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Strangers on a Train

Forgive me if I gush for moment over Alfred Hitchcock. Objectively, it's pretty safe to say that he is one of the most prolific and talented filmmakers in the (relatively short) history of cinema. He was the definition of a visionary with an incredible ability to see an entire movie in his head before ever shooting a thing. Personally, he is simply one of my favorite directors, because his films almost always make for a captivating and memorable experience.

Strangers on a Train
is the first in a string of exceptional releases from Hitchcock in the 1950s. I place it in the second-tier of his canon, not quite at the masterpiece level of films like Vertigo and Shadow of a Doubt, but still very, very good. The premise is fairly simple: two men, Guy and Bruno, have a chance meeting on a train. In the course of their conversation, Bruno playfully suggests a murder-swapping plot to get rid of an expendable person in each of their lives - the father Bruno hates and Guy's manipulative, unfaithful wife. Since they are strangers with no connection, there would be no reason to suspect either of them in the respective murders. Guy patronizes Bruno's idea and laughs it off, assuming that he can't be serious. But Guy soon learns that his assumption was very wrong, when his wife turns up dead and Bruno comes calling for Guy to hold up his end of the "agreement."

This film has much to appreciate - from the shadowy cinematography to the well-crafted tension for which Hitchcock is so well-known. But when I watched the film again recently, I was struck by something else entirely that I had never really considered before. Whether intentional or not, Strangers on a Train makes an interesting comment on manhood through the character of Guy.

From the beginning of the film, Guy is portrayed as passive and weak. This is established in his interaction with Bruno on the train. Though he clearly is not interested in engaging Bruno for very long, he allows Bruno to monopolize the entire train ride. At the end of their encounter, when Bruno asks him what he thinks of the murder-swapping idea, Guy gives only a patronizing, non-confrontational response. The whole mess that follows is a direct result of Guy's inability to cut their conversation short and to make a definitive, genuine response to Bruno's question about swapping murders.

Guy's weakness is further highlighted in the relationship with his wife. We learn that she cheats on him frequently, has been impregnated by another man, and intends to stay married to Guy only for the money that he is bringing in as a pro tennis player. Guy has apparently allowed her to manipulate and emasculate him time and again. Rather than facing these issues with his wife and addressing them directly, he ran to another woman for comfort and validation. His response to the final conversation with his wife, in which she reveals that she is not going to file for divorce, is to call his mistress and pitch an angry, childish fit.

Throughout the second act of the film, Guy continues his passivity, doing his best to avoid Bruno and hide the reality of the situation from himself and those around him. Only when he reveals the truth to his mistress, Ann, do we begin to see signs of a transformation that is fully realized in the tennis match in the third act. At the start of the match, the tennis announcers state what has been shown to us throughout the film - that Guy's typical approach is to lay back and be passive. But in this match, he becomes uncharacteristically aggressive, not allowing his opponent to dictate the play. It is the starting point of a thrilling final sequence in which Guy finally shows initiative, risking his freedom and safety in an effort to expose the truth and prove his innocence. In the midst of fighting for his life and his freedom, Guy saves a young boy from severe injury and possibly death. No doubt this is intended to amplify the tension of the scene and draw a clear line between Guy's character and that of Bruno. However, this sacrificial act is also the culmination of his growth as a man into a strong initiator who is willing to take necessary risks for the sake of truth and the good of others.

Did Hitchcock or the screenwriters really set out to make a film in which the main character is an exploration of what it means to be a man? I doubt it. I believe most of what I wrote about was intended primarily for dramatic effect rather than thematic expression, but the theme is a natural byproduct that peaks out from behind the shadows. Guy's turn toward being a man of initiative and strength certainly wasn't entirely pure. It was motivated primarily by self-preservation, but then, my own personal growth often begins in self-interest and so it does for most of us. Somewhere in the process though, I find myself moving beyond self-interest into shades of a masculine identity that is good for more than myself, just as Guy did on the carousel. His unselfish act to save the boy showed a glimmer of the masculine identity that men have been created to fulfill, typified by selfless sacrifice and confident initiative.

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