In Dial M for Murder, a man attempts to strangle a woman with a scarf, which is replaced with her scarf. In Psycho, the most famous murder takes place while a woman is showering. In Rope, the very sexuality of the protagonists ties into the act of killing. Alfred Hitchcock is no stranger to sex and its connection to acts of violence. These visceral, base instincts are undercurrents throughout the Master’s oeuvre, and are powerfully at play in one of his best, Strangers on a Train.
The weakest and strongest parts of the film are in acting. Farley Granger gives a timid, unsure performance as protagonist Guy Haines, and his leading lady, Ruth Roman as Anne Morton, shows little passion in the characters’ relationship. The two add little to the film as actors, and are overshadowed by the devilishly charming Robert Walker as the heavy, Bruno. The man has a delicate charm that is doled out with a precise bite.
In the first murder of the film, Bruno turns on the charm as a way of luring Miriam, Guy’s wife, into his way. He sits outside her home, watching, waiting. When he gets to the carnival she is heading towards with her two boy-toys, he follows behind her, stalking. She glances back and notices him. They share a glance. She seductively eats an ice cream cone. He watches. There is a gleam of interest in her eyes. Miriam and her men head to a high striker game. The two men swing but cannot ring the bell; Bruno does so effortlessly. Miriam is intrigued. On the carousel, they sing a song about an ecstatic waltz. Miriam’s eyes are glued to Bruno, as he leans forward over his horse. When the three get on a boat for the Tunnel of Love with Bruno behind, fooling around in the tunnel has Miriam screaming like she is being murdered. After seven minutes of foreplay, Hitchcock has Bruno consummate the murder, with his hands around Miriam’s neck.
The scene offers the chance to feel extended suspense, with the knowledge that Bruno intends to kill her. It shows the charms of the character and of Robert Walker himself, while hinting to malice through his cigarette popping a balloon. What stands out most in this scene is the seductive art of murder in Hitchcock’s film. Like in a relationship, Bruno watches, woos, serenades, secludes, and embraces the woman he is after. Hitchcock visually ties this murder to sex with a near identical shot in the choking of Miriam and a kiss later between Guy and Anne Morton, with the back of each man’s head filling the screen in similar manners.
Every moment of the murder is charged with a sexual energy. Chased by men, giggling, and flush with excitement, Miriam comes upon Bruno. He lights a cigarette lighter, the action having sensual connotations in cinema since days of yore. Miriam is framed in close-up. She dominates the screen and creates an intimacy between her and the viewer, who is filling in for Bruno as the point of view in this shot. He asks if she is Miriam, she says “yes,” and becomes intrigued, at which point he moves forward with his plan. It is no accident that strangulation is the method of murder. True, it is quiet and leaves no murder instrument, but it is also the form of murder wherein the victim’s life can be felt leaving the body. Choking can be a form of intimacy or of violence, and Hitchcock makes it both.
Once Bruno is done pursuing Miriam, he begins an even longer chase – after Guy. An oft-noted element of Strangers on a Train, much like in Rope with Farley Granger as well, is the homo-erotic subtext between the two male leads. There is clearly an effeminate nature to Bruno, with his prim bathrobe, fine-trimmed fingernails, and soft-tinged manner of speech. In a 1951 film, the language of the cinema dictated that he was amongst the ranks of The Maltese Falcon’s Joel Cairo or The Third Man’s Baron Kurtz. In his pursuit of Guy, there is the possibility of carnal intentions equal to the possibility with Miriam.
There are eight separate instances after Bruno’s telling of the murder to Guy where the former pursues the latter, trying to get Guy to agree to his end of the bargain. Bruno calls, stands ominously in the distance, writes a letter, approaches in person, and sits in the tennis stands in one of the great menacing shots of all time. He joins Guy through social connections and attends the same party Guy attends at Senator Morton’s house. Instead of the following of a person for one night, this is a pursuit verging on obsessive. It brings to mind Barbara Morton’s line, “I still think it’d be wonderful to have a man love you so much he’d kill for you.” Bruno is the one killing for Guy, a man he knows everything about, who he has studied meticulously.
When Bruno finally gets Guy into his house, supposedly for the latter to murder the father of the former, Guy decides that he will reveal Bruno’s plot to his father. After Hitchcock’s suspense diversion with a dog at the top of the stairs, the surprise revelation is of Bruno lounging seductively in the bed instead. Bruno, repeatedly referred to as a psychopath, is implored by Guy to go get help, and in an era where homosexuality was something associated with mental deformities, it is not hard to see a link between these two elements. Guy, the aspiring politician, must stay away from scandal, from the unexpected, from that which is different.
Bruno’s relationship towards Guy is one seeking attention and favor from the beginning. He starts the conversation with Guy, he invites him to lunch, offers his opinions. After telling Guy about his perfect murder scheme, he asks repeatedly whether Guy thinks that it’s a sound idea. Bruno claims that he is helping Guy to be with Anne Morton through his actions, but with the passionless performance by Ruth Roman, it is a lot easier to see the end of Guy’s marriage as Bruno’s avenue towards being with him.
The thrilling finale to the film comes in the way of a carousel run amok. The symbol of seduction becomes one of terror, as it speeds, with Bruno and Guy battling, holding onto the galloping horses to stay steady. The carnival becomes a madhouse and Guy leaves his prim and proper society for an entrance into Bruno’s world. Bruno has conquered this carnival, with his feats of strength, his cruelty of destroying a child’s innocence in the form of a balloon, and the murder which has made this park infamous. The abominations Guy must imagine to be in Bruno’s mind are brought to life in the deranged climactic ride the two take together.
n one extended shot, Bruno straddles Guy, trying to choke him, hold him down. The two spin in a cacophony of fear, screams, violence, and horses bobbing up and down, expressions frozen. When the buildup finally reaches a crash, Bruno and Guy are left sweaty and panting, the former speaking weakly and softly. When Bruno dies, the only words Guy can speak of him are in admiration. He explains that the mysterious man was “Bruno…Bruno Antony. A very clever fellow.”
The death of Bruno comes after an allegorical sequence of intimacy, inasmuch as it is a harrowing nightmare. Guy returns to his normal life, with a cutesy moment at the end, but he leaves behind the excitement of his relationship with Bruno. True, he did not want to be pursued, but while Bruno was following him, he lived a life that went beyond the plain bore of societal life. There’s something intriguing about murder, about these taboo ideas. It’s part of what makes Bruno so exciting. It’s part of why Hitchcock preferred the villain. Maybe Guy preferred him too, and that’s what really scared him.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.