Why Strangers on a Train is a masterpiece of suspenseful storytelling

A new Oscar Isaac film got us thinking about Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 classic.

Words

Paul Risker

In the latest Oscar Isaac vehicle, Mojave, director William Monaghan recycles the familiar tale of one man’s seemingly chance encounter with a menacing stranger – a trope that was perfected more than six decades ago by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1951 masterpiece Strangers on a Train.

An archetypal story that sees the protagonist pursued and tormented until a final and violent confrontation is reached, Strangers on a Train is a perfect example of the three act structure of setup, conflict and resolution. The plot concerns a meeting and introductory conversation, a disagreement over the perceived arrangement and a final confrontation. Hitchcock treats the story as a three-stage dance of death between the protagonist, Guy (Farley Granger), and the antagonistic, Bruno (Robert Walker).

The Meeting

While the train carriage setting is a convenient meeting place for two strangers, it also allows Hitchcock to incorporate the recurring motif of crisscrossing train tracks, mirroring the paths of his two characters. Unlike the dialogue-heavy opening of Mojave, the carefully paced early scenes in Strangers on a Train present an ominous encounter that immediately invests us in the story. From the outset, Hitchcock establishes how the hostile stranger preys on and then feeds off the personal tragedy of Guy’s failing marriage. A morality tale is constructed in which the stranger attempts to lure the protagonist into crossing a moral line, Bruno’s misperception of Guy’s agreement setting up a wonderfully twisted tale of coercing and entrapment.

The Party

If the film is a dance of death, then the party scene is a integral movement in the second act (although the scene features no actual dancing). Here, Hitchcock demonstrates the importance of the two characters’ proximity to one another, expanding on the premise of a dance to reveal its dual nature as a game also. It serves as a reminder to both the protagonist and the viewer – by now completely immersed in this suspenseful tale – that he’s living precariously, with the story building towards a dangerous showdown.

The Carousel Crash

The fateful meeting on the train culminates with a crash on a carousel. In order to thwart Bruno’s attempt to use the lighter to frame him by planting it at the crime scene in the fair ground, Guy races to complete his tennis match. Hitchcock intercuts between the sequences of the two men setting about their respective tasks, adding a sense of gamesmanship to the dynamic. The self-aware nature of the dance-like party scene is continued when Bruno drops the lighter down a storm drain, delaying his devious scheme. It’s a playful moment that adds even more suspense to this thrilling drama. In the end, as fate excuses Guy from being the one to mortally wound Bruno – just as it seemingly brought the two men together – it’s Hitchcock’s brilliant use of mischief and misdirection that makes Strangers on a Train one of his most memorable films.

Published 28 Mar 2016

Tags: Alfred Hitchcock

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