April 05, 2008

The inversion of Oscar: the neccessity of employment

Bruno Anthony is one of the most compelling evil geniuses in cinema. He is compelling because he is charming. He begins the film, Strangers on a Train, by attaching himself to Guy Haines, an amazing tennis player, and proposes a scenario

now lets say that you'd like to get rid of your wife... oh no no just suppose, lets say you had a very good reason, no no lets say, you'd be afraid to kill her, you know why, you'd get caught, and what would trip you up, the motive! ah now here's my idea... listen its so simple too, two fellows meet accidentally like you and me, no connection between them at all, never saw each other before, each one has somebody that he'd like to get rid of, so they swap murders...each fellow does the other fellow's murder, then there's nothing to connect them, each one has murdered a total stranger like you do my murder I do yours,... for example your wife, my father, criss cross.

That sets off a plot which twists and turns. Haines never wants to get involved- and Bruno spends the film trying to force him to murder Bruno's father and then attempts to incriminate him in the murder of his own wife (a crime that Bruno committed). It is a plot worthy of the finest artists of suspence and in Patricia Highsmith the novelist and Alfred Hitchcock the director it found those artists. Raymond Chandler was also involved but withdrew as a screenwriter. But the key here is in Hitchcock's version the character Bruno. Bruno is the charismatic centre of the film: he is charming and sinister, an artist- but this is also one of Hitchcock's most sexual films, filled with homoerotic tension between Bruno and Guy, phallic imagery- popping balloons with cigarrettes for example- and a conspiracy to murder which is in part a seduction.

One aspect of this deserves commentary- and that is the way that Bruno is a comment on Oscar Wilde's characters in his plays about Victorian London and hence a comment on European civilisation as a whole. Wilde's characters in his novels are typically idle aristocrats: they need no incomes and no occupations. They live lives without profession or usefulness: they are noble exceedingly witty and they are sexually ambiguous. These characters live in masks and disguises which hide their neverending expeditions to bunbury, to devise more time to waste time in London or to unfold their sophisticated plans. Wilde's plays often end with the good triumphant and married (eg the Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere's Fan) and conventional endings but their structures, their comedy is subversive. Hitchcock evidently knew Wilde well: his later films are indebted for instance for scenes and ideas to films of Wilde's novels and Hitchcock to some extent lived out a Wildean fantasy of life. But Strangers on a Train is a very Wildean film and its main character Bruno is deeply Wildean: a painting in Strangers just like in Dorian Gray reflects the true personality of a respectable man, Bruno even quotes one of the most famous lines from the Importance of being Earnest and there are many other examples of direct quotation. In the play Lady Bracknell commends Jack for smoking as 'a man should always have an occupation': are we surprised to find that in the first meeting between Guy and Bruno, Bruno tells Guy that he doesn't do anything- apart from smoking which he does too much of.

That cinematic quote of a theatrical line and Bruno's overall manner, his charm and disguises, not to mention the whiff of homoeroticism (indeed bisexuality- he manages to seduce Guy's wife into being murdered) is very Wildean. It reminds one instantly of Wilde's characters. Hitchcock though was no mere ingenue, quoting simply in order to quote. He knew what he was doing- and in the character of Bruno, indeed in the set up of Strangers on a Train, he was deliberately trying to do something. Hitchcock's intentions are not easy to elucidate: the film is dark and powerful. It ends with the best of endings: heterosexual unity in the face of bisexual criminality- but noone watches this film for Ruth Roman's performance as Guy's love interest. (Ruth Roman's pubescent sister is another woman semi-seduced by Bruno and their abortive romance is more interesting than the real romance between the sister and Guy- she is another with some amazing lines, 'Daddy doesn't mind any scandal, he is a senator'.) Everyone watches the movie for Bruno's act as a Wildean genius, a dark malevolent and yet charming and seductive presence on screen.

Let us for a second go back to Wilde. In Wilde's plays, the aristocratic dilletantes are the majority of the cast- in this play Bruno is alone as the sole member of the cast with Wildean characteristics. Whereas Wilde lauds leisure in the classical manner- as a Latin poet might laud otium, Hitchcock uses Bruno to express the value of a puritanical ethic. This isn't really about sexuality- there is no doubt that other members of the cast exhibit homoerotic characteristics- but it is about manner, it is about a judgement about psychology. Hitchcock's purpose here is in my view to reject the whole concept of leisure- instead of supporting character and enabling contemplation, Hitchcock tries to show that it fosters a spiralling of character out of control. Bruno is more clearsighted than most of the other characters: he has afterall experienced everything once. But his experience, his intelligence are redundent and he knows that he is a drone, he knows that he has been forced out of three colleges and that his position in society is not assured. In contrast to Wilde's assured aristocrats, Bruno's aristocrat has to realise that the twentieth century has changed the way that position works: employment now defines your status not your birth or even your cultivation. In a previous society, Guy the proletarian trier with a solid sporting and political career would be the outcast, in 20th Century America it is Bruno.

His reaction to that is interesting. Again for Wilde frivolous sparring reduces easily to conventional or even unconventional morality. In Hitchcock's darker view leisure creates the atmosphere which perpetuates triviality: and thence arrives at an even darker possibility as genius spirals into insanity and psychosis. Bruno is more charismatic than the rest of the characters, but he is not made happier, securer or stabler by this knowledge. Rather Hitchcock's movie is a sceptical statement about the possibilities of decadence, it is a statement about the psychological possibilities that lead on from leisure, that contrary to the Romans the devil makes work for idle hands. This insight is in part basically right- and Hitchcock far more than Wilde confronts the reality of leisure and aristocratic leisure at that- it gives the time for brooding, a brooding which can create genius but as in the case of Bruno also can create psychosis. The contrast to Wilde enables us to observe the way that Hitchcock makes a historical as well as a psychological case: the time of the aristocrats is over and in the new society of 1950s America leisure is, whether it was a sensible proffession in the days of Wilde's aristocrats when society was more leisured, corrupting.

Simply put, if your only profession is smoking, the consequences are likely to be devastating in our society.


Semaj Mahgih said...

Yes the compelling clever man is one I had much trouble with in January - they are very difficult to counter because they weave their web.

Gracchi said...

Compelling and clever is a great way to describe Bruno- you should see the film James.