hostility is suspect homosexuality most obviously but any noncompetitive, nonhostile feeling between men" ("Raymond Chandler and Strangers on a Train." PMLA, 2002: 1448-1449).
6. In his great collection of interviews with Hitchcock, Truffaut described Guy as "an opportunistic playboy" (Hitchcock: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by François Truffaut, New York: Simon, rev. ed. 1983, 199): Hitchcock agreed with Truffaut's description. Their discussion of Strangers repays study.
7. Edward Albee, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (New York: Pocket, 1964), 194. It is significant that Honey, the woman the junior professor (Nick) is already married to, comes from a wealthy background. Clearly, Nick has the same climbing imperative that Guy has in Strangers on a Train. In fact, this motivation is very common in American literature, though repressed and ignored (see Male Envy, chs. 1 and 4).
8. See Steven Cohan on the importance of male display in movies in the ‘50s "The spectacle of masculinity," the "performance of virility" ("Masquerading as the American Male in the Fifties: Picnic, William Holden and the Spectacle of Masculinity in Hollywood Film," Camera Obscura 25/26, Jan-May 1991, 68), as he calls it: more simply, the need for showing off.
9. "Farley Granger was having an affair with [screenwriter Arthur] Laurents at the time" of making Rope (David Ehrenstein, Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-1988, New York: Morrow, 1998, 87). Vito Russo cites Arthur Laurents: "But the director seldom commented on such aspects of his work [as depicting covert homosexual relationships]. ‘We never discussed, Hitch and I, whether the characters in Rope were homosexuals,' Laurents says, ‘but I thought it was apparent ... I guess he did, too, but. ... if you asked Hitchcock, he'd tell you it isn't there, knowing perfectly well that it is. He was interested in perverse sexuality of any kind, and he used it for dramatic tension [my emphasis]. But being a strong Catholic, he probably thought it was wrong. The homosexuality between the two men, after all, in Strangers on a Train, isn't in the script, yet it's there. Farley Granger told me once that it was Robert Walker's idea to play Bruno Anthony as a homosexual.'" Hence "Walker's choice was particularly exciting in terms of the plot. The tension it created between his malignantly fey Bruno and Granger's golly gee tennis player, Guy Haines, heightened the bizarre nature of the pact" (Russo, 94). I emphasize the point that Hitchcock's primary interest was in creating dramatic tension. He was a story-teller first and foremost.
10. On the figure of the ineffectual lover (also "power male") see Male Envy, passim; also my "Female Emancipation in Romantic Narrative," Women's Studies 18.2-3, 1990: 309-29. Cyndy Hendershot observes: "Sam seems to stand for the very taboo she [Marion] violates.... In Robert Bloch's novel, on which the film is based, Sam's lack of emotional involvement with Marion is made even more clear" ("The Bad Seed, The Fly, and Psycho," Journal of Popular Film and Television 29.1, Spring 2001, 28).
11. The prominence of the sister in Psycho emphasizes the fact that the movie is a re-creation of one of the most famous folk-tales, Bluebeard. The "realism" of this movie is like that of Strangers on a Train: a screen for a plot construction inherited from myth and folklore.
12. See Elliott Leyton, Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Multiple Murderer (Toronto: McClelland, 1987) and Male Envy Chapter 4, "Holy Murder."
13. Hitchcock made an elaborate lens for the glasses sequence of the murder; see Spoto, The Dark Side, 330-331.
14. Ronald Christ details all the criss-cross parallels between Guy and Bruno and suggestively refers to All about Eve ("Strangers on a Train: The Pattern of an Encounter" in Albert J., LaValley, ed., Focus on Hitchcock, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1972, 110).
15. Susan Smith comments: "The memorable sequence where Bruno drops the lighter down a drain on his way back to the murder site: in drawing us into his frantic attempts to retrieve this lost object, the film in turn implicates us in the villain's ultimate goal of using it to incriminate Guy" ("The Spatial World of Hitchcock's Films: The Point of View Shoot, the Camera, and ‘Intrarealism'," Cineaction 50 (Sept 1999), 13).
16. Cf. Lesley Brill: "The imposing, insistent background image of Washington's public edifices underscores Guy's rather distant, austere mien. Like the buildings, he has notable stature and solidity but little warmth" (Ibid., 74-75).
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