Loser's Guide to Life
|... Bruno's world is unknowable and horrifying.|
What strikes me most about Strangers on a Train is the clash of wills, and I think this is the characteristic thing abut Hitchcock's movies, which is often misidentified as suspense. In fact the suspense is merely something that derives from what we know to be the will of the protagonist and its fateful clash with some other's unknown will, or with uncontrollable events.
Hitchcock talked about an early movie of his, in which a time bomb is shown to be hidden in a parcel on a crowded bus. One of the passengers is a small boy. The excitement was to be the viewer's fretting about whether the innocents aboard the bus would be blown up. We see the parcel, we see the passengers. Thenand Hitchcock regarded this as his big mistakethe bomb went off! It was a mistake because the thing that looked about to happen went ahead and happened, so the principle effect is dread followed by shock, but that means that there was no real conflict. Something bad was very likely to happen. It did, predictably. For suspense, however, there has to be a mystery: what will happen? What on earth is going to happen? And why is this happening? To me, of all people? The mystery is what makes for suspense, as in The Birds, where there seems to be no explanation at all, neither for the attacks nor for the periods of calm. We know the main characters want to not get pecked to death, but what on earth do these birds want?
And so in Strangers Farley Granger meets a man with bizarre theories about the perfect murder: if the person who carried out the murder were a complete stranger to the victim, it would be a seemingly motiveless crime and very difficult to understand. Naturally two people could agree to murder each other's victim and, if they were careful to remain strangers in every other way, their crime would be a mystery. This man, Bruno (played by Robert Walker), is almost saying that there would be no crime, in the sense that to outsiders it would only be two motiveless, inexplicable killings.
Of course the hero dismisses all this as so much talk, but soon he finds that Bruno has gone ahead with his part of their non-existant deal. Here again it is a conflict of will. The hero would like his ex-wife to go away, but he can't begin to conceive of someone actually committing a murder. Bruno, for his part, can't see what objection there could be. Not to commit the murders would be just plain silly, when it can be done so easily and they stand to gain so much.
The word "strangers" also means that the two live in different worlds, and Bruno's world is unknowable and horrifying. In the opening of the movie we see only the feet of the two men. Why is that? I think it shows what people can know of each other when they meet. They see only a part of them. When you watch the opening you become curious: who are these people? How come I can only see their shoes? What's the rest of them like? If I could see their faces, I would have some idea of who they are.
Faugh! In life everything you know of another person amounts to little more than what kind of shoes they wear.