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Daily Dose #13: Criss Cross (Opening Scene of Strangers on a Train)

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Daily Dose #13: Criss Cross, Opening Scene from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951)


What a way to ring in the 50’s with Strangers on a Train. When I watched this film several weeks ago, I was just overwhelmed with it. I saw it several times when I was younger, but not for many years. Seeing it again, I still remembered the story, more or less, but from the opening shots on, it just seems like it brings together so many of the techniques and styles we have been studying in such an integrated way, that the film just charges forward from the opening scenes, and never lets up. A work of genius.


The titles play over the grand arches of Union Station, framing the Capitol Building, like the movie palaces, the symbols of grandiosity made available to all via U.S. democracy, and now a democracy, renewed in the blood of war and triumph over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but facing all kinds of new challenges, despite the remnants of the prewar order. The train plows forward over a multitude of switched crossings, and you feel like you are riding on the cowcatcher.


The metonymy of the pairs of legs and shoes, those distinctive two tones and the kind of decadence they suggest, and then the feet of the owners, moving in different directions toward an inevitable intersection of lives. It reminds me of the crossed skis at the end of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, how lives intersect, and create new lives, new patterns, and sometimes a lot of chaos. One man has two racquets, clattering as the valet unloads them. Makes sense that a tennis player pro would have two racquets, but an indication that a game is afoot, and those racquets will soon be crossed.


As both characters move toward each other, down the length of the car, the passenger seated as Walker passes by, has her legs crossed. He sits and in the same motion crosses his legs. A similar passenger passed by Granger has her legs uncrossed. He sits down, at first with his legs uncrossed. A moment pauses and then he crosses his legs too, bumping Walkers. Interesting that he makes the first contact. You would expect it to be Walker, creating an incident to initiate conversation, but Walker is so good, all he has to do is let the fly come to him.


“Oh go ahead and read…I don’t talk much,” …such a funny line.

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1.      In how many ways does Hitchcock play with or visually manifest the metaphor of “criss cross” or “criss-crossing” in this introductory sequence. [For those who haven’t seen the film yet, the idea of “criss cross” is central idea in this film, a theme Hitch sets up from the opening frames of this film] Be specific.


One thing I never noticed before is that both Guy and Bruno take the same taxi company, appropriately named “Diamond Cab,” after a shape with 4 diagonal sides. The top corner contains the letters “I,” “T” and “O” respectively on the sides, and “A” at the bottom. Now I’m curious if those particular letters have any meaning…


Anyway, Bruno’s cab is facing toward the camera, so visually he is coming out from the left side. Afterwards, Bruno walks diagonally upward toward the left side.  In the next scene is Guy’s cab, facing away from the camera. So, visually, he exits from the cab’s right door and also walks upward diagonally, but this time to the right side.     


Of course, there’s also the famous crossing train tracks scene as was covered in the discussion by Professor Gehring and Professor Edwards.


Watching the lecture video, I’m reminded that there is quite a bit of “Criss-Cross” imagery, not just in the opening, but throughout the film.


There is back and forth motion play in Guy’s tennis match for which Bruno and Guy’s fiancée, Ann, are present. On top of that Guy’s lighter has 2 miniature tennis rackets crossing each other. In this instance, the “Criss-Cross” represents the “A to G” scribed on the lighter, the “A” standing for Anne, who gave him the lighter.  


So, the idea of “Criss-Cross” possibly not only refers to Bruno’s idea of the 2 of them “switching” murders, but also the 2 adverse forces in Guy’s life. Ann, the woman he loves and wants to spend the rest of his life with and, Bruno, a man he despises and wants nothing to do with him. This theory makes sense, especially since Guy never holds up his end of the “bargain.” So, it’s not a stretch that the “Criss-Cross” idea takes on more than one meaning in the film.



2.      Even in this brief scene, how does Hitchcock create a sense of contrast between Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker)? Consider everything from camera work, to clothing and shoes, to dialogue and speech, for example.


Just like Shadow of a Doubt, Guy and Bruno represent 2 binaries or “doubles” as Professor Edwards puts it.


Bruno comes in with very flashy black and white shoes while Guy is wearing dark monochrome shoes. Guy is wearing a dark suit while Bruno is in a lighter colored suit.


Both men are sitting on the opposite sides of the train, Guy on the left and Bruno on the right; the same sides from which they exited their respective cabs earlier in the opening.


Bruno takes the initiative to approach Guy, encroach on his side of the train, and talk his ear off. Whereas Guy is quiet, keeps to himself, is polite, but mostly reacting to Bruno to keep him at bay.  


There’s a lot more to get into, but I’ll keep it short and limited to what we see in the opening clip.



3.      While the visual design gets the most attention typically, how does the Dimitri Tiomkin score function as part of the mood and atmosphere of this opening sequence?


Tiomkin’s score is dramatic and lush, particularly in the scenes where the violin is the dominant instrument. The use of horns makes this sound rather light and airy. This is indicative of the initial clumsiness with which Bruno introduces himself to Guy. While it’s clear that Guy would rather be alone, he finds Bruno harmless and lets him stick around for a bit; a sentiment that possibly the audience shares well… In the beginning anyway… 





(PS: I'm getting a huge kick out of analyzing this scene for the 2nd time for a different class, lol.)

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