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The Poetic Language of Cinema

Part Three

"Strangers on A Train"

Notes on the Opening Scene 


We suggested earlier in this study that language could influence the modes of signification in films. This case study of a scene from Hitchcok’s film Strangers on A Train aims to illuminate this issue. 

 There have been some considerable discussions cinema can work, as a language of signification, on the expression of emotions and feeling. Hitchcock's cinematic style was particularly linked to this idea of "pure cinema." This idea is quite important for this study, because of the implied suggestion that cinema can have independent faculties which qualify it to speak purely in its own language.  As we suggested earlier, our stand is that this is not possible. Here we will give a textual example of how, in fact, this particular cinematic language is heavily influenced by natural language.  

On examining Hitchcock's cinematic tools for delivering an inside look into the emotions and thoughts of characters, the central task is to discover how he achieved this through what has been described as his distinctive visual style. This of course derives from the idea of pure cinema which has always been discussed in relation to the director’s work. 

We will choose the opening scene of Strangers on a Train, and analyze it as a piece of pure cinema. Although we have our reservations on the vague use of such a term we will, for the purpose of analysis, see how the concept works in the scene. 

The Scene (watch clip above): We see two unknown characters arriving, separately, to a train-station. We do not see their faces. The only thing we see is two different pairs of shoes stepping out of a taxi or a car, again separately. The cut from one pair of shoes to the other builds up to a climax, and a sense of anticipation of an accidental meeting is created. Without any dialogue, and relying entirely on this visual scene, we start to know a great deal about these characters' lives. The two men in the scene are characterised by means of their shoes: first, showy, vulgar, brown-and-white brogue; second, plain unadorned walking shoes. From the contrasting styles of the two different shoes, we assume that one pair belongs to a flamboyant character and the other to a conservative, formal person. The two pair of shoes finally come to their destined meeting, an almost inevitable moment we waited, or asked to wait, for. The two men finally meet by the accidental touch of their shoes; the film story starts. The absence of spoken words in the scene seems to suggest that, in here, we have an example of pure cinema. We are only relying on the visual compositions (frames) and relations (editing) to form our understanding of the events and what is being said (what it means.) If we agree that films should be told and conveyed primarily through visual articulations, for the simple fact that film is a visual medium, this scene is a perfect example of how a language of cinema can work independently from natural language. 

But a closer look at the scene would, in fact, suggest the opposite: this is, on the contrary, an example of how this version of pure cinema relies on the codes and grammar of natural language. 

The first layer of the scene is in fact the title of the film Strangers on a Train. The title works as the background and basis of our reading of the scene, since we come to the film knowing its title. The accidental meeting, which seems to be the outcome of the visuals, is already implied in the title. As a name, Strangers on a Train can actually be read as: two very different people meet in a train. The visual scene works only as an interpretation, imitation, of the written title. 

Further more, pure cinema should belong to poetry rather than fiction. If it relies on narrative devices it will rather need to resort to storytelling techniques, which are heavily immersed in the grammar of written and spoken languages. Hitchcock's special skill is indeed his ability in creating this kind of cross-reference between cinema and language. His audiences would be therefore encouraged to use their experiences in natural language to understand the offered visual techniques. 

These techniques, which now form the basic conventions of narrative cinema, are clearly part of the experience of writing and can be described as immigrated ones that move from one to another mode of signification. The frame in which we see all the details of the action belongs fundamentally to the world of fiction. The camera angle that creates the frame assumes the identity of a neutral on-looker; it acts as the storyteller of the narrative.  
But indeed Hitchcock tells us so many details about the story, its characters, the place in which they live and about their social and psychological make-up through a very economical use of camera articulations.  
The scene is a remarkable example of the work of camera and the use of editing to create a storyteller. However, and because of the nature of the narrative itself, there are always verbal references in these purely visual articulations of camera/ storytelling and editing techniques. By verbal references we mean those kinds of signs which belong, fundamentally, to natural language systems. The camera in here tends to speak and articulate in the manner of language and speech. The method on which these visual articulations are based can be termed a kind of “literalism”, after Paul Willemen, by which he describes those instances where the verbal signifiers take over the articulations of the visual. 

An obvious example here is the analogy between the film title, Strangers on A Train, and the structure of the opening scene. We see a sign emigrating from its grammatical linguistic universe to another; but the sign appropriates itself into this new system and assumes its new identity as a visual signifier.

This is not just to argue that Hitchcock's visual style is not purely visual, which is a valid argument, but more importantly, it suggests that the term pure cinema is indeed a problematic one. It has been argued that "verbal signifiers are present and have a structuring effect on the very formation of images."
We argue that it is rather a matter of interrelationship between these two elements and not merely that of a domination effect of the verbal over the visual. This interrelation is indeed inevitable and as long as cinema borrows its models of expression from language, i.e. prose, it is bound to be affected by the conventions of such a linguistic system. H.K.
End of Part Three. 
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