Who Will Win the Game?

Paper by Charlene Huston.

Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951) is an American psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock. He often made films “about the perfect murder” (Mathur). It is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith and it is worth noting that the protagonist, Guy was an architect in the book but was changed to a tennis pro in the movie. Shot in the autumn of 1950, Hitchcock had a crew shoot background footage of the 1950 Davis Cup finals held August 25– 27, 1950 at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York. Exteriors were shot on both coasts, and interiors on soundstages at Warner Brothers in Los Angeles. Hitchcock had written exacting specifications for an amusement park, which was constructed on the ranch of
director Rowland Lee in Chatsworth, California. The amusement park exteriors were shot there and at an actual Tunnel of Love at a fairground in Canoga Park, California. Robert Burks received the film’s sole Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. Alfred Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director by the Directors Guild of America, USA. The film has gone on to be studied for many years as a classic.

The tennis match/cigarette lighter scene (or rather sequence) is just one place in the movie that uses “the concept of doubles and dopplegangers, which are prominent in many of Hitchcock’s films” (Scott). Hitchcock chooses a style of shooting that gives us clues to the dual nature of our two leading men throughout the film by using “visual motifs of doubles” (Mathur). Ex: the two main characters are just different sides of the same coin; there is a wife and a girlfried: two detectives investigate the murder, and, in the scene I have chosen to write about in this paper, there are two games being played at the same time. This injects a force of energy that cannot be denied and keeps us on the edge of our seats the whole time. I agree with Scott’s doppleganger theory that’s been widely explored throughout film studies history because both Guy and Bruno have the same goal – they both want to get rid of someone in their lives. This common goal is shown by the continual use of ‘doubling up’ in this scene – Bruno is racing to get to the murder scene and so is Guy, i.e. they are playing out each other’s inner desires.

The tennis match scene towards the end of Two Strangers on a Train is significant because it shows the psychological game Bruno and Guy are playing, and represents their inner battles of good vs. evil. Through meticulous editing, including the use of diegetic sound and many close-up shots, the scene is intercut in such a way as to show the tension both men face and, with each swish of the tennis raquet, we are left wondering … Who is going to get pinned for the murder of Guy’s wife, ie: who will will the game?

Part 1:
This is a movie about a game and a murder. I’ve chosen to analyze the tennis match/ cigarette lighter scene towards the end of the movie which cuts back and forth between Guy and Bruno, both trying to get to the murder scene. They each have different motives, yet their quest is the same. Bruno wants to plant Guy’s monogramed cigarette lighter at the scene of the crime to prove that Guy murdered his wife; while Guy wants to find the lighter there to clear his name and prove that it was Bruno who killed his wife.

This scene is cut in such way as to be like a dance – the director’s choices flow seamlessly between these two characters and it is important because Bruno seduces Guy into playing a game of ‘cat & mouse’ which began in the beginning of the film and climaxes in this scene; the premise of which is “I’ll kill for you if you’ll kill for me” (Olsen). As the game accelerates throughout the film, the, this scene conveys the growing urgency of both character’s situations.
The use of various elements of mise-en-scene work together to convey information about who’s on top in any given moment, building tension and evidenced by the number of actual shots each character has in this scene (Bruno #26 & Guy #176 – for a whopping 202 shots in this sequence!).

Each shot works together to show passage of time – props used like the clock on the wall which Guy looks at throughout the tennis match, indicates that time is running out. Repetition of particular shots stress urgency as Guy races against a clock on the court that ticks, while Bruno frantically tries to grasp the cigarette lighter than has fallen into a grate on the street.
Elements of mise-en-scene like dialogue also contribute to this sense of urgency. Ex: When the Announcer says, “Guy Haines is taking chances I’ve never seen him take – he’s hurrying up the play. This is a complete reversal of his usual ‘watch and wait’ strategy”. This dialogue further stresses the race to the finish line and gives the audience another clue that Guy is playing this tennis game as if his very life depends on beating Bruno at his own game.

