Friday, September 3, 2004

Strangers on a Train: Literary Symbols, Demigods and Much Ado about a Cigarette Lighter

By Joel Gunz
Originally appeared in The Anvil

Movie critic Anthony Lane thinks that “great companions to new movies are old books.”[1] Which is why, if you spot me at, say, a Vin Diesel film, you might also see a copy of Proust tucked under my arm. I use it to divert attention away from the 40 ouncer of Colt 45 I’m trying to sneak in. James Michener works well for that, too.

By Lane’s algebra, the older the movie is, the older the book should be to go with it. Thus, Alfred Hitchcock’s vintage Strangers on a Train (1951) goes quite well with Bibliotheke, Apollodorus’ 2nd century B.C.E. guide to Greek mythology.

Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train is about a materially privileged yet morally ordinary joe named Guy (Farley Granger) who encounters his brutish doppelganger, Bruno (Robert Walker). Make no mistake: the aptness of their names is no coincidence. Strangers' allegorical connotations would make even Aesop blush.

Guy was the sort of Ivy-League-tennis-star-dating-the-senator’s-hoochie-daughter that everyone loves to hate. And the fascinatingly squeamy Bruno wanted with all his heart to have what Guy had: physical grace, charm, and the ability to tie his own bow tie for a formal dress party.[2]

The two make a criss-cross pact to trade murders: I’ll do one for you and you do one for me. Since they are otherwise strangers, each supplies the other with a perfect alibi. Bruno keeps his promise by following Miriam (Kasey Rogers), Guy’s Inconvenient Ex-Girlfriend, into an amusement park and strangling her to death near that most funereal of carnival rides, the Tunnel of Love.[3] But when Guy backs out of the deal, which required him to murder Bruno’s father, Bruno seizes upon a plan to blackmail Guy, using the latter's personalized cigarette lighter as evidence.

And sometimes a Zippo is not just a Zippo.

That lighter—a gift from Anne (Ruth Roman), Guy’s new fiancée, engraved with his initials and a pair of crossed tennis rackets—speaks of that world of privilege while hinting at the crossed paths of the two men.[4] Cigarette aficionados point out that Guy’s lighter was made by Ronson, manufacturers of what have been dubbed “the Cadillac of lighters”. This particular Ronson lighter was an “Adonis” model. That’s a very juicy detail—and it keeps with the film’s theme of unattainable yearning after an ideal.

As the ambivalent hero of Strangers on a Train, Guy was handsome, athletic, and sophisticated. A true Adonis. But let’s not forget that, though he welched on the deal, he wanted his Inconvenient Ex-Girlfriend dead—not unlike the Greek Adonis, who maintained his own connection to the underworld. And the attempt on his life by the animalistic Bruno is reminiscent of the fate of Adonis who was likewise killed by a wild beast.[5] Just a thought.[6]

That’s why Bruno clutched that lighter like a girl with a kewpie doll at the state fair. It was his only tangible connection to Guy. And when Guy spurned him, Bruno used the lighter to frame him for murder. In Bruno’s rush to plant the lighter at the scene of the crime, he lost the thing down a storm drain. But in reality, Bruno had long since dragged Guy down into the sewer with him. When Bruno stretched with all of his being to retrieve the Adonis lighter from the gutter, it was as if, in his weird way, he was trying to seize all that Guy stood for.

To Bruno, Guy was a model of perfection, an unattainable Adonis. The best he could do was to hold a demigod’s tchotchke for a few fateful moments. Come to think of it, Bruno kind of reminds me of Tolkien’s Smeagle, who likewise fixated on a trinket. Not that I’ve actually read Lord of the Rings. Once, though, I used the novel to conceal a pastrami sandwich I'd snuck into a screening of Delicatessen.

[1] From “A writer's life: Anthony Lane” at, filed: 14/12/2003.

[2] It helps to remember that Strangers on a Train was a novel written by Patricia Highsmith as a sort of warm-up to her classic The Talented Mr. Ripley. If you’ve seen the Matt Damon/Jude Law movie, you’ve seen a bit of Strangers.

[3] If you're wondering whether Hitchcock was indeed a Schopenhauerist who believes that one's will-to-life is simultaneously a will-to-death, this fact alone should settle it.

[4] The movie abounds with doubling and crossing images: close-ups of merging train rails crossing and uncrossing; an impressionistic portrayal of the murder scene reflected in the dual lenses of a pair of eyeglasses; chubby Hitchcock making his cameo appearance while carrying a double bass fiddle.

[5] The Greek hero Adonis was so beautiful that a dispute arose between Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, and Persephone, goddess of the underworld. Each goddess wanted to possess Adonis for themselves. Zeus settled the matter by requiring the hero to spend one third of the year with Aphrodite and one third of the year with Persephone. Adonis got to choose the goddess with whom he would spend the final four months, and he always chose Aphrodite. This arrangement continued until Adonis’ death when he was attacked by a wild boar.

[6] Don’t hold me too close to the fire on the mythological parallels here. I quit writing recondite essays long ago (around about the time I quit sucking in my gut) and only trot out the classics if I've lost a bet or it if it will help me win a drinking game.

Joel Gunz

Print this post

No comments: