Exploring Recurrent Themes in Hitchcock Films

The following text has initially been written for a class on film directors I attended at Concordia University. I hope you will appreciate it.


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Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart during the filming of Rope (1948)

It goes without saying that Sir Alfred Hitchcock is still one of the most acclaimed movie directors among contemporary cinephiles. His impressive filmography is often the object of various researches and analysis. However, this hasn’t always been the case. In the introduction of the final version of Hitchcock/Truffaut, French movie director François Truffaut explains how Hitchcock only gained an important international recognition quite late in his career. As a matter of fact, what initially made him popular were his TV shows Suspicions (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As a sort of “revenge”, American and European critics decided to analyze his work very meticulously and denigrate each one of his films. Fortunately, when Truffaut watched them, he developed a positive opinion of Hitchcock work. It was obvious to him that those films were made by a  thoughtful man.[1] Indeed, everything has a reason to be in Hitchcock films. This was François Truffaut’s main motivation for the book: to change the opinion of the critic and highlight the true genius in this man. [2]

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An iconic shot of Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut

It’s particularly thanks to the interest that François Truffaut and other New Wave directors had for the work Hitchcock that this one gained the status of auteur. To go further, Andrew Sarris’s, in Note on the Auteur Theory, establishes three criteria to define the place of a movie director as an auteur: his technical competences, his “distinguishable personality”[3] and the interior meaning[4], which is a combination between the first two criteria. Hitchcock easily fits  these criteria as  he was an innovator in new movie techniques, and knew how to use these technical aspects as a form of expression. He was able to mix narrative and technical ideas to create a meaningful result.

The Master of Suspense was famous for giving a unique signature to his movies, which makes him an auteur. For example, he liked to use common themes, some of the most popular being the cool blonde and the wrong man. The following text will focus on three Hitchcock’s films: The Lady Vanishes (1938), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Strangers on a Train (1951). These films will be explored through some of their most important common themes: the brunette, the sympathetic murderer, the notion of double, and the use of trains. The following question will therefore be answer: How does Hitchcock use these themes to contribute to the development of storyline? Or, What are the ideas transmitted by Hitchcock in the way those themes are presented to us?

***

Hitchcock was well known for choosing blondes as lead actresses (Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Ingrid Bergman, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh). The “Hitchcockian blonde” is synonym of “elegance” and has a certain sensual and sexual aura. As Megan Friddle explains in her text Hitchcock’s Women: Reconsidering Blondes and Brunettes, the critics, accusing Hitchcock of objectifying the women, described the typical Hitchcock blonde as an object of sexism.[5] Hitchcock’s relationship with women has always been peculiar and this could have been the result of his religious education. As much as Hitchcock’s blondes are fascinating, the director also modeled important brunette female characters. The three female protagonists of the chosen movies are precisely brunettes: Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) in The Lady Vanishes, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) in Shadow of a Doubt and Anne Morton (Ruth Roman) in Strangers on a Train.

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Grace Kelly as Frances Stevens in To Catch A Thief (1955)

If the Hitchcockian blonde is often seen as an object of desire and distraction for the male protagonist, the brunette can be seen as an ally. The Lady Vanishes is one of his rare Hitchcock films where the main protagonist is a woman. Iris’s train journey from Bandrika (a fictional country) to London is shaken when her new friend, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), whom she had met the previous night at the inn, mysteriously disappears. Strangely, everybody on the train pretends they have not seen her. A neurologist, Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), even suggests that her new friend might have been the product of her imagination. Her only ally is Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a young musician. What impresses here, is Iris’s devotion to finding her lost friend. If she is first introduced as someone who only cares for her own welfare, her selfishness disappears when Miss Froy vanishes. Described by Megan Friddle as an “amateur girl spy”[6], Iris is the only train passenger clever enough to understand that something odd is going on. Except for Gilbert, the other passengers stop worrying about unimportant things only when fire shots start. Iris takes initiatives and that’s how she becomes a heroine.

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Margaret Lockwood as Iris Henderson in The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Charlotte Newton’s role in Shadow of a Doubt is more ambiguous. Is she an ally or an opponent to her uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten)? He is very important to her but, when she learns about his possible crimes (he is suspected of having killed rich widows), her devotion to him is replaced by a strong feeling of disdain. Yet, she doesn’t try very hard to help the police in their investigation, and all she requires is that her uncle leaves the town.

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Teresa Wright as Charlotte “Charlie” Newton in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Charlotte is a victim of circumstances. Her mind is confused but we can’t say if the love she had for her uncle has completely vanished, even if he tried to kill her thrice because she knows too much. The fact that she often associates herself to her uncle and that they are friendly known as “twins” could explain Charlotte’s mixed-up feelings towards him. After her uncle’s accidental death, young Charlie still tries to justify and understand him: ” He thought the world was a horrible place. He couldn’t have been very happy ever.”[7]

Anne Morton is, without a doubt, an ally for Guy Haines (Farley Granger). She never tries to complicate his life and always adopts an attitude of compassion. She tries to analyze the different situations instead of taking control of them in an unthinking way. Even when Guy reveals to her that Bruno (Robert Walker) is the one who has killed Miriam (Laura Elliott), she is not angry with him; she simply tries to understand what happened. Anne even feels sorry for Miriam, although this one was a “rival”. When Guy is at Anne’s place (she lives with her father (Leo G. Carroll) and her sister Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock)) and they explain to him what happened to his wife, Anne makes clear that she has been strangled. Her face is then filmed in a high angle, which accentuates the tone of regrets and trauma in her voice. She realizes that there’s nothing to do to avoid the situation now that it’s done. The Hitchcockian brunette is one that lives through her best instincts and her common sense.

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Ruth Roman as Anne Morton in Strangers On a Train (1951)

Megan Friddle raises another interesting point when she explains how the Hitchcockian brunettes often witness an important journey from innocence to the lost of it.[8] This is perhaps the best distinction between Hitchcockian blondes and brunettes. The blonde, just like the brunette, is a clever one too, but it seems that she has already gained life experiences and her step in the serious and problematic adulthood has already been made.

Iris is perceived by her friends as someone who is about to give up her liberty to marry someone she doesn’t love. The girl who ate caviar at Cannes now feels her life as a young and festive woman is now completed and that the only thing left for her is marriage. It is understood that life, for her, so far, has only been the one of a high society girl, full of entertainments. She hasn’t faced real-life problems yet. This changes on the train. She is involved in a serious political conspiracy, which gives her new responsibilities as a friend and as a British citizen. Megan Friddle explains the important result of Iris’s evolution:

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Iris before the problem begins  (The Lady Vanishes)

“By the final scene Iris has become wiser about love, her government, and her position as a woman in the world. As a result of her transformation on the train, she marries for love, rather than out of social obligation, and plans to take up a life of further adventure with Gilbert.[9]

It is important to understand that Iris has changed not only for the world surrounding her, but for herself too.

When Charlie Newton makes her first apparition in Shadow of a Doubt, she is a simple teenage girl who lives a rather boring and ordinary life. Lying in her bed, lost in her thoughts, she realizes it too. The particularity of this story is the fact that it happens to an ordinary family, in an ordinary town. Charlotte could never believe her uncle has done something wrong until she becomes a victim herself. When it happens, she can’t face her uncle anymore. When she quits the public library after having read about his possible crimes in a newspaper, she is seen in a bird’s eye angle and in a very long shot, which creates oppression and accentuates the fact that she has lost an ally and a friend forever. One of the strongest moments about the significance of Charlie’s step in her new life is when she is in a bar with her uncle and he tells her:

“You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I? Or was it a silly, inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.[10]” 

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The library shot (Shadow of a Doubt)

Charlotte will indeed “learn something” from life after discovering the truth about her uncle.

Anne Morton, in Strangers on a Train, makes an exception to the rule. Her transformation is less obvious since not much is revealed about her past life. She is the governor’s daughter, her mother is probably dead, but what else? One doesn’t know much either about her feelings towards life, so one can only guess what they are. However, she becomes aware of a certain threat, not only for Guy but also for her sister, Barbara, who shares a physical resemblance with Miriam Haines (Bruno’s victim).

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Guy Haines and Anne Morton (Strangers on a Train)

***

Hitchcock’s ultimate film signature was the use of murderers. He also tended to choose sympathetic murderers. Of the three chosen films, the murderers are psychopaths but, despite that, they manage to gain the sympathy of the spectators. The fact that Dr. Hartz is a psychopath is less obvious. One doesn’t exactly know if he has committed murder before. He is betrayed by his attitude. From the beginning until the end, he is surprisingly calm. It seems that there’s nothing to fear about him. When the moment comes to announce to Gilbert and Iris that he is going to operate on Miss Froy and that the operation “won’t be successful” (in other words, that he will murder her), he remains very calm. No hesitation is heard in his voice, the tone is never raised, and he seems to enjoy the situation. Ironically enough, he is a neurologist…

