A few days ago I described the ostensible subject of P5+1 talks, the Iranian nuclear program, as a mere "Hitchcockian McGuffin", the McGuffin being Alfred Hitchcock's preferred term for the pretext that launches the caper - in an early film like The Lady Vanishes, it's a coded message hidden in an Eastern European folk tune; in a later one like North By Northwest, it's microfilm. But either way nobody cares about it very much. I'm fond of the term, so it occurred to me it might be fun to have a Hitchcock pic for our Saturday movie date. But then I remembered that one of my very favorite of his films is McGuffin-free - or perhaps, to look at it another way, it's the ultimate McGuffin, a silly fancy in a careless conversation that one party gives no further thought to and the other starts enacting, painstakingly and remorselessly:
In her first novel, Patricia Highsmith wrote:
But love and hate, he thought now, good and evil, lived side by side in the human heart, and not merely in differing proportions in one man and the next, but all good and all evil. One had merely to look for a little of either to find it all, and one had merely to scratch the surface. All things had opposites close by, every decision a reason against it, every animal an animal that destroys it... Nothing could be without its opposite that was bound up with it. . . There was that duality permeating nature ... Two people in each person. There's also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.
At the time, Miss Highsmith had never met Alfred Hitchcock. Even when she sold the film rights, she had no idea until afterwards that it was Hitch who'd bought them - for a paltry $7,500. But she managed nonetheless to articulate the abiding theme of his oeuvre. In Strangers On A Train (1951), opposites attract to fatal effect, when an accomplished young tennis player and an alcoholic psychotic playboy meet in the club car and wind up jokingly discussing a scheme in which each commits murder for the other. In this film, opposites are always close by: on the one hand, the broad daylight and open spaces of the tennis court, where Guy Haines basks in the acclaim of the crowd; on the other, the dark shadows and sudden brutalities of the fairground, where his tawdry and faithless wife meets her brutal end. But you could say the same of Psycho and what Hitchcock called the film's "basic geometry" â€” the bisecting horizontals and verticals established by the construction crane on the Phoenix skyline, and carried through from the prone Janet Leigh and upright John Gavin in the opening bedroom scene to the horizontal Bates Motel and the vertical Victorian house looming above it. And Hitchcock himself understood all too well the idea of "two people in each person".
"He could be two different men," said Tippi Hedren, his leading lady in The Birds. "He was a meticulous and sensitive director who gave so much to each scene and who got so much emotion into it â€” and he was a man who would do anything to get a reaction from me." He was an intelligent, sensitive film-maker of great psychological insights, but what be really liked to do was make crude, scatalogical cracks to his leading ladies just before the camera rolled. He was one of Hollywood's few true artists, but he did such a superb job of playing a vaudeville turn that his cast didn't always realize.
Strangers On A Train is the film in which Hitchcock's fascination with duality - with doubles and double-crossing and crossing one's double - is most fruitfully explored. But it benefits from especially expert casting. Originally, William Holden was scheduled for the role of Guy Haines, but he turned it down and, as Hitch subsequently explained, he would have been all wrong. There is undoubtedly a homoerotic frisson to the weird relationship between Guy and the dissolute Bruno and the latter's concoction of a double-murder scheme to bind them together. Robert Walker's Bruno is the performance you remember - lurid, simpering, creepy, insinuating. But Farley Granger's rendering of Guy as bland, passive and insipid is absolutely critical to the balance of the film. An actor as strong as Holden would have ruined the focus and the symmetry. Hitchcock understood better than most directors then or now that few films can recover from casting. (Off-screen, Granger was anything but bland and insipid: He was the lover of, among others, Ava Gardner, Shelley Winters and both the librettist and composer of West Side Story, Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein.)
Sixty years after Strangers On A Train, Hitchcock's position seems more assured than ever. Even the unique if eccentric tribute of Gus van Sant's shot-for-shot 1998 remake of Psycho had been prefigured by the 1980s remakes of 1950s episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock TV series: they junked the old squaresville black-and-white actors, and re-shot them with hip full-color casts, replacing everybody except Hitchcock, whose arch 30-year old intros were left as is. Yet Strangers remains one of his most satisfying works, one in which he sets up a contrast not between good and evil but between evil and weakness - which is usually the choice on offer, as we should surely know after this grim week. So Bruno is evil and Guy is weakness, and the visual style reinforces the theme: When we first meet them on the train, the director introduces us to his principals via their shoes - the first pair entirely ordinary; the second, flashy two-tone brogues. No prudent person would get mixed up with a chap in that footwear: Had Guy Haines only known that, he would have avoided a whole heap of trouble, and there would have been no story.
One of the many enjoyable aspects of Strangers is the way even Hitchcock's tics and conventions are all working in support of the over-arching theme - including his trademark cameo at the start of the story. In Strangers On A Train, the director appears on screen ten minutes in, boarding said train with a unwieldy double-bass. That's both a droll visual jest, and a good example of his attention to detail: in a film about doubles, even Hitchcock must have a double.