Acting contributes extra meaning to Guy and Bruno’s race against time and is built up through facial expressions & pacing – both men begin this scene cool, calm and relatively collected, allthough nervous and as time passes, they are both sweating and grimacing, showing both their short term goals and their desire to be the first one to get to the amusement park that night. This is an excellent example of their explicit and implicit desires.

Costumes were clearly carefully chosen to give us insight into the upper class world of power & fame. I loved seeing the tennis pros wearing formal jackets over their tennis uniforms and the spectators at the tennis game wearing fancy clothes, suits, ties and hats and even the women wearing tennis clothes with jazzy sunglasses and perfectly coifed hair, all added to the juxtaposition of this ‘perfect looking’ world, with these crazy people at play, trying to cover up a murder.

The camerawork conveys much about our character’s quests – The scene starts with long and medium shots and as tension builds, the shots grow tighter and tighter, and move from steady to almost hand-held and from long to extreme close-ups. The use of extreme close-ups for items like the monogrammed cigarette lighter and the Bruno tie clip were like little fortune cookie clues sprinkled throughout the film, which helped add verismilitude. This helped define time, space and mood as these items were used in various differnent scenes and kept re- appearing throughout the film. They also helped create tension. It could be argued that the cigarette lighter also helped create a theme of light/dark and good/evil. The fact that most shots are open, created an almost familial playing field. We are drawn right into the narrative because there is nothing to distract us from the action and the character’s intention. They are free to move about as they please, and they do.

The lighting was very direct and to my viewing eyes, it did not call attention to itself in any way. I felt like the camera was like a stalker … watching and waiting for the next shot to be taken. Earlier in the film, when we actually see Bruno strangle Guy’s wife, the use of the reflection in her glasses reminded me of the reflection on the cigarette lighter when it is laying underground. The lighting on Bruno’s face was almost angelic in the shots when he is looking down into the grate, further highlighting how insane, yet clever, he is in getting his way. Hitchcock also very effectively used extreme close-ups of Guy’s fingers trying to reach the lighter underground. When the light reflected on the monogrammed tennis racquets on the cigarette case, I felt like a rat, watching a big fat cat trying to get it’s prey.

The editing style continuously encapsulates the whole urgency of the story as we keep following both players on the court, while at the same time, following Bruno’s dropping the cigarette lighter down underground and his desparate attempt to retrive it. This back and forth style of editing leaves us wondering what will happen next, and we follow these interwoven shots as if we are following the tennis game being played out on the court between Guy & Reynolds. I really liked how the pacing of the editing kept getting faster and faster as this scene moved towards the end.

The use of diegetic sound of the tennis ball hitting the racquet, the crowd and the Announcer pulled us right in at the beginning of this scene and it is not until about half way thru, that the non-deigetic music swells and continues to build suspense until the very end.

The non-diegetic music and exagerated sound effects are used with great effect during the tennis match scene as at first we hear only the sounds of the game … the tennis ball being swished back and forth across the net, the silence of the crowd following every move and then bursting into applause when one of the players makes a point. The game is punctuated by the Annoucer calling out the score and making occasional editorial comments from his booth perched high about the court. The Umpire sits center court in a chair raised like a lifeguard’s serving as both Judge and Juror.
Once, we see Bruno drop the cigarette lighter down the drain, non-diegetic music arrives on the scene and shows the emotions both Guy & Bruno feel as their changing inner worlds, and the changing position between their quests become interwoven. Two musical themes develop that follow both characters until the end of the scene: Guy’s music is almost like a romp, while Bruno’s is dark and suspenseful.

Part 2:
The tennis match/cigarette lighter scene is really a sequence of shots that does a fine job
of exploiting the over-riding theme of the entire movie – that this is a psychological game of cat and mouse that both men are playing.

During the tennis match scene, the voice of the Announcer and the shots of the Umpire represent the double theme again … as Reynolds is, in a way, Guy’s opponent Bruno. Reynold’s moves on the court mirror Bruno’s attempts to get the cigarette lighter out of the grate.

