Subliminal Captivation

Paper by Breanna Mahoney.

There is a great deal that goes into the making of any film. One of the most important priorities is ensuring that the film will succeed in commanding the attention of the audience. This responsibility falls considerably in the hands of the director in that they distinctively manipulate various elements during the filmmaking process that are specifically intended to involve the audience in a certain way. Doing so is unique to each director and Alfred Hitchcock is no exception. Hitchcock once said, “I show how difficult it is and what a messy thing it is to kill a man.” Hitchcock felt that his responsibility to the audience was to provide a radically authentic presentation of a story which is exactly what he did in the 1951 film, Strangers On a Train. Filmed both on set and on location in the U.S., it is a stunning example of Hitchcock’s ingenuity, particularly in the way it abides by of the tenets of Expressionism. A film movement that began in in Europe in the 1920s, German Expressionism relies on mise-en-scene to illustrate the internal, psychological states of the characters. The movement influenced directors like Hitchcock by way of emphasizing the depiction of distorted external properties such as the set designs, lighting techniques, mise-en-scene, and cinematography that mirrored the characters’ internal emotions and drove the plot. The fictional narrative thriller and film noir, Strangers On a Train, famously demonstrates Expressionism’s influence on Hitchcock, most notably apparent in the opening scene. The opening scene is symptomatic of the film’s theme of the duality or double-sidedness of human nature and it astutely sets the stage for the narrative’s suspenseful sequence of events that follow. The scene also testifies to the film’s attention to the mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound in profound and brilliant ways capable of further conveying information and meaning to the audience. The opening scene is particularly significant relative to the rest of the film’s scenes in that it comprises numerous illustrations of the stylistic elements that were so carefully and astonishingly manipulated to effectuate an involvement of the audience that makes the opening scene not only helpful for understanding the film as a whole, but critical.

As the title suggests, the film depicts the seemingly innocuous encounter of two seemingly ordinary men and the bond that forms between them as a result. However, the events that follow are far from ordinary and increasingly, the audience is exposed to deep-seated dual nature of mankind. The first shot of the scene shows a cab pulling into a train station then goes on to show the passenger getting out of the cab with the help of someone to carry their luggage. The next shot is comprised of actions that are virtually the same as the first passenger’s. What follows is the characters’ getting situated onto the train then a conversation begins between them when the character of Bruno Antony recognizes the character of Guy Haines, a reputable tennis star. The actions that occur over the succession of shots in this scene catalyze the narrative then enabling the events of the film to progress as they do. The series of shots that make up this opening scene are steadily presented which gives an impression of pleasantness and relaxedness among both the characters and the fictional world. However, the mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, acting, and sound suggest otherwise. These stylistic elements bespeak of the film’s overall meaning that is supplemented by the narrative and it also alludes to the binary system of human nature. The mise-en-scene is considerably potent in this scene and is markedly indicative of the reliance on German Expressionism. The first pronounced element of mise-en-scene is the costumes. Based on the information that is later learned over the course of the film, it can be deduced that the first character seen getting out of the cab is Bruno, just by simply studying the details of his shoes and pants. The shoes he is wearing are two-toned, shiny, embellished, and, to be frank, rather ostentatious and flamboyant while his pants are noticeably tailored and patterned in stripes. On the other hand, Guy emerges from the cab wearing plain, simple shoes, in correspondingly plain pants that even look slightly too big for him. The extensive features of Bruno and Guy’s wardrobe as presented in these first few shots speaks volumes about their characters. Bruno’s flashy shoes and pants are emblematic of his brash, melodramatic personality whereas Guy’s modest wardrobe are indicative of his ordinary, conservative personality. Such a juxtaposition in the costumes of these two characters acts as the initial signal of the disparity of the psyches of Bruno and Guy. Another element of mise-en-scene that is presented in these shots is the props. As the two characters are coming out of the cabs, someone helps gather their luggage to assist them onto the train. The functionality of the luggage props likewise demonstrate the dissimilarity of the internal natures of Bruno and Guy in that Bruno’s suitcase appears considerably larger than Guy’s, whose suitcase is compact and has two tennis rackets as additional carry-on’s. The suitcases demonstrate the values that the characters hold; for Bruno, what you would typically think of as material items to be packed in a suitcase, he has an abundance of and needs an appropriate suitcase to accommodate for his many things, which ultimately shows that he is greedy. Guy’s small suitcase implies that he is far more humble and the tennis rackets signify that he values something greater than himself.

