Thursday, 27 September 2012

Hitchcock's antiheroes (Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder)

As promised yesterday, here's another golden oldie. I published this originally on Mid-Summer Day 2010 - back when the world was young and all things seemed possible. As before sorry if any of the links have gone kaput in the intervening time.


Over the past few weeks we've seen Strangers on a Train (1951) and Dial M for Murder (1954) at the BFI. They were part of two separate seasons, but seeing them together raised an interesting issue: antiheroes – central characters who we should want to fail in their (usually criminal) objectives, but who at least a little bit of us wants to succeed.

The set-up of Strangers on a Train, adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, is well known: when tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Grainger) meets charming psychopath Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) on a train, the latter concocts a plan for each of them to commit a murder on behalf of the other.

Haines makes his excuses and leaves, but Anthony thinks they've agreed on the deal and subsequently murders Haines' estranged wife Miriam, who won't grant him a divorce. When Haines fails to kill Anthony's father "as agreed", Anthony decides to plant evidence that will incriminate Haines for the murder. The film then becomes a race against time to stop Anthony.

The film covers classic Hitchcock themes and has a number of famous visual flourishes, but what I found most interesting was that the ostensible 'hero', Haines, is a dull as dishwater. The screen only comes alive when the charismatic and imaginative Anthony takes centre stage. And as the world isn't really any poorer without the unpleasant Miriam, do we end up rooting for him?

In the scene where a crowd gathers to help Anthony retrieve the incriminating lighter from a drain, I wondered if the passers-by drawn into helping the murderer (albeit unwittingly) represent us – the audience, drawn into complicity with the smooth criminal.

Anyway, while Dial M for Murder doesn't have quite the same cinematic panache as Strangers (reflecting its origin as a stage play), it has a very similar theme. Former tennis pro Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) wants to get rid of his insipid and adulterous wife Margot (Grace Kelly) to get his hands on her inheritance.

As in Strangers, the suave Wendice gains our admiration by the cool way he constructs his plot. There's something undeniably attractive about the cleverness of his plan, which he lovingly outlines in advance, enabling the audience to anticipate (with guilty pleasure) seeing it played out.

However, obviously Crime Does Not Pay: both men fail in their plots and the 'natural' order of the universe is restored at the end of each film. However, there's little doubt along the way that Hitchcock finds the villains more attractive and fascinating – and so, vicariously, do we.

As screenwriters, we're always told that the audience should root for our protagonists - or at least empathise with them. Last week I spent quite a bit of time devising a 'pat the dog' moment for the main character in a script I'm currently rewriting.

But can that also extend to antagonists/anti-heroes? What if their personal charm and possible justification for their egregious acts outweigh our natural desire for 'right' to triumph over 'wrong'? Robert Walker and Ray Milland are clearly the stars of their respective films, but can we legitimately root for a murderer to get away with it?

Why we're drawn to antiheroes is a much bigger subject than I could hope to cover here, but one interesting theory comes from William Indick's very useful book Psychology for Screenwriters.

Looking at character in terms of Freud's model of the unconscious, Indick claims that antagonists in films are often a representation of the id – "the primal, animalistic drives" that are present in our unconscious mind from birth.

"Whether a villain is out to destroy the world or just one person, the villain is usually the character who is the most fun to write. Immune from all inhibitions, morals, guilt or regret, the villain is free to express his id desires completely. Audiences secretly love the villain because they can release their own inhibitions and satisfy their own id desires vicariously through him.

"The secret to writing a good villain is to get in touch with your inner id. Lose control, drop your inhibitions, let all of your primal impulses flow out onto the page, and express your darkest fears, dreams, drives and desires through your villain character…Typically, the entertainment level in a film is not based on how good the hero is, but on how bad the villain is."

Something to think about when you're constructing your main characters…

PS. I know Hitchcock wasn't credited as a writer on the two films, and I'm generally loth even to acknowledge the auteur theory, but there's little doubt that in his careful choice of source material and close working relationships with the screenwriters, he maintained close control over the script.

Strangers on a Train: script (PDF), by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde
Roger Ebert on Strangers on a Train

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