Much of Alfred Hitchcock’s work places strong emphasis on the mechanisms and implications of the act of looking, and voyeurism and scopophilia are major themes across his oeuvre. Consider, for example, Scottie's compulsion to recreate Judy in Madeleine's image in Vertigo, or Jeffries's obsession with observing the private lives of his neighbors through his binoculars in Rear Window (Wood 103). Voyeurism also plays a prominent role in Strangers on a Train, but in contrast with some of Hitchcock's other work, the most interesting voyeurs of that work are not male, but female. Throughout the film, Hitchcock develops the concept of the female gaze by connecting it with a distinctive symbolism: round glasses (Brill 81). Such glasses, as Mary Ann Doane has shown, were symbols in classical Hollywood film of an active gaze, or "even simply the fact of seeing as opposed to being seen" (qtd. in Corber 115). This symbol of seeing, of circularity, of the overt female stare, becomes a recurring visual motif throughout Strangers on a Train, and its manifestations signpost the women who possess such a gaze—whether their stare is obvious or hidden.
To understand why the concept of the female gaze and its symbols are important in Strangers on a Train, it is critical to understand their fundamental challenge to patriarchy. In her book The Women Who Knew Too Much, which considers the work of Hitchcock from a feminist perspective, Tania Modleski references Alice Jardine's ideas when she comments about the male reaction against “women who know not only too much, but anything at all” (13). Jardine states, “Man's response in both private and public to a woman who knows [anything] has most consistently been one of paranoia 1” (qtd. in Modleski 13). While the female gaze is not ostensibly a declaration of secret knowledge, it bears connotations of knowledge gathering, of surveillance for a purpose. Such open surveillance is traditionally accounted to men—"the gaze" of feminist criticism—and the open return of looking on the part of the women implies a distinct crossing of gender boundaries. As Corber puts it, in a patriarchal society women are meant to "be seen rather than to see" (117). The female voyeurs in Hitchcock's films, therefore, represent an intrinsic threat to the patriarchy, because they co-opt a tool traditionally used by men to objectify and control women.
Hitchcock establishes the circular motif of the unhidden female stare most obviously with the glasses he gives to Miriam, Guy's wife; and Barbara, the sister of Guy's love interest, both of whom are blatant in their act of watching. Of the two, Miriam is the most belligerent in her voyeurism and possession of knowledge, which becomes immediately obvious in her first appearance on camera. "You've got a nice tan," she says as she sizes Guy up through thick harlequin glasses, "Playing tennis with all of your rich friends” (Strangers2 ). Here, Miriam references the subtext of their relationship problems with seeming nonchalance; clearly, she has no interest in attempting to improve their marital situation by pretending she is unaware of Guy's political aspirations and new love interest. Miriam also makes no pretense to acting hurt or vulnerable; she knows the nature of the situation, and has no qualms about revealing such knowledge to Guy. It's also obvious that she has been watching Guy's actions closely: "Don't look so mad, Guy," she says coyly, as he begins to realize she intends to follow him to Washington; "You always smile when your picture is being taken for the papers." Since it's clear from their conversation that the two do not meet often, the implication is that Miriam has been surveying the situation from afar, and has been doing so thoroughly. Guy's obvious discomfort and anger, then, are not only from the realization that Miriam will not consent to the divorce, but from the threat of her gaze and the knowledge she has gleaned.
Barbara also wears the round glasses, the symbol of the gaze. While she is far more likable than Miriam, they are alike in the unapologetic way they both observe and comment upon situations. Barbara is forthright in all her dealings, and is not afraid to show her intelligence and mental acuity by a blunt appraisal of any situation, without regard for diplomacy. "That poor, unfortunate girl," says Senator Morton, referring to Miriam's death. "She was a tramp," says Barbara, matter-of-factly. When chastised by the Senator, who states that Miriam had as much right to life and pursuit of happiness as any other human, Barbara dismisses his idealism cooly. "From what I hear," she says, "She pursued it in all directions." She is young and unmarried—she does not yet pose a direct threat to any man—and her frank comments and knowledge of the sexual are therefore regarded with a measure of condescension by the people around her. "One doesn't always have to say what one thinks," Senator Morton says to Barbara, with seemingly equal parts fondness and fatherly exasperation. But Barbara does; her glasses are a bold visual statement of her obvious desire to see and understand the world around her. In this way, she resembles another Hitchcock character: Midge from Vertigo, who, like Barbara, also refuses to temper her frank appraisal of a situation in order to gain sexual prowess or the favor of a man.
