Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Burks, and the use of lamps in “Strangers on a Train”

Strangers on a Train was the first collaboration between director Alfred Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks.  Burks would go on to be the cinematographer on eleven more Hitchcock films.  He was always able to adapt to the subject matter and give Hitchcock exactly what was needed.  Whether black & white or color, whether the documentary style of The Wrong Man or the lush color scheme of Vertigo, Burks and Hitchcock were always in sync.   Burks received an Oscar nomination for Strangers, and I think it’s worth taking a deeper look at his lighting scheme.

I have already written about Hitchcock’s clever use of lamps in several movies.  (The Paradine Case has a sequence in which a lamp is almost a third character in the scene.  And I’ve written extensively about the importance of lamps in Dial M for Murder.)   But I am amazed at the number of visible lamps in this movie, often (but not always) in place as a visible light source.  Clearly this was a deliberate design, the result of Hitchcock and Bob Burks working together.  And of course credit has to be given to set designer George James Hopkins, a four-time Oscar winner. 

So in the following picture it is not exactly a lamp, but there is a visible light source in between Guy and Miriam as they talk.  It provides visual balance to the framing.

The entire carnival sequence is fantastically lit.  It was rare in the early 50’s to see a sequence like this filmed on location, at night, and it makes a huge difference.  In a shot like this, there is the play of light on the water for an added effect.

How about this interesting camera angle, when Guy gets the phone call from Anne Morton after Miriam has been killed.  The lamp appears to tower over Guy.

When Guy gets to the Morton’s house, the sequence features no less than three lamps, filmed from a variety of sides and angles.  This first lamp is easy to identify, with the sash along the top.

Now here is lamp number 2 behind Barbara’s head.  What a perfectly framed image.  Notice that the lamps all function practically as part of the set;  in other words, they are one of the light sources illuminating the image.


This is lamp number two again, seen behind and below Anne in her close-up.

Now we see the original lamp, at frame right, where before it was frame left.  Notice how it not only lights the corner, but provides balance to the composition.

And here is lamp number three, as the camera has made a full circuit of the room.

After Senator and Barbara Morton leave the room, Anne and Guy come together, with lamp number one perfectly centered in the frame behind them.

When Guy returns to the Morton’s the following evening, we see lamp number one from a different angle.   Guy is feeling the weight of his predicament, and a lamp again seems to tower over him.

Later, Guy is in his apartment, hiding Bruno’s gun.  For the first time he towers above a light source.

Hennessy joins Guy, and the same lamp provides balance to the scene.  Now Guy has visual dominance over another character, as well as a light source.

Now we are back at the Morton house for the party, but in a different room, which means…different lamps!  

Here is lamp number two in this room.   Once again, it provides nice balance.  Just as in the other room in the Morton house, the lamps in this room all have distinct designs, making them easy to distinguish.

Finally we get this lovely lamp, and composition, as Bruno is talking about murder to the two older married women.

Notice how the light sources shift, from frame left to frame right.  Here Bruno is demonstrating the instruments with which he would kill.

And now, back in the study, the very same lamp that was between Guy and Anne in a moment of affection is between Guy and Bruno.  (I must also note the  reprint of the famous Lansdowne portrait of George Washington hanging above the lamp.  We can see the painting every time we see the lamp, and the lamp illuminates it as well.)

Here is a fantastic shot, just after Bruno turns on the lamp in his father’s room.  Yet another lamp illuminating the gulf between Guy and Bruno.  


This is my favorite use of a lamp in the entire film, and for once it is not used as a light source.  This scene takes place in daylight.  The lamp is there purely to provide visual balance and counterpoint.

And finally, there is this hanging light at the carnival, which causes Bruno to hide his face in the shadows.

It is no wonder that Bob Burks received an Oscar nod for this movie.  What is perhaps more impressive is how the lights are hiding in plain sight.  Lamps are such a simple, innocuous feature in most rooms.  And yet, just like any other detail, they are never seen within the frame by accident  in a Hitchcock film.  To paraphrase Hitchcock, the background has to function.  And this movie is a perfect demonstration of how the director, cinematographer, and set designer all worked together to create a lighting scheme that serves both the function and the aesthetic of the movie.

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