The mise-en-scene is further attended to through the manipulation of lighting in order to convey additional information about the internal characteristics of Bruno and Guy. Once Bruno and Guy have met and a conversation among the two ensues, Bruno moves to sit next to Guy where a line of shadows from the blinds on the train’s window is cast upon his face. In contrast, the shots during this part of the scene that are focused on Guy’s face are free from shadows and are instead brightly lit, providing instead an entire, unobstructed view of Guy when he is in the shot. An interesting way to interpret this peculiar control of light is by construing the lined shadows on Bruno’s face as the bars of a jail cell. Regarding the shadows in this way compels the audience to “compare the fact that they are cast upon Bruno’s face and not Guy’s, then we can infer very early on that Bruno is a character not to be trusted” (Driscoll 5). The brightness of light and clarity in the shot’s of Guy then suggest the opposite, that he is instead honest and ethical. The distinctive manipulation of lighting and positioning of shadows is telling of the nature of each of these characters, as evidenced by the preceding shots over the course of the film. The contrast in light that is set on the two characters also connects to the film’s theme of exploring the two-sidedness of human nature in that Bruno’s character is manipulated by the light to represent a criminal, which is widely regarded as an enforcer of evil acts in society, whereas controlling the light cast on Guy’s character by having it oppositely unobstructed by shadows means that he represents the goodness of human nature.

In addition to the film’s apparent consideration of mise-en-scene, the cinematography of this opening scene is also very clearly and remarkably emphasized. The first shot is an establishing shot of the entrance to the train station that culminates with the arrival of a cab. The establishing shot familiarizes the audience with the setting but also evokes a sense of anticipation for what’s to come. The following shot is an extreme close up shot depicting the emergence of the cab’s passenger and showing only the legs and shoes of the character which functions to introduce one of the main characters, Bruno, to the audience. The next shot is also an extreme close up that serves the same purpose but this time with a different character, Guy, where the focus on Guy’s legs and shoes provides specific information about his character the director clearly wants the audience to know. The next shots of the scene are alternating tracking shots still only of the legs of Bruno and Guy but showing them walking through the station, interestingly with the shots of one pair of legs toward the left of the screen and the shots of the other pair of legs going toward the right. The differing directions of Bruno and Guy walking in these shots again instill anticipation within the audience by implying the characters are going to meet. The extreme close up shots of the legs and feet of Bruno and Guy cease with the shot of Guy bumping his foot into Bruno’s, which provokes their meeting and allows for the narrative to really begin. The shots that proceed fluctuate between medium shots framing Bruno and Guy as they converse. The way in which these medium shots are framed so as to constitute almost entirely the characters with very little background suggests a level of intimacy of their situation that establishes already a sense of closeness among the characters. The lack of background implies the character’s’ connection to just each other which is symbolic of the events that later occur. The suggested intimacy also implies the connection between the two sides of human nature, good and evil, despite the polarity of the two notions. The idea of the close interaction of good and evil then parallels the narrative of the film and is what fosters the suspense felt by the audience. Overall, these shots work together by introducing the audience to the main characters in a truly unique but brilliant way and assembling the shots to tensely build up to the moment that inaugurates the narrative. They also work separately by compellingly familiarize the audience with the true nature of each character by focusing substantially on the external qualities that epitomize their internal psychological states.

The next stylistic technique that supplements the directors conveyance of meaning and theme through visual properties is the editing. The opening scene, beginning with the establishing shot of the entrance to the station and ending around when Bruno coerces Guy to have lunch with him, illustrates continuity editing. Typical of most continuity edits, the scene begins with an establishing shot depicting the spatial relation of the setting that the subjects eventually enter. The following shots demonstrate parallel editing in which the two actions of Bruno and Guy walking through the station simultaneously at different locations are cut together for several shots of the scene. The next shot in the sequence is a tracking shot that follows the forward movement of a train displaying the tracks it is traveling on. What’s symbolic about this particular shot is the fact that it shows two sets of tracks crossing one another which emphasizes the theme of doubles. The style of editing then changes for the last few shots of the scene which are shot/reverse shots. These consist of medium close up shots that frame both Bruno and Guy during their conversation. The way the series of shots in this scene are edited indicate that they were assembled in this way in order to accentuate and emphasize important elements within the mise-en-scene. The long establishing shot allows the audience to familiarize themselves with the setting which aids their awareness of the space and time of the story. The succession of shots that illustrate parallel editing function to convey information about the characters that is important and helpful in fully grasping both the psyches of the characters and the contrast between them based on external sources alone so that once the audience is finally introduced to them through dialogue, they’ll be able to observe the antithesis of their true natures. Lastly, the scene eases into the anticipated meeting of the two characters with a fairly moderate action that takes the scene into a sequence of medium close up shots of Bruno and Guy when they first start talking which really emphasize both the polarity that exists between the two as well as the quickly established intimacy among them.

