Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films are about subconscious desires. Frequently, there is a tension between a character’s subconscious desires and their conscious behavior. This is the case with Hitchcock’s 1951 film Strangers on a Train. It is one of the most interesting displays of subconscious desires because it takes the form of homosexuality, which is frequently depicted in Hitchcock’s films and is laced with murderous intent.
Hitchcock’s films often associate homosexuality with violence and crime. Homosexual characters, such as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, Brandon and Phillip in Rope, and Bruno in Strangers on a Train, are usually antagonistic. In both Strangers on Train and Rope, Goldberg notes, “the enunciation of a Nietzschean perspective is the credo of those who break with social convention; sexual nonconformists are in the forefront of this elite” (Goldberg 40). It is evident that Hitchcock found the relationship between sexuality and antisocial behavior to be compelling. This does not reflect Hitchcock’s own prejudices. The director collaborated with various gay writers, actors, and actresses throughout his career. For example, Farley Granger, who plays Guy in Strangers on a Train, was a homosexual.
Strangers on a Train is full of homosexual overtones beginning with its opening shots of a train. Hitchcock frequently used trains as vehicles for love. The most jarring example is the final shot in North By Northwest (1959). After Roger (Cary Grant) and Eve (Eva Marie Saint) have embraced each other on the train, the vehicle is shown penetrating an open tunnel. In the opening sequence of Strangers on a Train, a point of view shot shows that the train is traveling on a straight, linear path until it diverts to a nonlinear, curved course. The railway tracks, a literal manifestation of Bruno’s infamous line, “criss-cross”, foreshadow the disruption of Bruno into Guy’s life. The train is no longer traveling on a straight path and suggests that this particular Hitchcock train deviates from the sexual norm.
Bruno is Guy’s alter ego, or a darker version of himself. The film suggests that everyone has the potential to murder someone just as everyone has the potential to be homosexual. Guy subconsciously wants to kill his promiscuous wife, Miriam. When Miriam says that she will not go through with a divorce, Guy uses physical force before another man stops him. When Guy is speaking to his girlfriend, Anne, he tells her that he could strangle his wife. The theme of the potential murderer surfaces again when Bruno talks to some women at the party about the subject. The difference between Guy and Bruno is that Guy does not act on his subconscious desires. This also extends to Guy’s sexuality. Guy is subconsciously drawn to Bruno. The thematic logic of the film is “the synchronous co-existence and energy of parallel forces that simultaneously repel and attract, as well as affirm and deny, one another” (Dellolio 251-252). Guy is both repelled and attracted to Bruno while figuratively affirming and denying his homosexuality. At the party, Guy punches Bruno but then shows him tenderness by buttoning his shirt and escorting him out of the house. At the end of the climactic merry go round sequence, Guy is concerned that Bruno is being crushed by the carousel wreckage and asks the policeman if they can help Bruno.
The film draws parallels between Guy and Bruno to augment their similitude. When Guy enters Bruno’s home in order to speak to his father, the seemingly vicious dog licks his hand. It is as if the canine recognizes Guy. It is interesting to note that Guy is carrying a gun even though he has no intention of killing Bruno’s father. The gun functions more as a phallic symbol rather than a plot device. The scene in which Guy’s tennis match is cross cut with Bruno attempting to pull the lighter from out of the gutter is another example. The editing decision of cross cutting these two simultaneous events reflects the pair’s parallelism.
Even though Guy lacks Bruno’s flamboyancy, he appears weak and fragile, common gay stereotypes. Guy certainly does not evoke images of masculinity perpetuated by American culture and Hollywood cinema at the time. In the 1950s, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. The Hays Production Code was still in effect and did not allow depiction of homosexuality in films. Consequently, the homoerotic overtones in Strangers on a Train are subtle but most certainly there.
Hitchcock began his film career in the silent era and his films were very much influenced by German Expressionist films from the period. In fact, Hitchcock’s films are built upon expressionistic concepts. Robin Wood writes, “ ‘Expressionism’ evades simple definition, but a central impulse was clearly the attempt to ‘express’ emotional states through a distortion or deformation of objective reality, ‘expression’ taking precedence over representation” (Dellolio 240). In many of Hitchcock’s films, characters’ subconscious fears and desires are manifested and morph their seemingly normal lives into chaos. The film illustrates this thematic motif with chiaroscuro lighting and canted angles that express Guy’s inner turmoil and the chaos that has entered his life.
In conclusion, Strangers on a Train is an allegory about one’s subconscious desires that are both murderous and homosexual. Guy is fearful of these desires while Bruno embraces them. The film’s homoerotic overtones have earned its reputation as a “queer film classic.” Whether consciously or subconsciously, Hitchcock was exploring the deep homosexual desires within men and their repression of these impulses in a society that did not permit sexual nonconformity.
Dellolio, Peter J. “Alfred Hitchcock and Kafka: Expressionist Themes in Strangers on a Train” Digital PDF.
Jonathan Goldberg, Strangers on a Train: A Queer Film Classic, Digital PDF.