When I was interviewing for admissions at my college, I used to give a little passage to the prospective candidates to read from a Daniel Pennac novel, in which an adolescent sits glumly trying (and failing) to read his homework from a hefty tome and dearly wishing he could be watching a film instead. ‘What’s the difference between a film and a novel?’ I used to ask them, to which they would anxiously clasp onto the phrase in the Pennac passage that ‘tout est donné’, everything is set out for you in a film, you don’t have to think. They used to say this (and really, remarkably few came up with something different) with such tremendous relief and my heart would always sink. I took the candidates who managed to express the notion, no matter how inarticulately, that the way you use images, what you can do with them to convey an event, is very different to what you can do with words. That’s why we can watch James Bond walk away from incidents that would in reality kill him and be satisfied; sight lends such conviction, whereas recounting so often leaves us a prey to suspicion. You can see that at work in the way the Bond novels are almost pedestrian in comparison to the films, as the reader’s credibility refuses to be stretched. And because sight is such a powerful tool, the cinema exploits it ruthlessly, often to the detriment of a film’s plotline. That’s the thing about films, as those young students were telling me; everyone knows it’s such a relief not to think. Alas, the best films are the ones that combine a visual feast with good storytelling, but inevitably they are few and far between.
Which is probably why I do appreciate Alfred Hitchcock so much. I’m not a great film buff, far from it, but I do love Hitchcock and could watch films like Marnie and Vertigo and Suspicion over and over again. Yesterday evening I watched Strangers On A Train for the first time, the film that Hitchcock adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. The premise is most intriguing: two young men meet on a train, and over the course of the conversation find out that they are both encumbered by one individual who obstructs their life to such an extent that they would quite like to see them dead. They could not commit those murders themselves as suspicion would instantly fall upon them, the motive being so clear. But suppose they carried out each other’s murders? How would anyone trace the path back? A motiveless crime is that step nearer to being a perfect crime. In the movie, the situation is not as quite as mutual as this. The instigator of the conversation and the idea is an unstable young man named Bruno Anthony, and the stranger he meets is not unknown to him. He’s read up in the papers about the tennis player, Guy Haines, who is seeking a divorce from his unfaithful wife in order to marry the daughter of a Senator. Guy is the model of a moral, upright man, clean living, healthy, sane, a stark contrast to Bruno’s cunning depravity. But Bruno becomes his dark shadow, his negative alter ego, dogging his footsteps and pestering him with his plan, particularly when he finds out that Guy’s wife, a money-grabbing, loose-moralled, dog in the manger sort, is now refusing him his divorce. Bruno, suavely psychotic, stalks her and kills her. Now, can he oblige Guy to commit a murder in return?
All the while I was watching this, I was thinking, good old Hitchcock! Here’s a man who knows that the storyline provides the real undertow of the film, the current that sucks us in until we are lost in the film, rather than simply pinned to our seats by the speed and the vividness of the images. And then at the end, extraordinarily, Hitchcock loses it, and gives us a finale as overblown and excessive as any modern day Bond movie. I don’t think I’m giving away anything that matters, but I am going to talk a bit about the end, if you need a warning of that. Anyhow, the climax involves the two men, Bruno and Guy, in a fight to the death in the fairground where Guy’s wife was murdered. They are being followed by the police and, as they chase each other onto the merry-go-round, one policeman shoots somewhat randomly and kills the man at the controls. The merry-go-round accelerates wildly, women and children scream in terror, and the fight between the two protagonists increases in fury and intent. One image shows Guy, holding onto the legs of a carousel horse as if hanging out the side of an airplane, expelled by centrifugal force. By this point, my husband sitting beside me was howling with laughter. ‘Let go! Let go!’ he was urging. ‘You’re all of six inches off the ground!’ He is very disrespectful to movies, particularly ones with intellectual pretensions, if they fail to keep him in the correct emotional zone. I put it down to public school. Anyway, whilst all this is going on, an elderly fairground stallholder is crawling under the spinning platform to reach the central control panel with its levers. Finally he gets there, and yanks the lever upright to bring the merry-go-round to an abrupt and explosive halt, causing death or injury to any number of small children, one imagines, but inadvertently resolving the situation between Bruno and Guy. ‘How about that?’ my husband hooted. ‘All that fuss because one young woman is murdered, but the policeman shoots the fairground man dead and no one gives it a second thought, not to mention the loss of life on the carousel.’ And it’s true, if you move out of the gridlock in which the film seeks to hold your attention, it becomes an illogical, if all too familiar, sort of grand finale. Good bye considered storyline, hello special effects.
And yet, on reflection, I found this had a lot to say about guilt. This movie is fascinated by guilt, with Guy repeatedly frustrated by the way that being under suspicion makes him behave as if he were guilty. His association with Bruno, even though he resists it at every turn, contaminates him, triggers the pervasive sense we all possess of innate guilt (the same way a police car roaring up behind us on the motorway will make us wonder what we’ve done wrong). And we watch the film, waiting and waiting to see whether Bruno will corrupt him, whether Guy will crack under pressure. Hitchcock sets up all kinds of stunts in the film that look as if he might give in because of course, we expect him to. In fact, the film suggests that guilt is almost impossible to hold out against. It’s so difficult to maintain our purity in the face of pervasive, irresistible guilt, that innocence becomes an extremely costly asset. That’s the paradox of guilt the film embodies – in the end we’ll accept any kind of body count, in order to prove Guy’s innocence. We’ll readily accept killing off all sorts of people we don’t know, figures who are little more than film furniture, so that we can establish the absolute innocence, the rightness, of the one man we now know well. A quick glance back over the bloody pages of history will show that it has ever been thus.
But I also felt that the ending showed the story submitting to the force that is cinema. Image storytelling overtook thoughtful, word-based storytelling. It made me wonder whether cinema isn’t innately violent. Books can make us laugh and cry, but cinema wants to make us retch and scream. The jump cuts, the pixillation of modern filmmaking are all ways to do violence to our eyeballs, to assault us with a machine gun rattle of images. Film worries me as a medium. It seems so constrained in what it is interested in doing, in what it is capable of showing us to create interest and meaning. Books have all kinds of emotional landscapes they can inhabit, all sorts of experiments they can try out. I know I don’t go to the cinema because I get so tired of the same old visceral response happening to me again and again, but maybe my own view of filmmaking is too narrow because my experience has been so restricted? Usually, I only watch children’s movies, because more is permitted there in terms of fantasy, mystery, wonder, humour and delight than in adult fare. But I do make an exception for Hitchcock, and although Strangers On A Train may have a mad ending, it’s still a clever, subtle, questioning film that doesn’t consider the worst thing that can happen to you is to be made to think.