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A Zodiac of Films, I: Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train uses the device of the double, or doppelganger, to explore the deepest recesses of man's psyche. It's in Bob Castle's personal "Zodiac" of films.

Beyond the films that I am compelled to watch, there are twelve films that I consider the most important in my life. I call them “the Zodiac,” metaphorically, as they represent parts of my aesthetic and intellectual galaxy.

These particular films have intrigued and engaged me for decades but are not necessarily “the best” I’ve seen. Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), for example, is a shade below three of his superior films: Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960). I hope to give the reader some notion of how my Zodiac Films have worked for me.

Most people come away from Strangers on a Train with the “crisscross” idea for a murder. Meet someone with no connection to you who also needs someone to be killed. Swap the murders. Instant alibis, absence of motives, the police are baffled. This plot device I’ve seen in several television mystery and police shows; my interests are less melodramatic.

I cannot watch Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) without seeing them as parts of the same person. Bruno acts as Guy's shadow, his dark half, a double. From the first scene in the train club car to the last amidst the debris of the merry-go-round, I listen closely to Bruno talking to Guy and hear Bruno courting Guy, desiring to know his other self better, and continually being frustrated by Guy’s obliviousness to him.

Guy: You crazy maniac! Would you please get out of here and leave me alone?

Bruno: But Guy... I like you.

There are many ways to read this doubling. I prefer not to see Bruno as Guy's evil side; neither do I believe that Bruno's character, in itself, is worth caring or worrying about. I understand how his father hatred and doting mother seem to define his psyche. Murdering Guy's wife, Miriam, benefits Guy, whereas there's never a realistic chance that Guy will even try to kill Bruno's father.

In other words, the movie is all about Guy and Guy's desires. Bruno is an instrument; a very willing-if-eccentric extension of Guy's barely repressed desires.

One could read Bruno’s liking Guy as homoerotic, and rightly so, given the way others, like Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll), speak about Bruno as weird, an oddball, or other 1950's code that suggests homosexuality.

Bruno's infatuation with Guy could also be sexual longing. Most telling is a comment from the Senator’s daughter, Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock) to her sister, Anne (Ruth Roman), when there’s a discussion about Guy’s wife being killed and Guy is the prime suspect:

I still think it would be wonderful to have a man love you so much he'd kill for you.

She’s talking about Guy killing for Anne. But taken literally, her comment talks about a "man" who has killed for love. Bruno's the man! He loves Guy.

Yet Bruno himself stresses Guy's social and public standing as a center of interest. Bruno not only follows this tennis star celebrity but wants to aid him in the public sphere. Bruno becomes angry when Guy refuses to acknowledge Bruno's actions for him. Take Bruno's murder of Miriam, the “criss” of his crisscross murder theory. Bruno's dumbfounded to the point of naiveté when Guy denies ever having wanted Miriam dead.

Bruno also represents, in embryonic form, a celebrity stalker. He follows Guy’s exploits in the society columns. He knows a lot about Guy’s life—or thinks he knows it. If you don’t want to see Bruno as Guy’s double or submerged self, perhaps he merely wants to be part of the famous person’s life, if not take it over. When Guy balks at this attention, Bruno as stalker can proceed on one course: destroying Guy’s life.

In the first scene in the private train car on the train when Bruno asks Guy if the murder theory is a good one, Guy answers “Sure, Bruno.” We, the viewers, understand that Guys means Bruno’s a nut. Bruno, however, has already made up his mind to kill Miriam. He isn't asking for Guy's approval; announcing the theory in itself is the approval. Guy does nothing to dissuade his other, less better half, because he's blind to this aspect of himself.

Some people have shared with me their interpretation that Guy had planned to meet Guy. This may be true, but only as far as one’s double can “plan” a meeting.

More important is the timing of the meeting. Guy is experiencing a crisis: a showdown with his wife in Metcalf. The crisis will worsen before the day ends when she tells him that she's pregnant (by someone else). He calls Anne and blurts out that he could kill Miriam. So, yes, Bruno is on the train because he's responding to the crisis too. He has a solution.

No wonder Bruno can’t fathom why Guy—or anyone—wouldn't do what had to be done to remove the impediment to his egoistic bliss.

Bruno represents a discomfiting reminder that Guy's upwardly mobile desires are beyond his social ken. Bruno keeps showing up at respectable places (his family has social standing), sometimes an amiable conversationalist, other times as a public embarrassment. He's clever and witty, especially to people who cannot admit that high society could have such an ignoble vessel spouting out things like:

How do you do, sir? I'd like to talk with you sometime, sir, and tell you about my idea for harnessing the life force. It'll make atomic power look like the horse and buggy. I'm already developing my faculty for seeing _millions_ of miles. And Senator: can you imagine being able to smell a flower—on the planet Mars?

This “stranger” is, indeed, quite strange. Any attempt to rein in Bruno is met with his contempt. His psychological side, an infantile emotional complex—over-mothered and under-fathered—mirrors the type of man Guy was when he was courting Miriam. Bruno wants Guy to destroy his (their) superego. Then the two can live together in psychologically wedded bliss, unrestrained by society’s rules.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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Sean Gallagher November 08, 2012 at 02:45 AM
Very interesting article about a great Hitchock movie. My personal favorite Hitchcock is Rear Window. I have to admit, I never read into Strangers on a Train the way you did. The great thing about watching movies is that there are many intriguing interpretations for them. That's why discussing movies is so much fun. Keep up the truly excellent writing, Mr. Castle.
Ned Bulmash November 08, 2012 at 12:32 PM
I liked "Strangers." But I have to echo the other comment about the interpretations of the film. I do see homoerotic element in this movie though.

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