The acting in this scene is most significant in the dialogue of Bruno in that he is doing most of the talking within the medium close up shots of him and Guy when they begin conversing on the train. The fact that this is the first time they’ve met and by chance, Bruno’s copious dialogue that consists of details about Guy indicate that he knows a great deal about him and his “knowledge of Guy’s public and private life suggests a clear connection between the two men.” Therefore, the bond between Bruno and Guy is formed early on by way of Bruno’s extensive understanding of Guy which supports the theme of the strong connectedness of the two sides of human nature that Bruno and Guy represent. That they haven’t met before is no impediment to the connection they share. Instead, this scene implies that they’re drawn together because they serve as each other’s double, much like how opposites attract.

The last stylistic element of this scene that contributes to the development of the film’s overall meaning and exploration of the theme of duality of human nature is the sound. Nondiegetic sound is employed during the scene’s earliest shots when showing both of the cab’s pulling into the train station as well as during the close up tracking shots of the two characters walking through the station. What’s notable about the nondiegetic music in the shots depicting the characters getting out of each cab is that the scores during these near identical actions change. The nondiegetic music playing when the first character emerges from the cab is powerful and “has become more upbeat with the instruments of flutes being added towards the music” (Robertson). A cross cut edit then progresses to the next shot of the second character emerging from a cab in which “nondiegetic background music has been used to continue over to this [shot] through a sound bridge” (Robertson) adding brass instruments “to create an idea that this person’s arrival is big news and the character is ‘famous’” (Robertson). The preceding tracking shots of the two men walking through the train station are accompanied by “synchronous diegetic sounds of the shoes… to create a beat with the song as they are walking” (Robertson) as well as nondiegetic music using string instruments that intensify the mood and build up suspense. The nondiegetic music ceases when the characters meet and the subsequent medium close up shots are composed solely of the dialogue of Bruno and Guy talking which allows the audience to make sense of the idea mentioned before, that Bruno has an extensive knowledge of Guy despite this being their first time meeting which implies a marked connection that exists between them because of the attraction of the opposite natures they represent.

Throughout the scene, it is evident that much attention was given to the stylistic elements in order to immediately instill within the audience the theme of duality and to transmit additional important information through the various elements that aid in the audience’s understanding of the narrative, characterization, and meaning. Collectively, the sequence of shots in this scene predominantly serve to introduce the audience to the characters by displaying various symbolic external qualities that mirror their internal psyches. From these external characteristics, the audience is able to discern the contrast between the characters of Guy and Bruno that stand for their embodiment of the concepts of good and evil. Illustrating that duality of human nature through visual techniques so early on then accounts for the course of events within the narrative that follow so this scene is particularly crucial in that it sets the narrative in motion. The meaning is also conveyed as a result in that this scene is saturated in symbols illustrating the notion of doubles that exists within the world of this film. The notion of doubles, particularly as representing the two sides of nature that are good and evil, creates and imparts the film’s meaning in that it stands for the idea that the two opposing forces are presumed to operate independently and away from one another. However, the moment in which they collide is cataclysmic and the interaction of the two forces before that collision is what creates much of the anticipation and suspense throughout the film.

The most significant function of this opening scene is that it is the catalyst for the narrative. It provides introductory information, illustrates Bruno and Guy’s opposing intrinsic natures which aids in their characterization, initiates the suspense the audience feels, visually introduces the theme, and comprises the moment that the two characters first meet which cues the connection between them as a result of their opposing forces unavoidably attracting. The form of the film depends on this opening scene in order for the narrative to ensue. The scene is also important in terms of establishing the film’s theme because of the various visual elements symbolizing the existence of two components of everything which demonstrate the inevitable interplay of dual forces. The visual techniques parallel the internal characteristics of the characters so these first symbols of things existing in pairs suggests that the characters themselves serve as each other’s double in terms of their opposing forces of good and evil.

The structure of the film proceeds steadily as a result of the actions that take place within this opening scene. The scene commences the development of the film and the events that consequently occur. Without this opening scene, Bruno and Guy meeting for the first time would not have been illustrated and the narrative would not have been able to progress as it did. However, because of the inclusion of this scene, the form follows a linear structure that conveys the attachment between Bruno and Guy that develops through the exploration of their actions as directed by their good and evil natures and whether or not the evil of Bruno will defeat the good of Guy, which also then maintains the transmission of the film’s theme.

