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The Surrealism of Strangers on a Train
It started with a conversation. Two men, perfect strangers, meet on a train. Their acquaintance begins with a polite exchange of words and results in homicide. All because one suggested they had the means of doing what nobody else had thought before: he had the recipe to orchestrate the perfect murder.
Strangers on a Train (1951) is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films, a combination of psychological noir and thriller that can also, in my perspective, gain the accolade of one (if not the) most traditionally Surrealist of his movies. While the consensus is that Spellbound (1945), with its gigantic eyeballs, giant scissors, and a three-minute dream sequence filmed in collaboration with Salvador Dalí has gained the reputation of Hitchcock’s foray into Surrealism, Strangers on a Train harnesses the movement’s key themes and presents them in a less obvious, more nuanced way. The film shares more of the motifs we associate with the art movement: hands as catalysts for pleasure and pain, carnal desire, Freudian symbolism, repetition of specific motifs (or body parts), and occasional bursts of absurdist dark humour.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s book of the same name and co-adapted by the novelist Raymond Chandler, Strangers on a Train is the story of two passengers, tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and psychopath Bruno Antony (Robert Walker, clearly relishing his role), who meet on a train and forge a plan to ‘swap murders.’ Well, it’s more of a one-sided arrangement: Bruno offers to murder Guy’s wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers), so he can marry his girlfriend, Anne (Ruth Roman). Guy, meanwhile, will dispose of the father Bruno despises. With no line of connection between the two men, Bruno is smug by the obviousness of the formula. After all, what could connect these two men, these perfect strangers?
Connections are often, and unfortunately, forged in the most careless ways. Sensing Bruno’s unhinged character and feeling uneasy about this proposed arrangement, Guy escapes off the train in haste. Due to his speedy exit, he forgets the most incriminating evidence possible: his personally engraved lighter. Bruno spots and pockets the trinket and sets about putting his flawless modus operandi into action.
Aside from being a deliciously dark and humorous noir-tinged thrilled with some wicked one-liners, especially from Walker, Strangers on a Train is rich in Surrealist symbolism. Bruno is a madman, and the Surrealists were fascinated by madness. As I wrote in my thesis
Madness, for the Surrealists, enhanced an individual’s status rather than suppressing it, both freeing and purifying the mind, and exhibiting the true mental state of an individual. However, the practical and moral implications of madness differed radically between the sexes: the madwoman was incarcerated while the madman achieved freedom from his mind’s limitations.
As is the way in traditional, male-written orthodox Surrealism, female madness — such as the one displayed by the eponymous character Nadja (1928) in André Breton’s famous Surrealist novel — results in the woman's institutionalism, while male displays of madness are acts of heroism to free themselves from the mind’s limitations and the trappings of social convention. In Strangers on a Train, Bruno is the perfect embodiment of madness as defined by patriarchal Surrealist themes.
Then there is the focus on hands and Bruno’s fascination with strangulation. Hands are a prescient symbol of fetish; they have the potential to produce both pleasure and pain in intense forms. A significant amount of Surrealist art, including the photography of Lee Miller and Man Ray, centres on hands. While hands tend to be eroticised, we can still read into their double meaning: as symbols of pleasure and pain. As Bruno says in their first conversation, “I have the perfect weapon right here: these two hands.”
In the famous Surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou (1938), Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s renowned collaboration, ants crawl out of the palm of a hand. Dalí was fascinated by hands, and while this scene may invoke the feeling of repulsion and disgust in some, the literal translation of ‘ants in the hands’ means to feel horny. As David Short noted in his book, Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction, the literal translation of the ants scene ‘illustrates the French phrase for pins and needles – “avoir des fourmis (dans la main),” which doubles for “feeling randy”’. It's worth noting that Dalí had an even more extreme scene for their second collaboration, L’Age d’Or. He originally proposed a scene based on one of his old sketches, where the man would erotically kiss the tips of the woman’s fingers before sadistically ripping out her nails with his teeth’. As Short details, ‘Dalí believed that ‘this element of horror’ would be ‘“much stronger than the severed eye in Un Chien Andalou”.
All of this plays into Strangers on a Train’s pivotal murder scene. Tracking Miriam to the fairground, Bruno waits until she has exited the Tunnel of Love and puts his hands around her throat. She appears intrigued at first, hinting and alluding to those who seek pleasure from the strangulation fetish autoerotic asphyxiation. There is also another allusion to Un Chien Andalou through the focus on Miriam’s glasses on the ground, and the focus on her eyes as Bruno’s hands close around her throat. It refers to the notorious sliced eyeball moment at the beginning of Un Chien Andalou and how this symbolised the suspension of what you see. In Strangers on a Train, the shot of the glasses is reminiscent of the Man Ray photographs he captured in his Vine Street, Hollywood studio, where he lived during the 1940s, and how he captured images reflected in cylindrical objects.
I must mention the likeness between Kasey Rogers as Miriam and Patricia Hitchcock as Barbara Morton, Anne’s sister. It reminds me of Rene Magritte's interest in repetition and his paintings featuring duplicates, or doppelgängers. In his essay ‘The Uncanny,’ Sigmund Freud spoke of the disorientation and unease that emerges when something is both familiar and unfamiliar. He wrote, 'the quality of uncanniness can only come from the circumstance of the ‘double’ being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage, long since left behind, and one, no doubt, in which it wore a more friendly aspect. The ‘double’ has become a vision of terror”.
Yet Strangers on a Train’s implied Surrealist associations occur even before things take a darker twist. The first time we ‘meet’ Bruno, he wears a tie with a lobster motif. In 1937 the Surrealist couturier Elsa Schiaparelli designed her infamous Lobster Dress in collaboration with Dalí, who painted the giant lobster on the design. The following year Dalí presented his infamous Lobster Phone. Connecting two objects not usually associated with each other yields playful and sometimes menacing results. Dalí also believed that the conjunction could reveal secret desires of the unconscious. Perfect attire for a secret murderer.
Strangers on a Train doesn’t rely on a specific emphasised and sign-posted scene like Spellbound, or the named collaboration of an artist, but instead scatters the moments of Surrealism throughout the film. Surrealism may be rooted in dreams and the unconscious, but the actions of the film and the symbols and themes on display make Strangers On a Train Hitchcock’s truly Surrealist piece of art.
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