“Strangers on a Train” Use of Cross-cutting

- –Hitchcock's Pure Cinema 09– -



Cross-cutting is a basic editing technique, in which the shots are cut away from one action to another to suggest that they are occurring at the same time. Film editors use this technique in order to make two separate scenes more interesting, or simply to cut the running time short. In suspense or action films, this is often used to heighten thrill and suspense. As the nickname “The Master of Suspense” suggests, HITCHCOCK also used cross-cutting often in his films. Among them, “Strangers on a Train” is an exceptional example, in which we can see the best use of this technique.
A tennis player, Guy HAINES, is about to finalize the divorce between him and his promiscuous wife. One day, he meets a stranger named Bruno on a train going back home. Bruno knows about Guy well from reading gossip papers. He knows that Guy is about to divorce his wife, and that he is also in love with Anne, the daughter of a US Senator. While having lunch together on the train, Bruno tells Guy that he despises his father. He also has the perfect murder plan, in which two strangers swap murders in order to deceive the police. Guy doesn’t take Bruno’s idea seriously. But when Guy comes home, he finds out that his wife refuses to divorce after she finds out his involvement with Anne. Soon after, against Guy’s objections, Bruno kills Guy’s wife.

Innovative Shots and the Nomination for the Oscar

This film has some of HITCHCOCK’s most memorable shots. For example, the strangulation scene reflected on a pair of glasses was shot using a large custom-made concave reflector. For the climactic scene, the explosion of the merry-go-around was shot with a toy carousel, then the explosion was projected and filmed again with actors reacting to the enlarged image. Also, many shots in this film show effective use of light and darkness. One of those shots is seen in the scene of a boat ride, where ominous shadows were reflected on the tunnel wall. Because of this, “Strangers on a Train” was said to have the largest influence of German Expressionism amongst HITCHCOCK’s films. Robert Barks, who was DP on twelve of HITCHCOCK’s films, was nominated for the Academy Award for the black and white photography for this film.
The Cross-cutting appears at the very beginning of the film. It’s a very memorable opening sequence where close-ups of the two sets of feet are cut back and forth. Those feet come out of parked cars, walk on the platform of a train station, then walk inside a train. All of these shots are similar angles and cut together in the same pace. When the both sets of the feet finally sit down, they accidentally bump each other. Then, we see their respective owners’ faces for the first time. It’s the dramatic revealing shot of Guy and Bruno. The cross-cutting is used to compare two very different characters. Bruno’s feet move elegantly, wearing flashy and expensive shoes, while Guy’s feet move briskly in plain walking shoes. Utilizing cross-cutting here, HITCHCOCK effectively expresses the different characteristics and social status of these two protagonists, even before he shows their faces.

Later on in the film, Bruno takes Guy’s lighter to the murder scene, plotting to frame Guy for the murder. Guy knows this, but has to finish a tennis match before running after Bruno. We see more cross-cutting here between Bruno heading to the murder scene and Guy playing tennis. Guy tries hard to finish the game, which he originally thought he could end quickly. On the other hand, although he is almost there at his destination, Bruno drops Guy’s lighter into a drainage hole and struggles to pick it up. In addition to the cuts between those two, there are the cuts of the tennis game. The increasing speed of the tennis ball moving back and forth successfully heightens the tension of Guy and Bruno’s struggle.

Intensity and Humor

In the climax, Bruno, Guy and the police stand face to face in the carnival. Bruno runs onto a moving merry-go-round and Guy goes after him. Meanwhile, a mechanic is accidentally shot by the police and flips a switch the wrong way as he falls down. Suddenly, the merry-go-round starts to move at a violent speed. The cross-cutting reveals one after another: Guy and Bruno fighting, children screaming, the adults and police watching with fear. In addition to this, a man starts to crawl under the moving merry-go-around, nearly touching his head to the moving machine, to reach the switch. It is one of HITCHCOCK’s basic filmmaking rules to make several things happen at the same time, in order to heighten tension. He also says, “In the ideal chase structure, the tempo and complexity of the chase will be an accurate reflection of the intensity of the relations between the characters.” The threatening speed of the merry-go-round and the speed of the cross-cutting execution in this sequence reflect the intensity of Guy’s hatred towards Bruno. The complexity of the sequence with Guy and Bruno, children, parents, police and the crawling man, parallels Guy’s chaotic mind, threatened by being framed as a murderer. This is clearly a textbook example of a quality filmmaking in a thriller movie.
Even when I know how the film ends, this scene always gives me an intense thrill every time I watch it. And there is something else, which impress me in this scene. In the middle of cuttings between children and adults with fear, there is suddenly a shot of a laughing boy. It looks like he is enjoying the increased speed of the merry-go-round as if he is on a roller coaster. Although this is the time when the audience’s tension is about to reach the peak, this shot of the boy makes us chuckle. It is also a Hitchcock’s trademark strategy to use a humor in order to heighten the tension. Who else can make such a bold move at the time of utmost tension? HITCHCOCK never ceases to awe us.