In terms of the way the narrative is organized, the film follows a 3-act structure. In the first act, Guy and Bruno bumping into each other on the train marks the inciting event that initiates the story and the act ends approximately 30 minutes into the film with the first turning point of Bruno murdering Guy’s wife, Miriam. The first act is somewhat unique in that it evades much of the setup that is typical in most narratives and instead jumps right into the blunt and peculiar interaction among Guy and Bruno. This technical divergence from the structural norm mirrors the lack of balance within the emotional state of Bruno’s character so his abnormal psyche is quickly recognized by the audience. Miriam’s murder sets up the second act which consists of Guy’s struggle over both evading Bruno’s efforts to get him to return the favor by killing Bruno’s father as well as confronting the now reality that he is a prime suspect in the investigation of Miriam’s murder. The end of act two occurs when Guy surrenders to Bruno’s torment and agrees to follow through with murdering his father but arrives to his father’s house with the intention not to kill him but to warn him about Bruno’s troubling behavior. When Bruno emerges from the dark, he expresses feelings of betrayal and resolves to pin Guy for the murder of Miriam. The climax then occurs with Guy pursuing Bruno so as to keep him from planting the evidence that would send Guy to jail for Miriam’s murder which leads to the climactic fight on the malfunctioning carousel that generates a substantial amount of suspense within the audience. The third act involving the resolution occurs when Bruno’s possession of Guy’s lighter is revealed and a worker identifying Bruno as having been the one at the carnival the night Miriam was murdered confirms Guy’s innocence. Act one is the most revealing in terms of Bruno’s goal, to swap murders with Guy to avoid getting caught if he were to murder his father himself, which is evident in the beginning of the act when he proposes the idea and at the end of the act when he murders Miriam in order to motivate Guy to return the favor by murdering his father. Guy’s goals are mostly established in the second and third acts in that during the second act, his goal is to avoid Bruno’s intimidation to get him to murder his father, and during the third act where his goal is then to keep Bruno from planting evidence that would wrongfully prove Guy murdered Miriam. Therefore, though it slightly deviates from conventional narrative structure, this film more or less follows a Classical Hollywood Narrative with goal-oriented characters, a number of conflicts, struggle to overcome the conflicts, aid from other characters such as Anne, Guy’s girlfriend, eventual resolution, cause-and-effect unified progression, deadlines like those Bruno is placing on Guy to follow through with the deal they made, economical structure, and interplay of actions and goals. Evidently, the narrative is repleted with a series of suspenseful events, but the opening scene, in particular, is critical to this structure in that it involves the inciting incident within act one that allows for the story to begin.

Although the entire film is filled with stylistic elements that further the audience’s grasp of the narrative, meaning, and theme, the opening scene is especially representative of the creativity and inventiveness of Hitchcock’s control over the visual elements of each shot. Each shot is so meticulously controlled in a way that is subtle yet profoundly subliminal. Hitchcock’s control over what the audience sees enabled a more well-rounded comprehension of the characters that then allowed for the audience to more easily follow their actions so as not to take away from transmitting the feeling of suspense that can sometimes be hindered by an audience’s lack of understanding. Overall, the opening scene is particularly significant because it best embodies the ingenious work of Hitchcock. Furthermore, this scene is extremely forthcoming about the internal psychological and emotional states of Guy and Bruno, which the narrative and theme are contingent on. Guy and Bruno are the epitome of the concept of the good and evil within human nature and the opening scene unequivocally imparts that idea in the audience primarily with the spectacular use of visual techniques. The scene also encapsulates the film as a whole in that it can perfectly explain why the events throughout the rest of the narrative occurred as they did. Collectively, the stylistic elements are fundamentally telling of the characterization of Guy and Bruno and their psychological and emotional qualities that are responsible for their proclivity for good or evil are what drive their actions and consequently form the sequence of events.

Works Cited

“Talk:Alfred Hitchcock.” Wikiquote, 19 Sep. 2016, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Alfred_Hitchcock.
Driscoll, Paige A. ““The Hitchcock Touch’: Visual Techniques in the Work of Alfred Hitchcock,” International ResearchScape Journal: Vol. 1, Article 4, (2014), pp. 5.
Zapadenska, Alessja. “The motif of Doppelgänger in Strangers on a Train.” academia.edu. N.p., n.d. pp. 8. http://www.academia.edu/30347959/ The_motif_of_Doppelgänger_in_Strangers_on_a_Train.
Robertson, Kaye. “Strangers On A Train.” LinkedIn SlideShare. N.p., 08 Feb. 2013, https://www.slideshare.net/KayeRobertson/strangers-on-a-train-16418749.

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