Monday, December 31, 2012

Strangers on a Train: Rouault-Inspired Painting

Once more, I’m going to return to the work of the brilliant Alfred Hitchcock who often used artwork, especially paintings to convey implicit, but important messages about his characters. This will not be the last Hitchcock-themed post, I assure you. Paintings are a major motif in many Hitchcock films, which provides me with ample material to cover.

One of my favorite, but certainly darker, Hitchcock films is the brilliant 1951 thriller, Strangers on a Train. Starring Farley Granger as the hero and Robert Walker as Bruno, the deranged villain, Strangers on a Train is one of the more psychologically complex films Hitchcock crafted. Prevalent, as usual, in this film is the domineering mother character. Bruno’s mother, played by Marion Lorne, dotes over her boy, while his father considers him repulsive. What we have here is a Oedipus Complex if I ever saw one-complete with the desire to kill the father. It’s a psychological masterpiece that only Hitch could have done.

By the way, if you didn't know- Strangers on a Train is about two strangers who, guess what, meet on a train. The one proposes that since both have people they’d like to get rid of- they swap murders. Bruno claims that it would be the perfect crime and no one would ever no. Guess what? A murder happens but the rest goes terribly wrong- for both ends in this so-called pact. It’s incredibly well done and I think the most suspenseful Hitchcock film ever.

Rouault Bruno

In one key scene that both illustrates the relationship between Bruno and his mother, while showing his hatred for his father, Mrs. Antony shows Bruno a painting she did in her spare time. As soon as he sees it- he bursts out laughing- interpreting it as a grotesque portrait of his despised father. Mrs. Antony-clueless as always- sees no harm in this- and simply claims she was trying to paint St. Francis.

Rouault Bruno
It’s a scene that’s less than a minute long- but as I said- it establishes the Oedipal relationship with Bruno and his parents and reveals Bruno’s colossal hatred of his father. But of course, I’m interested in the painting. Fortunately, there’s a little information out there, all which is telling.

Strangers on a TrainFirst of all, the artist of the painting in the film is not known. Quite frankly, in this case, it’s unimportant. I discovered that what the painting is based upon is far more important. This painting is an imitation of a real artist- a French Expressionist by the name of Georges Rouault. Rouault, in his younger days, had flirted with Fauvism but had later turned to Expressionism, a darker, more moody genre, one that also happened to be dominated by Germans. Rouault is famous in the art world in a minor fashion, but Hitchcock was a huge admirer. In fact, according to one source, Hitchcock even balanced his scenes in The Wrong Man in a Rouault fashion. Rouault’s works are all fairly primitive (intentionally, I assume) and some of his earlier works are even grotesque in the Strangers fashion. However, I find it completely unlikely that Rouault did the painting in Strangers. He was alive in 1951, but by that time his work, while not more graceful, was less grotesque. Because of this, and the fact that Hitchcock could not have afforded to pay a moderately famous artist, I am claiming that the work is a simple copy of Rouault.

Interestingly enough, later in his life, Rouault, a Catholic (like Hitchcock, incidentally), devoted much of his work to religious subjects. So by calling a Rouault inspired work a portrait of St. Francis is a subtle allusion to the actual artist. The uneducated audience however, finds it ridiculous, as the Master of Suspense, doubtlessly wanted. However, I can sense Hitchcock’s fiendish delight in knowing that it was more rational than not to consider the work- a painting of St. Francis.

As I said earlier, this painting shows a mix of repressed emotion and obsession. Bruno obsessively hates his father, to the point of murder, and through his misinterpretation of his mother’s work, he shows this. Furthermore, Bruno loves to hate his father. It brings him delight to see his seemingly dignified father portrayed in such a brutally ugly way. Bruno’s feelings are as messy and even grotesque as the painting he finds such delight in.
Bruno and Mrs. Antony Rouault

To a psychological analyst, or even to me, I find that in this painting, in this scene, Hitchcock definitely proves the Oedipus complex. To any audience, but especially to the contemporary postwar audience, Bruno’s supposed homosexuality and bizarre relationships with his parents would be considered ample villainy enough to commit the crimes Bruno committed later in the film. As telling as this is about Bruno’s repressed (or maybe, not so repressed feelings), I find it just as telling about the contemporary audience’s feelings and motivations. A filmmaker needs to be able to prove that his villain is realistic enough to be terrifying. Hitchcock painting Bruno pseudo-Oedipal complexities shows what proof a filmmaker needed in the 1950s to prove his villain was terrible enough to commit such terrible crimes.

Also to note, this copying of a real-life artist appears in other Hitchcock films. For instance, in North by Northwest, that wonderful house on the side of Mount Rushmore is an imitation Frank Lloyd Wright. It seems that Hitchcock, an admirer of the arts, knew that his movie budgets couldn’t afford the works of real artists. So he shamelessly copied them to get the mood or feel or look he desired in a scene. You’ve actually got to hand it to him- he did an excellent job. 

1 comment:

  1. There's a great Rouault at LaSalle's art museum. You should check it out. Admission is your donation.


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