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Gilbert, Iris and Dr. Hartz not long before he tells them the truth (The Lady Vanishes)

In his article Camera, Character, Conterplot: On Watching Hitchcock Wrong, Brandon White underlines the importance of Gilbert and Iris’s trust in Dr. Hartz:

” ‘‘It’s a conspiracy, that’s all it can be,’’ Iris insists toward the film’s end, but for dramatic purposes her recognition already comes too late. At this point the film has already shown us Dr. Hartz’s villainy; we’ve seen him plan to poison our two protagonists. By the evidence of the plot, we know by now that it’s all a conspiracy, but why should the film have brought it to our recognition earlier?” [11]

This is a way to prove that, unwittingly, the spectator becomes an accomplice of Dr. Hartz’s villainous actions. But here, the public can’t do anything except watch. Brandon White notices something important when he explains how, during the scene where Iris and Gilbert first meet Dr. Hartz, the light moves from darkness to light and from light to darkness[12], like a series of slow flashes. It somehow creates a symbolic shadow over the doctor and reveals the obscure side of his personality.

The situation is similar in Shadow of a Doubt. In his interview with Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut observes how the viewer sympathizes a lot with Uncle Charlie, mainly because he is actually never seen committing murder. Hitchcock agrees and explains that Charlie Oakley isn’t entirely bad and that Charlie Newton, by accidentally contributing to her uncle’s death, isn’t completely innocent either. He concludes his explanations by citing Oscar Wilde: “People always destroy what they love most of all.”[13] When Charlotte and her uncle are on the balcony after she has discover his secret, she expresses her desire to kill him. Her uncle’s face is in the dark while a lamp illuminates her face. Just like it was the case for Dr. Hartz, this seems to underline uncle Charlie’s wicked side.

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Uncle Charlie and his niece “Charlie” after a fatal moment (Shadow of a Doubt)

Among these study cases, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) is the only seen committing a murder. Once again, the viewer becomes his accomplice. He is clever, he is first presented as a nice person, and one is guilty not to feel bad that he killed Miriam. What annoys truly is the fact that he constantly menaces Guy and stalks him. So, the actual murder is not his most disturbing action. Miriam is perceived as a manipulative and spoiled girl. She isn’t a sympathetic character, so her death is nothing but a way to create a strong storyline. Bruno is the victim of his unhealthy devotion to his tennis’s idol Guy Haines. Hitchcock and Truffaut confirm the possible preference for Bruno. Truffaut notices how the poetry in Robert Walker’s character makes him a much more appreciable character than the one embodied by Farley Granger. On his side, Hitchcock confirms that he indeed prefers the villain.[14] 

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Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony, a sympathetic villain (Strangers on a Train)

***

Another theme that has major importance in Hitchcock films is the notion of double. In his article Doubles in Hitchcock Films, Robert Castle explains that the double in a Hitchcock film “is seen as a threat and must be expelled or expunged.”[15] The double indeed seems to represent the darker side of a good person and his often a nuisance to him/her.

The idea of double in The Lady Vanishes is present on two main occasions. In his book Alfred Hitchcock: the Complete Film, Paul Duncan, once again, underlines the fact that, when Iris is looking for Miss Froy, her snobbish attitude is replaced by her true romantic personality.[16] Here, the notion of double is embodied by the two sides of one person. This refers to what has previously been said about Iris’s accomplishment into the real adult world. The adventure on the train doesn’t only put her in danger but also gets the best out of her. The notion of double is also present when Madame Kummer (Josephine Wilson) replaces Miss Froy. She is dressed exactly like her and is here to create a diversion. Iris and Gilbert understand that Madame Kummer and Miss Froy have simply exchanged places and that Miss Froy is still on the train. The presence of Madame Kummer creates a nuisance for Iris by making her believe that she never saw Miss Froy.

The idea double in Shadow of a Doubt resides in the union between the two Charlies: the uncle and the niece. They often say how much they are like each other. The way the two Charlies are first presented in the film is quite revealing. Charlie Oakley is first introduced lying in his bed, with a solemn face. The camera moves from that face to a bunch of money scattered on the floor and then, on his night desk, indicating that this cash might be the result of non-recommendable actions. Hitchcock also used such a camera movement in Rear Window tell the viewers about about L.B Jefferies’s accident and also in Psycho to show that Marion Crane has stolen the money. By focusing on different key objects, Hitchcock’s camera easily replaces words.

