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Columbia Daily Spectator (11/Mar/1971) - Digging Hitchcock




Digging Hitchcock

The battle is over, a Dickens scholar proclaimed recently. After years of struggle on the part of a few dedicated Dickens fanatics, many critics now accept the judgment that Dickens was the second-greatest writer in the English language — right up there behind Shakespeare. Resistance was vehement and protracted: how could a writer who was so popular, in the years since his death as well as in his own lifetime, be so great? Talk about Erich Segal — when Pickwick Papers was appearing in monthly installments in the 1830's, Britons by the millions bought Pickwick souvenirs, read plagiarized versions, saw plays that purported to give the ending of the work before it was even finished. If the book had been written today, Elliott Gould would have been signed to play Sam Weller in the movie version.

Dickens was so popular in his lifetime that he was bound to suffer a critical eclipse afterwards — one which lasted pretty much until today. It took these enlightened times to revive his reputation, since today we all know that mass popularity and great art aren't' necessarily mutually exclusive, right? I thought we all knew that — until I opened the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago and saw John Simon's hatchet-job on Andrew Sarris. Simon used a reverse on the old ad hominem argument: instead of attempting to prove that Sarris' theories are wrong because Sarris is an idiot, he wanted to show that Sarris is an idiot because his theories are wrong. So he devoted a large amount of space to tearing apart the auteur theory. And he attacked what is probably that theory's most important achievement — the rescuing of countless great American films from critical oblivion. Simon said that there are barely a handful of good American movies, and he termed some of the best American directors — Hawks, Ford and Hitchcock — mere "technicians." Of course, the only conclusion one can draw from this is that Simon watches movies with his eyes closed. But what if Simon's attitude is the harbinger of the "newest trend" (as Time Magazine might say)? Prejudices against art that also happens to be great entertainment are invidious: as the case of Dickens shows, these prejudices often blind us to things of real value. It took a long time for the genre films of Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock to gain the attention they deserve. Now that they have it, is a (God forbid) "Bring Back Bergman" movement in the offing?

I've been meaning to write about Hitchcock for a long time, but it just never seemed appropriate. For a while, Hitchcock was the American artist whose situation with respect to the critics was closest to Dickens'. His films were immensely popular and, for that reason, none of the culturati took them seriously. He was just an entertainer and a technician, turning out competent suspense films. But the Cahiers critics in France latched onto him in the early Fifties, and since then his reputation has been on the rise. So what need to write an appreciation of Hitchcock when we have Truffaut's book (an interview with Hitchcock) and Robin Wood's book (critical essays on several of his films) right in front of us? Apparently, though, some of us haven't been paying much attention — John Simon, for one. Evidently the battle hasn't been won yet, at least not fully, and if rearguard actions still have to be fought — well, someone might as well do it.

So let's start out by saying that Hitchcock is not, and has never been, merely a "technician." This charge is presumably just a more sophisticated way of saying that Hitchcock is too popular to be any good: he dazzles the masses with his "technique," but we sophisticates know that there's no content behind it. Truffaut, for one, has suggested that much of the meaning of a suspense film (and particularly of a Hitchcock suspense film) lies precisely in the technique, but that probably isn't enough to satisfy the John Simons of this world. For them we must prove that Hitchcock's films are more than "just" suspense flicks. Of course, that isn't true — Hitchcock's best films always remain primarily suspense flicks, even when they deal with some of the most important and fundamental questions of human existence. The two strands — say, suspense and seriousness — are inseparable. But it takes a lot more effort to show that Hitchcock's films are "serious" than that they're suspenseful, so separate we must. Just remember: much of what follows is a lie.

I want to talk about Strangers on a Train, because that's what I began with. I saw it for the first time last spring, and came out of it shaken, awe-struck, brain cells flashing like a strobe light. The impact of the film just as a suspense film was overpowering; but, more than that, in it I saw for the first time just how subtle and complex a Hitchcock movie can be. The story is relatively simple: Bruno Anthony (played by Robert Walker) and Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meet by accident on a train, and Bruno tells Guy of a plan he has concocted in which murders would be traded — someone would murder Bruno's father, whom he wants to get rid of, and ' in return Bruno would kill somebody the murderer wants killed. During the train ride, Bruno elicits from Guy the information that he and his wife do not get along, and, on his own, goes ahead and strangles her. Guy, although he didn't agree to Bruno's proposal, now finds himself bound to uphold his end of the bargain by killing Bruno's father. He refuses, and Bruno in revenge attempts to place evidence that would incriminate Guy at the scene, of the murder, while Guy races desperately to stop him.

A simple enough situation, many of whose elements are taken directly from a relatively straightforward suspense novel. There are other characters and complications, all of which add richness to the movie. But even if we leave them aside, and focus only on the two main characters, Bruno and Guy, we can begin to see just how complex the movie is. One of the least-often remarked, and most important, elements in the film is the homosexual nature of their relationship. Critics have pointed to it in passing, and have usually attributed it to Robert Walker's performance: his soft, slightly high-pitched voice and his occasionally fey gestures and body movements give the role a bit of the gay, they say. But what no one, to my knowledge, has mentioned is that the homosexual attraction between the two is a carefully-wrought theme that appears throughout the entire movie — a theme to which Robert Walker's performance is merely one contributing element.

One can just start with the title. "Strangers on a Train" : the name conjures up images of some bitter-sweet love melodrama from the Thirties or Forties. Cary Grant meets Ingrid Bergman when he tips over a salt shaker on her in the dining car of the Orient Express. He is a dashing British spy, she a governess on vacation. They meet, love, part-for he must continue his difficult and dangerous work alone. Sigh. End of story.

