“Strangers on a Train”-Movie Symbols Can Mean Mini Things
By Joel Gunz
Movie critic Anthony Lane says that “great companions to new movies are old books.” Which is why, upon spotting me at a Regal Cinema, you might see a copy of Proust tucked under my arm. I use it to divert attention away from the 40 ouncer of Colt 45 I’m trying to sneak in. Michener works well for that, too.
By Lane’s algebra, the older the movie is, the older the book should be to go with it. Alfred Hitchcock’s vintage “Strangers on a Train” (1951), I’ve discovered, goes quite well with Bibliotheke, Apollodorus’ 2nd century B.C.E. guide to Greek mythology.
“Strangers on a Train” is about a materially privileged yet morally ordinary joe named, well, Guy (Farley Granger) who encounters his evil doppelganger, the likewise aptly named Bruno (Robert Walker) on a train. The two make a tentative criss-cross pact to trade murders: I’ll do one for you and you do one for me. Bruno’s father was cramping his style, and therefore needed to be put out of the way, and Guy had an ex-girlfriend who had become inconveniently pregnant by another man and was threatening to sabotage his plans to move on with his life and pursue a political career. Since they are otherwise strangers, each man could supply the other with a perfect alibi for murder. Bruno keeps his promise by following Miriam (Kasey Rogers), Guy’s Inconvenient Ex-Girlfriend, into an amusement park and strangling her to death. But when Guy welches out on his end of the deal, Bruno seizes Guy’s personalized cigarette lighter to use as blackmail evidence against him.
And sometimes a Zippo is not just a Zippo.
Guy was the sort of Ivy-League-tennis-star-dating-the-senator’s-hoochie-daughter that everyone loves to hate. And the fascinatingly squeamy Bruno wanted with all of his heart to have what Guy had: physical grace, charm, and the ability to tie his own bow tie for a formal dress party. The cigarette lighter—a gift from Anne (Ruth Roman), Guy’s new fiancée, engraved with his initials and a pair of crossed tennis rackets—speaks of that world of privilege while hinting at the crossed paths of the two men.
Cigarette aficionados point out that Guy’s lighter was made by Ronson, manufacturers of what have been dubbed “the Cadillac of lighters”. This particular Ronson lighter was an “Adonis” model. Enter Apollodorus.
The mythological Adonis was so handsome that a feud arose between Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Persephone, goddess of the underworld, as to who would get custody of the hero. As the ambivalent hero of “Strangers on a Train”, Guy was likewise handsome, athletic, and sophisticated—a modern Adonis. And, similarly, Guy was caught in sort of triangle between the rather-too-good Anne and the very bad Miriam. The attempt on his life by the animalistic Bruno reminds me of the fate of Adonis who was likewise killed by a wild beast. Just a thought. , ,
That’s why Bruno clutched that lighter like a talisman. It was his only tangible connection to Guy. And when Guy spurned him, Bruno used the lighter to frame him for murder. In Bruno’s rush to plant the lighter at the scene of the crime, he lost the thing down a storm drain. But in reality, Bruno had long since dragged Guy down into the sewer with him. When Bruno stretched with all of his being to retrieve the Adonis lighter from the gutter, it was as if, in his weird way, he was trying to seize all that Guy stood for.
To Bruno, Guy was a model of perfection, an unattainable Adonis. The best he could do was to hold a demigod’s tchotchke for a few fateful moments. Come to think of it, Bruno kind of reminds me of Tolkien’s Smeagle, who likewise fixated on a gold trinket. Not that I’ve actually read “Lord of the Rings”. Once, though, I used it to hide a pastrami sandwich I was sneaking into a matinee of “Delicatessen”.
- From “A writer's life: Anthony Lane” at arts.telegraph.co.uk, filed: 14/12/2003.
- For a full plot synopsis—and some very good reading—check out Roger Ebert’s coverage of the movie here: http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/greatmovies/strangersonatrain.html
- It helps to remember that “Strangers on a Train” was a novel written by Patricia Highsmith as a sort of warm-up to her classic “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. If you’ve seen the Matt Damon/Jude Law movie, you’ve seen a bit of “Strangers”.
- The movie abounds with doubling and crossing images: close-ups of merging train rails crossing and uncrossing; an impressionistic portrayal of the murder scene reflected in the dual lenses of a pair of eyeglasses, etc.
- The Greek hero Adonis was so beautiful that each goddess wanted to possess Adonis for themselves. Zeus settled the matter by requiring the hero to spend one third of the year with Aphrodite and one third of the year with Persephone. Adonis got to choose the goddess with whom he would spend the final four months, and he always chose Aphrodite. This arrangement continued until Adonis’ death when he was attacked by a wild boar.
- Don’t hold me too close to the fire on the mythological parallels here. I quit writing recondite essays long ago (right around the time I quit sucking in my gut) and only bring out my former interest in the classics long enough to remind myself of the extent to which I was once an intellectual snot, back in the day. Still, although Hitchcock might have shied away from such arcane symbolism—or not, I wouldn’t put it past him—Highsmith was a very sophisticated writer who might have included just those bits of business in her work.
- Come to think of, though, while Guy was competing in a tennis match, Bruno was racing across town with Guy’s lighter. The resemblance to the Greek Olympic tradition of running with the flame would not have been lost on Hitchcock, who loved visual puns: in keeping with the doubling motifs in the movie, the chubby director made his cameo appearance while carrying a double bass fiddle.
- Oh! One other thing. Just like Adonis, who reluctantly spent four months of the year in Hades, Guy likewise was pulled into Bruno’s evil vortex against his will. At one point in the film, he complained that Bruno has ‘got him acting like a criminal’.
Once upon a time, Joel Gunz wanted to look smart—so he made it his goal to read the entire Western Lit canon, with Harold Bloom as his guide. He put the books down when he discovered that the right eyewear can serve the same purpose.