However, while Barbara can be forgiven her gaze, it is clear that Miriam cannot. In fact, one critic describes the scene at the carnival as "excusing her murder," because it is shot almost wholly from Bruno's point of view (Corber 115). Indeed, this scene depicts Miriam's voyeurism as so transgressive that even the audience is made to feel uncomfortable. When Miriam realizes she is the object of Bruno's stare, she returns the favor; instead of looking away or removing herself from his gaze, she sensuously savors her ice cream cone and stares back. For the remainder of the sequence leading up to her death, Miriam continues to "[return] the male gaze rather than [submit] to it passively" (115). She is aware of Bruno’s stare and its implications, and appears more than ready to take part in the game he has initiated. She and Bruno therefore play out an intimate duet of looks and counter-looks, and the circular imagery of her glasses becomes more and more pervasive in the surroundings as he goes further into the world of her gaze and the scene builds to a climax. As the chase progresses, Hitchcock highlights the whirling of the merry-go-round, the plump roundness of the little boy's balloon, the incessant turning of the water wheel, and the round opening of the Tunnel of Love. Bruno shows Miriam his strength at the sledgehammer concession as he drives the marker to the very top—a round gong. He breaks the game and conquers its round symbol, just as he will later break Miriam and smash her glasses, the symbol of her overt and knowing stare. Then, as he watches her float off to what will be the site of her death, the turning ferris wheel eerily fills the frame behind him. The visual symbolism employed here by Hitchcock clearly shows the reason that Miriam deserves to die: her unapologetic gaze.
The highly expressionist mise-en-scene of Miriam's murder is the culmination of the circular imagery which Hitchcock has built into the film so far. A POV shot puts the audience inside Bruno's head as Miriam’s face fills the frame and she sees him. "Is your name Miriam?" he asks. "Why yes," she says, pleased. Bruno does not give her the chance to say anything else. As he strangles Miriam, her glasses fall to the ground and break, and the camera cuts to a close-up of the lens, where the rest of the murder is seen in its reflection. After pushing her to the ground, Bruno slowly straightens up, staring straight into the one unbroken lens and filling its round frame with his looming form. Robin Wood describes this scene as being a "sexual culmination for both killer and victim" and calls the lens of Miriam's glasses a "sexual symbol" (90). However, while this imagery can be read as sexual, it arguably has more complex meanings than Wood assigns it. Miriam's glasses are not merely the symbol of sexuality, or even of voyeurism—for, as we will see later, Ann Morton is equally voyeuristic—but of her refusal to hide her voyeurism and secret knowledge from a patriarchal society. Her glasses are the visible representation of her unapologetic gaze, and represent an implied threat to the dominance of the male. The murder scene is significant because it implies the forceful retaliation, the outward expression of Jardine's male "paranoia" (qtd. in Modleski 13). The success of Bruno and the fall of the violated glasses symbolizes the execution of Miriam's gaze; her glasses are now sightless and her death is, in essence, a blinding—the final retribution for a woman who has dared to cross gender boundaries.
But while the glasses are the most obvious representation of the female gaze, there is another telling object present at the site of the murder: Guy's lighter. While the insignia on the lighter seems to have been underemphasized in criticism of the film, it has certainly not been in the film itself; its importance is shown by repeated, fetishistic close-ups throughout, and is foregrounded in the initial dialogue between Bruno and Guy. "Bet I can guess who 'A' is," says Bruno slyly, referring to the lighter's inscription, "Ann Morton." Hitchcock pairs Bruno's statement with a close-up of the lighter itself, revealing the crossed tennis rackets and the insignia "A to G" to the audience for the first time. Later in the film, immediately after Bruno strangles Miriam, a single shot shows the glasses and lighter lying side by side next to the lifeless woman, and then a close-up of the lighter highlights its distinctive design. Hitchcock has obviously gone to great lengths to establish the presence of the lighter and reiterate its distinctive design at the scene of the murder, but why?
The presence of the lighter has often been read as an implication of Guy's guilt in Miriam's death, in conjunction with the Guy/Bruno doppelgänger theme that runs throughout the film3 . The fact that the lighter is a gift from Ann, however, has been largely passed over4 , along with the accompanying insinuations about her involvement in Guy's affairs. However, given its importance to the plot, the lighter's origin is not insignificant. After all, despite the far more flattering depiction of Ann in the film, she is arguably just as guilty as Guy for the murder of Miriam. Since she is presented as the obvious love interest and effortlessly performs the societal graces that Miriam does not have, we like her better and gladly overlook the pertinent fact that she has been carrying on a love affair with a man who is still married. The dialogue on the train indicates that Bruno's instant recognition of Guy and knowledge about his relationship with Ann is largely from gossip in the newspapers. "Sometimes," remarks Bruno,"I turn the sport page and look at the society news. And the pictures. She's very beautiful, Senator Morton's daughter." Ann and Guy's relationship, far from being a normal, socially accepted love relationship, is the stuff of scandal—the daughter of a senator seduced by a well-known, married man. Had not Guy's relationship with Ann landed him so frequently in the gossip column, Bruno would not have been as likely to recognize him on the train. The presence of her gift at the scene of the crime, therefore, is arguably just as much an implication of her guilt as Guy's.
