This is my second commentary on the classic thriller Strangers on a Train by Alfred Hitchcock.
My first post discussed the opening sequence, comparing the shooting script to the film, and Truffaut's vision of Hitchcock as auteur.
The stronger the bad guy, the better the film
The story begins with the chance meeting of Guy, a quiet but affable tennis star, and Bruno, a smooth-talking rich man, on a train. Bruno reads the "society pages", and knows that Guy would like to marry Ann, a senator’s daughter, but cannot do so until he divorces his unfaithful first wife, Miriam.
In the parlor car Hitchcock introduces what will become the MacGuffin: the lighter that is a gift from Ann. Guy will forget it in Bruno’s compartment. The film’s third act will hinge on Bruno’s plan to plant the lighter at the scene of the crime, and Guy’s attempt to stop him.
Defining the MacGuffin to Truffaut Hitchcock says: "it doesn't matter what it is… The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatever."
After lunch in his private train compartment, Bruno tells Guy that he would like his bossy father to disappear. Bruno then floats his idea for a perfect murder: two complete strangers swap “each other’s murders”, so that there is no apparent motive. Guy laughs it off, and gets off the train in his hometown.
good bad guy
François Truffaut quotes Hitchcock as saying that “the stronger the bad guy, the better the film”. And it’s true that much of the power of Strangers comes from Bruno Antony, superbly played by Robert Walker.
Part of Hitchcock’s mastery lies in his ability to condense information. The director is reported to have said that a good actor could save him 10 pages of the script. This is evident in the first act of Strangers.
The first 4 minutes of dialogue in the club car establish Bruno as a busybody, and Guy’s predicament: needing to divorce his wife to marry his beloved. The next 4 minutes of dialogue in Bruno’s compartment establish his crazy idea of swapping murders, which Guy breezily dismisses by saying “Sure, sure” as he leaves.
Ten minutes into the film, Hitchcock has established the film’s unusual premise; the director then makes his signature on-screen cameo, crossing paths with Guy as he gets off the train. Hitchcock's cameos can be seen as his way of humorously putting his auteur stamp on each of his films.
This speedy first act setup is made possible because Robert Walker plays his role so well. Bruno is a great bad guy, and, ten minutes in, we’re convinced that he’s just crazy enough to go through with his murder swap idea.
Bruno is a distant cousin of Psycho’s Norman Bates, and like him, a mamma’s boy who’s also a murderous psychotic. But Bruno is far more sociable than Norman, he is rich and affable, and is able to mingle with high-society and charm old ladies.
By some conventional story criteria, Bruno is the protagonist of Strangers on a Train, not Guy. It is Bruno's actions that push the plot forward with his dogged determinism, and at times, Hitchcock even makes us identify with Bruno despite ourselves, for example when he struggles to get the MacGufffin, Guy's lighter, out of the sewer drain in the third act.
Truffaut tells Hitchcock that Bruno “is perhaps your best bad guy, because he succeeds in being more touching” than the good guy, adding that the two are really “one character split in two”. This goes to the heart of the movie’s theme, that Guy shares Bruno’s desire to murder, and, in fact, so does the viewer.
Trains are a recurring theme in Hitchcock’s films, prompting one critic to ask: “What is it about Hitchcock and trains?” The simple answer is that trains are cinematic, because they move.
The meeting between Guy and Bruno is a great example of a cinematic train sequence. If the two scenes took place in a bar and apartment, instead of a parlor car and train compartment, the 8 minutes of dialogue might have seemed very theatrical: two people talking on a sound stage. But the train’s moving shadows and passing landscapes make the dialogue scenes come alive.
Hitchcock’s camera angles for the parlor car and compartment are fairly conventional. After the initial parlor car wide shot, Bruno joins Guy at his table, and the scene is then composed of 2-shots and over-the-shoulder singles.
A film frame storyboard of the thirty-some shots in the parlor scene
watch on YouTube
While the compositions are conventional, the lighting is not. Cinematographer Robert Burks, ASC, takes full advantage of the train setting to help define an ominous mood for the train scenes. Burk’s lighting creates a bright day interior, but with strong, animated blacks. The landscapes outside the windows are achieved with rear projection, which we’ll come back to.