Charlie Newton is the second one to appear in the film. Just like her uncle, she is lying in her bed, with a bored face and wonders if something will ever break her monotonous routine. The two Charlies seem to be pessimistic persons but, as Robert Castle explains, Uncle Charlie is the one who truly represents the ” dark, pessimistic perspective on human beings.”[17] To go further in the exploration of the opening scene, Tony French, in his article Your Father’s Method of Relaxation”: (Alfred) Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, writes something significant about the two cities where those characters are first seen. The first one (that looks like New York) is described as “bleak”[18] and “noisy”[19]. In opposition, Santa Rosa is presented as a tidy and untroubled town. The Uncle Charlie from the dark city will come to disturb the quietness of the peaceful one.[20]

Charlie Oakley vs. Charlie Newton (Shadow of a Doubt)

The relationship between the two Charlies is not an ordinary one. Tony French sees a symbol of marriage in this scene where Uncle Charlie gives an emerald ring to his niece.[21] There’s something sensual in the way they act and it let us know that he is not only an uncle to her. Hitchcock indeed confirms to François Truffaut that Charlotte is obviously in love with her uncle.[22]

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Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony create the idea of double in Strangers on a Train. Just like Shadow of a Doubt‘s opening scene, the one in Strangers on a Train creates a connection between both men. In a parallel editing, they are both seen coming out of a cab and going on the train. During this scene, only their legs and their feet are seen. It’s only when Guy touches Bruno’s foot accidentally that a real connection is established and the facial identity of the two men is revealed.

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A connection is established between Guy Haines (black shoes) and Bruno Anthony (white shoes) (Strangers on a Train)

According to James Palmer in his text Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and Leconte’s Man on a Train: Denying and Befriending the Shadow, Bruno represents the shadow of Guy, in other words, his “bad side”.[23] One could go further by admitting that it represents his desire to kill Miriam due to all the troubles she’s giving him. However, James Palmer explains how Guy doesn’t accept his shadow by condemning Bruno’s acts. Nevertheless, he’s as much guilty as Bruno.[24] This is expressed unconsciously but the camera gives clues. There’s this scene where Guy returns home and he is called in the night by Bruno (who wants to tell him he has killed Miriam). While he’s on the stairs, the camera films him in a weird diagonal low angle. According to Palmer, this would represent ” a world askew, unstable and out of balance”.[25] It indicates that Bruno isn’t completely good. In the same scene, there’s this interesting visual moment when the two men are separated by the tall wrought iron fence. The bars create a symbolic jail for both men letting the spectators know that they are both condemned.

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Bruno vs. Guy (Strangers on a Train)

Robert Castle offers a more positive point of view by asking this question: “Does Guy know himself: who he really is? Hadn’t Bruno acted out what Guy had thought? Wasn’t Bruno, that “evil double”, the agent of Guy’s happiness? Are Guy and Anne assured a happy, settled marriage?”[26] With this in mind, there are many possibilities as for the role of Bruno in Guy’s life. However, the idea of shadow sounds like the most plausible one.

***

Finally, a theme that is constantly used in Hitchcock films is the use of trains. They are places of danger, new encounters, but, most of all, a symbol of change and transition.

Looking first at The Lady Vanishes, which is the ultimate Hitchcock on-train film, one can notice how the train is filmed violently. Unlike the train in Shadow of a Doubt or Strangers on a Train, this one always goes very fast. The whistle is similar to a woman’s scream. Could this symbolize Miss Froy’s scream for help? The fact that the train is filmed in a very dynamic way gives clue that action is about to take place. The train represents the evolution of the characters. Iris becomes a better person, the Todhunter realizes they might not be made for each other, the false nun realizes she might have chosen the wrong side, etc. Only Charters and Caldicott come out of the train the same persons they were before: impatient to attend the final of the cricket test matches.

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The train in The Lady Vanishes

One will also notice that the camera often focuses on the wheels of the train. They create quite an interesting visual effect at one point in the film. After Iris faints in the train, the image of her friends waving at her is multiplied and forms a sort of spiral. The effect of rotation fades and is replaced by the wheels.

