Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Hitchcock and Kafka: Expressionist Themes in Strangers on a Train

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Hitchcock and Kafka: Expressionist Themes in Strangers on a Train

Article excerpt

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is a parable about a wish fulfillment fantasy overtaking reality by means of metaphysical freedom, opposing energies, and deadly consequences. The film suggests that dangerous moral, ethical, and material forces are unleashed when conscious behavior and subconscious wishes are in conflict. The narrative and stylistic organization of the film (based on the notion of inner-directed elements controlling the objective world) is deeply influenced by some of the precepts of Expressionism. Hitchcock's style harnesses many of the rules of visual communication derived from expressionist concepts. His films are not traditional or textbook examples of expressionist cinema, yet they systematically utilize much of the aesthetic phrasing of expressionist thinking. As Robin Wood suggests in Hitchcock's Films, " 'Expressionism' evades simple definition, but a central impulse was clearly the attempt to 'express' emotional states through a distortion or deformation of objective reality, 'expression' taking precedence over representation. The continuing dominance of such an aesthetic aim in Hitchcock could be suggested by innumerable examples, of varying degrees of subtley, from any of the films" (27). Hitchcock is consistently preoccupied with finding formal figures that telescope or mirror his protagonist's psychic content. He is without peer in his depiction of the critical elements of his protagonists' thoughts, feelings, and perceptions through a variety of spatial and formal equivalences. These are useful, often overlooked analytic tools for examining Hitchcock's work in general and Strangers on a Train in particular.

Beginning with his silent films and early exposure to the influence of German filmmaking during the 1920s, Hitchcock's cinema can be regarded as a highly selective distillation of key psychological, visual, and narrative elements found in Expressionism. A principal characteristic of this manner of artistic thinking is that the subjective or the emotional can reshape materiality, that the world as we know it and perceive it can be distorted by the idiosyncrasies of point of view and psychology, resulting in what Mike Budd calls "the expressionist externalization of passionate, individual emotion" (46). The essential expressionist credo is that stylistic exaggerations and manipulations are commensurate with a protagonist's extraordinary anxiety and inner conflicts.

Strangers on a Train, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, is the story of Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony, two perfect strangers who meet purely by chance on a train. Guy is an aspiring tennis player whose new girlfriend, Ann Morton, is the daughter of a United States Senator. Guy wants to marry Ann, but his wife (Miriam) won't consent to a divorce; in fact she intends to use her pregnancy from one of many infidelities to harass Guy into staying with her by scandalizing him. Bruno, the son of a wealthy man, loves the carefree life of the devil-may-care playboy, but his father wants to force him to live a responsible life by insisting that he take a job or he will have him committed. Bruno decides that Miriam and his father are problems that should be solved through murder, an "exchange" of murders ("criss-cross," as Bruno puts it). He proposes that he and Guy swap murders; that he will kill Miriam and Guy will kill Mr. Anthony. Guy disregards this suggestion as the rambling of a very eccentric person, but that very night Bruno stalks and kills Miriam. Shocked and terrified that he will be blamed, Guy spends most of the film trying to avoid Bruno who constantly pursues him insisting that he carry out "his" murder and do away with his father. Finally, Bruno realizes that Guy has no intention of fulfilling his part, so he decides to plant a lighter belonging to Guy at the scene of the crime, thereby sealing Guy's fate with this piece of incriminating evidence, as the detectives already suspect him. In the film's finale, Guy and Bruno fight on a runaway merry-go-round. …

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