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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.