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The train in The Lady Vanishes is associated with dangerous adventures. Besides, when Iris asks Gilbert where he wants to go for their honeymoon, he specifies ” Somewhere with no train.”[27]

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The train in Shadow of a Doubt has the shape of a bad premonition. It’s old, it’s black, and it pollutes the air with a ton of “funeral smoke”[28] as Tony French describes it. When the train arrives in Santa Rosa, it is first seen from the front, which makes it even more imposing than it already is. The Newton finally arrive, which creates a contrast between darkness and joy. In his discussion with François Truffaut, Hitchcock explains that the very dark smoke was indeed wanted, especially to create a big shadow over the train station. He also explains that it sort of represents the evil coming in town.[29] The smoking train that arrives in Santa Rosa announces the upheaval of a quiet family. On the opposite, as François Truffaut notices it, when the train leaves, only a small white smoke is seen.[30] The evil one has left the town, more precisely; he has died, falling off the train. In this case, the train in Shadow of a Doubt is a synonym of death, danger, and evil.

Lastly, the word train itself is part of the title of Strangers on a Train. Unlike the trains in Shadow of a Doubt and The Lady Vanishes‘s, the one in this film seems less imposing. First, it is grey instead of black. Second, one can notice that it is never seen in its entirety. The camera always focuses on a limited part. Furthermore, the first thing that is shown at the beginning of the story is not the train, but the rails, which are seen from the train’s point of view. In The Forgotten Lighter and Other Moral Accidents in Strangers on a Train, George Toles describes this view of the tracks in a rather interesting way:

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Hitchcock’s cameo in Strangers on a Train

“A train’s-eye view of the tracks to indicate that a journey is now underway, the tracks themselves in their crisscross overlapping continue the language of symmetry. We are shown, through the merging of separate lines “like” things being brought together and forming a single entity, with one path and purpose”.[31]

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This doesn’t only indicate the beginning of a new adventure, but it also supports what has previously been said about the connection between Guy and Bruno. Just like the rails that cross each other, the two men will meet each other and will become dependent on one another. The train in Strangers on a Train is not only a place of meetings but also a way for Bruno to leave Metcalf, leave Miriam and be reunited with Anne, the woman he truly loves.

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The first encounter between Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony (Strangers on a Train)

***

This analysis helps to understand better the place of Hitchcock as an auteur. Even if Hitchcock films are all unique, one can’t help connecting them thanks to significant similarities. Apart from these themes, other elements could be analyzed: the humour, the suspense, the use of music, etc. Hitchcock, yes, worked with a team, but he really was the master, not only the “master of suspense” but the master of his own films. The final product wasn’t Charles Bennett signature, neither Bernard Herrmann one; it was Hitchcock signature. He is omnipresent in all his films.

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[1] Truffaut, François. Hitchcock/Truffaut. Gallimard. 1993.
[2] Ibid. note 1.
[3] Auteurs and Authorship (Course textbook): Andrew Sarris, “Notes on the Auteur Theory” (1962)
[4] Ibid. note 3
[5] Friddle, Megan. “Hitchcock’s Women: Reconsidering Blondes And Brunettes.” Interdisciplinary Humanities 32.1 (2015): 103-116. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
[6] Ibid. note 5.
[7] Shadow of a Doubt – 1: 46: 40
[8] Ibid. note 5
[9] Ibid note 5
[10] Shadow of a Doubt – 1: 15: 43
[11] White, Brandon. “Camera, Character, Counterplot: On Watching Hitchcock Wrong.” Film Quarterly 66.3 (2013): 28-43. Film & Television Literature Index. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
[12] Ibid. note 11.
[13] Ibid. note 1
[14] Ibid. note 1
[15] Castle, Robert. ” Doubles in Hitchcock Films.” Collingswood, Nov. 15, 2012. http://patch.com/new-jersey/collingswood/bp–doubles-in-hitchcocks-films. 30 Nov. 2016.
[16] Duncan, Paul. Alfred Hitchcock: Filmographie Complète. Taschen. 2001.
[17] Ibid. note 15
[18] French, Tony. “‘Your Father’s Method Of Relaxation’: (Alfred) Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt.” Cineaction 50 (1999): Literature Resource Center. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
[19] Ibid. note 18
[20] Ibid. note 18
[21] Ibid. note 20
[22] Ibid. note 1
[23] Palmer, James. “Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train And Leconte’s Man On A Train: Denying And Befriending The Shadow.” Psychological Perspectives 51.2 (2008): 266-286. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
[24] Ibid. note 23
[25] Ibid. notr 23
[26] Ibid. note 15
[27] The Lady Vanishes – 1: 33: 36
[28] Ibid. note 18
[29] Ibid. note 1
[30] Ibid. note 1
[31] Toles, George. “The Forgotten Lighter And Other Moral Accidents In Strangers On A Train.” Raritan 28.4 (2009): 111-137. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

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