One catch, though. Here, the two "strangers" are both men. Not only that: they meet in a way which emphasizes the homosexual attraction between them. The movie opens with parallel shots of two pairs of feet, both walking towards a train. Shots of the two pairs of feet climbing onto the train and walking down the aisle to a table in the dining car are intercut. Evidently the two people are heading towards the same place: they are about to meet. When they ,do meet, we see it by their feet, which touch accidentally under the table. Only after seeing their feet touch are we permitted to see their faces.

The relationship between Bruno and Guy begins with physical contact — a little under-the-table game of footsie, as it were. But the opening is even more complex, for it is Guy's foot which bumps into Bruno's. Now Guy throughout the rest of the picture will seem super-straight: Bruno is evil while he is innocent; Bruno aggressive, Guy passive; Bruno is the more overtly homosexual of the two. Yet at the same time, it is Guy who in some way initiates the relationship. No matter how straight he might seem later, his complicity in everything that occurs cannot be doubted.

Having established the physical attraction between the two at the very beginning, Hitchcock continues to hint at it during several key scenes in the movie. There is, for example, a scene in which Guy, angered at Bruno, punches him and knocks him out, then picks him up and places him almost tenderly on a couch. Equally suggestive is the scene in which Guy, having decided to tell Bruno's father what his kid is up to, sneaks into the Anthony house and up the stairs to Mr. Anthony's bedroom. But when he arrives there he finds in the bed not Mr. Anthony, but Bruno, who had anticipated that Guy would try to inform on him.

These scenes contain only hints of the sub-theme of homosexuality, but there is one brief scene — and, particularly, one shot — whose whole raison d'etre is, I think, to act almost as a sign-post that points the viewer towards the theme. Right before Bruno begins following Miriam, Guy's wife, with the intention of killing her, we see him stopping in a phone-booth and looking up her address in a phone-book. There is a shot of a finger running down the phone-book page and stopping under her name. In the shot, we see the names of two people — Miriam's, with the name of the town she lives in next to it, and the name under hers, with a different town name — "Mariposa" — next to it. "Mariposa" happens to be a Spanish slang term for homosexual, and, in this shot, Bruno's finger is in effect pointing towards a word which gives him away. Were it not for this word, the shot — even the whole scene — would seem superfluous; what need have we to know what Miriam's address is, or even that Bruno found it out by looking in a phone-book? But, shot in this way, even the most straightforward and expository of Hitchcock's scenes gains added significance.

The homosexual attraction between Bruno and Guy is a theme that runs throughout the entire picture, and, appropriately, it reaches its culmination in the climax of the film — the fight between the two on the merry-go-round at the amusement park. The sexual nature of this climax is established by a carefully-prepared visual metaphor — the work of an artist, not a technician. The fight between Bruno and Guy takes place at the same merry-go-round to which Bruno had followed Miriam earlier in the picture. At that time, Hitchcock used the merry-go-round itself to indicate Miriam's sexual desire for Bruno: shot of Miriam riding up and down on a wooden horse and looking back longingly at Bruno, followed by a shot of the wooden horses moving up and down, up and down. There, the motion of the horses suggested, and became a metaphor for, sexual intercourse. The same shot is inserted during the fight between Bruno and Guy, while the two are rolling around and struggling, first one on top, then the other. Not only that: as the fight continues, the merry-go-round moves faster and faster, and the horses pump up and down more rapidly, until finally it careens out of control and explodes off its base in a shower of sparks. The scene that resolves the movie thus also resolves the sexual tension that had existed between Bruno and Guy throughout the film. After the merry-go-round explodes, we see Bruno, partially trapped under it, lolling his head, back languidly. He is dying, of course, but he is also, in a way, satisfied.

I'm beginning to feel like one of those critics who go around picking out vegetation ceremonies in everything they read. But there are reasons I've spent so much time trying to document the homosexual attraction between Bruno and Guy. The working-out of such a theme proves that Hitchcock is not a director concerned only with suspense; instead, he deals with relationships between people, and, in Strangers on a Train, with sexual relationships that few other directors at the time the movie was shot (1951) would have dared to touch. Hitchcock once claimed that he was the first director ever to show heterosexual intercourse on screen, because he ended North by Northwest with a shot of Cary Grant and Eva-Marie Saint lying together in a sleeping compartment on a train, followed by a shot of the train entering a tunnel. By the same token, he could claim to be the first director ever to -show homosexual intercourse as well.

But, more important, I emphasize the homosexual sub-theme in Strangers on a Train because it is part of a general theme that dominates most of his better films, from Blackmail (1929, his first talkie) to Psycho (1960) and beyond. Many Hitchcock films involve an innocent, normal-seeming person who becomes trapped in and caught up by everything that is dark, secret and terrifying in human existence. As one critic has pointed out, Hitchcock is almost the Conrad of film directors. In Strangers on a Train, Bruno represents the "darkness" that suddenly erupts into Guy's ordered life. And part of Bruno's "dark" quality is his perverse sexuality. The repulsion and attraction Guy feels towards him mirror the ambivalence of all "normal" people towards perversity.

So, just a peroration: Hitchcock has been making films for almost 50 years, and during that time he has directed some of the best movies in the brief history of the film. Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, and Psycho are all masterpieces; in the Norman Bates of Psycho, in fact, we find the culmination of all the darkness and perverse sexuality that pervade many of Hitchcock's films. Norman Bates is, quite simply, one of the most convincing and terrifying representations of the hidden side of human life ever created. And the person who created both him and Bruno Anthony is no mere technician. He is an artist, man, a conscious and consummate artist.