Perhaps like no other film by Alfred Hitchcock, Strangers on a Train, released on this date 60 years ago today, is dominated by the concept of doubles—even starting with the opening sequence of two men, in medium shots of their shoes, walking toward a waiting train, their accidental meeting and their unknown fate. It’s a literal embodiment of the notion of the doppelganger, or “double walker” in German.
The doppelganger is a secret sharer, a second self who enables the fulfillment of one’s darkest impulses—including, as Bruno notes, murder. Most accounts of Strangers have observed that Bruno merely acts on tennis pro Guy Haines’ (played by Farley Granger) repressed wish that his unfaithful wife be killed so he can marry the daughter of a senator.
But the converse is also true: Guy, in effect, has sanctioned Bruno’s “criss-cross” murder scheme (each of them will kill a perfect stranger that the other knows well, meaning that no motive can be tied to the killer). “Sure, Bruno, sure,” he says, attempting to humor this crazy man, not realizing that Bruno now expects the other end of the “bargain” be kept with Guy murdering Bruno’s father.
What else do Hitchcock’s doppelgangers share? Conflicted sexuality, for one. In a movie industry then regulated by a production code that sharply limited any reference to sex outside of a conventional heterosexual marriage, open discussion of homosexuality was forbidden. But, as in his earlier film Shadow of a Doubt as well as the later Psycho, Hitchcock uses a mother’s too-close relationship to a son as code for sexual instincts not sanctioned by society that will explode into violence.
Years before the term came into common use, Hitchcock created a kind of template for the cinema stalker—except that Guy’s unwelcome “shadow self” is not a woman but another man.
In the increasingly complicated relationship between Bruno and Guy, the strong, durable athlete constantly appears as the weaker of the two. Bruno is always prepared to act, whereas Guy’s anxiety about forthrightly telling the police about Bruno only results in a deeper entanglement with the psychopathic socialite.
Like many of the director’s films (The 39 Steps, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest), Strangers on a Train involves an innocent man’s attempt to absolve himself of a wrongful murder charge. The doppelganger device—used in “William Wilson,” a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, Hitchcock’s key childhood influence—allows for the transfer of guilt that makes plausible how the victim can be credibly accused. “But you wanted it, Guy!” Bruno cries out after the tennis pro recoils from news of his estranged wife’s death.
For Hitchcock, raised on the Catholic notion of original sin, the doppelganger demonstrates how thin the line between innocence and gujlt can be, and how comfortable it makes man with his potential for evil.
One last thought: Over the years, one filmmaker after another has attempted to imitate Hitchcock, sometimes very slavishly indeed. (Take a bow, Brian de Palma! You haven’t had a chance to do that in a while, have you?)
But the most successful of these attempts to recreate the spirit of Hitchcock, I think, came in The Talented Mr. Ripley. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this is another adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel in which the protagonist forms a homoerotic attachment to a male with a fiancée and a seemingly charmed life, or that the doppelganger figures prominently in the course of the action.