The form comprised of various design elements, keeps things looking real and not surreal or exagerated, the filmmaker is drawing us into the intrigue of what’s going on beneath the surface. Very effective technique, I would say. The charming crazy guy Bruno is very likely a psychopath who learned this trait from his wacked out mother, whom, we saw in earlier scenes is quite a piece of work herself.

Obsessed with murder, he traps our tennis pro into a dangerous game of ‘you kill my father, while I kill your wife’ Every shot and every detail in each shot seems designed to thrill. The tennis scene runs nearly 14 minutes, so Hitchcock must have thought it important enough for that much screen time. The cutting back and forth between Bruno trying to get to the murder scene to leave the monogrammed cigarette lighter and Guy trying to win the tennis match to get there first, is what caught my attention and as I delved more deeply into it, I am glad that I did.

It is interesting to note that Mr. Hitchcock did a lot of directorial micro managing on this production. He was always a hands-on director with a perfectionist streak, but he was unusually involved in the details of Strangers on a Train. “ He personally chose the garbage (gum wrapper, orange peel, etc.) for the sewer grate that Guy’s cigarette lighter falls into” (Snider). He must have thought these details were important and when we feel Bruno’s clean fingers reaching downward to grasp the cigarette lighter, we are glad he took such care with this shot as it made it feel all the more real … as if we are rats underground watching and waiting to see if he will nab the lighter or rather that it might fall down into the abyss and the game would be over.
Close-up shots of the sweat on Guy’s brow is intercut with the sweat on Bruno’s brow as he reaches for the cigarette lighter. They are both fighting for their lives and sweating up a storm in the process. The shots of the crowd watching the match mimic the feelings we, as the audience have, of watching the bigger game being played between Bruno and Guy.
Form supports the idea that we all have the capacity for good and evil impulses … it is often only circumstance and the choices we make that lead us towards either side. Both men (Bruno and Guy) are madly trying to get back to the scene of the crime to prove their innocense. The way both character’s motivation, determination and drive are shown throughout this scene begs the question, who will win the game? That is the question Hitchcock presents us with and then follows a dashing example of building tension,and leaving us wondering.

Throughout the movie, the theme of playing a psychological game of cat and mouse is repeated. At first Guy is completely unaware he is being ‘played; by Bruno. But, once Bruno actually murders Guy’s wife, he is caught. He becomes ‘Guy the cat’ unable to secure a definitive victory over ‘Bruno the mouse’ who despite not being able to defeat the cat, is able to avoid capture…or so he thinks.
This sequence further shows both the explicit and implicit meanings of murdering Guy’s wife – GUY says “I could strangle her”, while BRUNO says “I did strangle her”. This also shows how these two characters both want to get rid of someone in their life and that Bruno takes the action that Guy would not, or could not.

This sequence is a very clear example of a traditional Hollywood movie 3-act structure. This would be the beginning of Act II. .There is no way the narrative of this film could be secondary to the mise-en-scène. And it certainly does not overwhelm this intense psychological thriller.

This scene is significant to analyze because it shows the race to get to the finish line. It’s important to the film as a whole because both Guy and Bruno are, in a sense, the same man … trapped by circumstance and rushing to get to the finish line – They both want to get away from people close to them. This movie allows us to understand that these two men are really playing out each other’s inner desires, and that they are essentially two sides of the same coin.

Referring to the book upon which the movie is based, James Franco said, “the sections compliment one another and allow the pace to be maintained because we don’t have to wait for the characters to figure things out. We get to see what happens on both sides at once” (Franco). And that is the whole point of my analysis of the importance of this scene to the whole enchilada.


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article/82393/13-unfamiliar-facts-about-strangers-train Accessed 24 June 2019. “Strangers on a Train.” 1951. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044079/. Accessed June 4, 2019
“Strangers on a Train (film).” wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki “Strangers_on_a_Train_(film) Accessed June 4, 2019

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