As the film unfolds, it becomes increasingly obvious that Ann herself is far from being the decorative society female she seems on the surface; she is, in her own way, equally as voyeuristic as the other two women. Although she does not possess the brazen, sexually suggestive stare of Miriam, or the honest, frank gaze of Barbara, the camera often watches her carefully watching Guy and the events unfolding around him. Guy and Ann’s first on-camera meeting is captured with a single, high-angle shot which shows them embracing and then moving towards the parlor to meet her father. Although Ann casts down her gaze often while Guy is talking directly to her in this shot, she stares at him intently when he looks away, as if to obtain as much hidden information as possible. Then, at the party given by Senator Morton, we see a prolonged shot of Ann staring. The camera cuts to show what Ann has been staring at: Guy. Then Ann shifts her gaze, and the audience sees that she has seen Bruno, who is also watching Guy. The relay of looks is crystal clear in its implication: they are all playing a game that depends upon the close monitoring of the other players. However, although Ann is constantly watching, she seems able to make her surveillance non-threatening by hiding it in a performance of demure femininity; the men never seem as aware of her gaze as they are of Miriam's and Barbara's—Ann never makes them aware. Still, it is clear to the audience that Ann knows more than she lets on.
Ann's voyeurism and knowledge, and the success with which she hides them, are also clearly symbolized on the lighter she gives to Guy. While, on one level, the insignia seems nothing more than a reference to Guy’s occupation, on another level the side-by-side circles of the crisscrossed tennis racket design eerily echo the imagery of Miriam and Barbara's glasses—the symbol of the female gaze. This symbolism becomes starker in the image of the lighter and glasses lying side by side in the aftermath of Miriam's murder. Here, in one shot, lies the fundamental difference between Ann and Miriam/Barbara and their respective approaches to sexual politics. Ann, it seems, has her own pair of glasses, but she has hidden them. Instead of openly declaring her gaze through the outward implements of seeing, as do Miriam and Barbara, Ann has ensconced the symbol of her voyeurism and secret knowledge in the trappings of Guy's world. While Miriam and Barbara openly go against hegemonic female roles, Ann plays the object to be seen in order to increase her own ability to see. Like Vertigo’s Judy, she must attempt to gain power by portraying something she is not. Therefore, while Miriam and Barbara's overt display of the feminine gaze is a threat to patriarchy, Ann is successful at removing the threat from her knowledge by clothing it in the symbolism of Guy's own success.
The fact that Ann is able to hide the perceived threat of her voyeurism from the men, however, does not make the actual threat any less dangerous. In fact, by choosing to cloak her true knowledge, she is arguably more successful at reclaiming power than are Miriam and Barbara. She disguises her gaze so well that Guy carries her glasses with him wherever he goes, and the lighter which bears her symbolic stare is the proverbial "glue" in the Guy/Bruno power relationship. In essence, since the lighter is connected so closely with the murder, her covert stare is the very tool which dooms Miriam and embroils Guy in a dangerous game which nearly ends in his conviction for murder. And, in the end, whatever Ann's motivations for marrying Guy might be, it is difficult for us to reconcile her coolness and austerity with the prospect of a loving and warm married life. Ann's influence and gaze have already resulted in serious consequences for the lives of those around her, and her skill at performing her role of the society woman keeps Guy utterly unaware of both. While she may play the role of an asset as she decorates Guy's arm at political functions, it is clear that she has assets of her own and the mental acuity to use them. Guy cannot resist a threat that he cannot see, and Ann is remarkably good at disguising hers.
One critic, referring to Miriam’s fallen glasses, draws attention to the "motif of seeing and blindness" which runs throughout the plot of Strangers on a Train (Brill 81), and this conflict certainly seems to be a major driving force in the sexual politics which pervade the plot. As we have seen, Miriam deserves to die not so much because of what she has done, but because of who she is and what she represents: a woman who is unafraid to challenge societal norms. Miriam and Barbara’s glasses are, in essence, a declaration of their refusal to be blind. They will continue to look, and refuse to hide the fact that they have the secret knowledge which, as Modleski comments, typifies the Hitchcock female (13). Their bold gaze and refusal to play the game of sexual politics according to the rules of a patriarchal system incites the male “paranoia” that Jardine notes. Although Barbara’s future is uncertain, the shattered glasses of her double, Miriam, indicate where such a road may lead in a male-dominated society. Ann, on the other hand, finds greater success within the patriarchal system because she is able to use its implements—Guy’s lighter—to her own advantage. She is able to see precisely because she pretends to be blind. In the end, it seems that the success of all three women is not so much dependent upon whether they see—for it is clear that all three do—but whether they are able to keep patriarchy blind to the fact that they can.
Brill, Lesley. The Hitchcock Romance. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988.
Corber, Robert J. "Hitchcock's Washington: Spectatorship, Ideology, and the 'Homosexual Menace' in Strangers on a Train." Hitchcock's America. Ed. Jonathan Freedman and Richard Mullington. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. 99-121.
Modleski, Tania. The Women Who Knew Too Much. New York: Methuen, 1988.
Strangers on a Train. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Farley Granger, Robert Walker. Videocassette. Warner Home Video, 1983.
Wood, Robin. Hitchcock's Films Revisited. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.