In the parlor scene, most of the light is motivated by the interior practicals. Bruno is lit with an interior key and window sidelight, until he sits next to Guy.
When the two men are side by side, Burks positions the outside sun source to backlight Guy, and sidelight Bruno through venetian blinds that create shadows across his face. These sharp dark stripes give Bruno a menacing quality. Guy’s reverse angle is more normal, with the window offering a flattering sidelight. What's striking is the visual complexity of the backgrounds, as if the scene is difficult to decipher.
In the next scene in the train compartment, the two men face each other in front of a large window with rear screen projection, which motivates most of the day interior lighting. The images in this scene are simpler than the previous one.
In this scene Burks had his grips create rapidly moving shadows inside the compartment and notably across Bruno’s face. This rhythmic variegated darkness is a perfect visual indication of the villain’s dark and unstable nature, as he reveals his twin murder proposal.
Hitchcock may have been thinking of this kind of lighting when he told Truffaut that the actor “should be willing to be utilised and wholly integrated into the picture by the director and the camera. He must allow the camera to determine the proper emphasis and the most effective dramatic highlights."
Robert Burks started his career as a special effects cinematographer for Warners, which gave him a mastery of the technical and aesthetic requirements for rear screen projection.
Rear screen projection involves placing a large projection screen in the background of the set, and shooting a foreground with actors and sometimes a set. This involved a cable synchronizing the shutters of the camera and projector to avoid flicker.
Rear Projection as depicted in the 2012 film Hitchcock by Sacha Gervasi, with cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth, ASC
To be successful, rear screen projection required carefully planning the footage to be projected before the shoot. On the set, the cinematographer had to balance the foreground lighting to match the screen, and select the right focal length and camera position to make the effect convincing.
There are two contemporary techniques similar to rear screen projection: Translights and green screens. Translights are like huge photographic slides, often set up outside the windows of a set depicting a static cityscape or landscape. Translights can be backlit or frontlit. Green screens are painted expanses of material or walls, whose surfaces will be replaced with moving images in post-production. One advantage of old-fashioned rear screen is that the final image is created on the set, it's an in-camera effect that can be seen by the entire crew.
Today’s filmmakers usually resort to green screen to depict something that can’t easily be shot, like a medieval castle, distant mountains, cityscape vistas, or alien worlds made with virtual imagery. Hitchcock however used rear screens to avoid location shooting. The director was known to prefer the controlled lighting and sound of stages to the uncertainties of locations.
Several scenes in the Strangers on a Train combine a location wide shot with medium or close shots done with rear screen. While the wide shot sells the location, the closer shots enable the filmmakers to work in a controlled environment.
Cutting from a location wide shot to a closer rear screen shot on the sound stage
When Guy arrives at the train station, Hitchcock starts with a wide location shot, then cuts to a rear projection screen shot when Guy speaks with the baggage handler. An extra passes by behind them to help the illusion.
When Guy visits his wife Miriam in the music shop she works in, the store windows give on to a giant rear projection screen.
In the first shot the rear screen is used to create a reflection on the shop window, as Guy and some extras move in front of the shop set.
In the second shot, the rear screen is seen behind Guy as he looks through the lettering on the shop window.
Once inside, the full rear screen is seen behind the windows in the wide shot of the shop interior. Extras walk in front of the screen to help sell the effect.
Although Hitchcock use of rear screen projection has often been criticized, I feel that the rear screen scenes in Strangers on a Train do not conflict with the look of the film. The artifice is pleasing, slightly diffused, and fits into the imagined world of the master of suspense.
In the next installment, we shall look at Hitchcock's approach to murder scenes.
TCM: Strangers on a Train excerpt: Let's Swap Murders
wikipedia: Alfred Hitchcock
imdb: Robert Burks, ASC
amazon: Strangers on a Train DVD
the.hitchcock.zone: Strangers on a Train (1951)
the.hitchcock.zone: Strangers on a Train - shooting script
the.hitchcock.zone: Hitchcock Truffaut audio files
amazon: Hitchcock Truffaut
thefilmbook: Strangers on a Train 1 - Shoes, Script, Auteurs
thefilmbook: Strangers on a Train 3 - Murder
thefilmbook: Scene in Stills: The Dark Kiss
(commenting a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window)