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strangers on a train

28 april 2023

I recently re-read Patricia Highsmith's classic Strangers on a Train. In writing a bit about it here, I am going to spoil both the book and Hitchcock film adapted from it, so if you hate spoilers, read no further.

OK then. First of all, Strangers on a Train is an outstanding novel, and Strangers on a Train is an outstanding film. Which goes to show that faithfulness has nothing to do with the quality of an adaptation: because Hitchcock's film practically upends the plot and themes of Highsmith's novel.

I am reminded of the contrasts between book and film versions of Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place – where the serial-killer protagonist of the novel turns out to be just a misunderstood innocent in the film. The film of In a Lonely Place tries to end on a dark note despite the central character's exoneration, but that somehow makes it even more muddled. The movie hedges its bets.

By contrast, the two Strangers on a Trains couldn't be less alike, except for the names of the pair of characters who find themselves in a "criss-cross" situation where each contemplates a murder advantageous to the other. In the film, Bruno kills Guy's wife, and Guy seems tempted to kill Bruno's father; but we can't quite imagine Guy going through with the counterpart murder, and though we're in some suspense as to whether he will, of course he doesn't.

In Highsmith's novel, Guy absolutely kills Bruno's father. And though the detective Gerard speculates that one could consider Guy to have been coerced into the killing, the reader has so much access to Guy's thoughts that that explanation doesn't really wash. Guy is fascinated by Bruno in both works, but only in the novel does that fascination become a willing violation of everything the graceful humanist architect Guy stands for, as if his artistic sensibilities were always just an aesthetic veneer over his essential inhumanity.

In the film, Guy isn't an architect. He is a tennis champion. One element of Highsmith's novel that persists in the film is that Guy has risen in the American social scheme. In each version, his girlfriend Anne is well-connected and well-off. Guy, though not a bounder, has risen from middle-American mediocrity (in the novel, all the worse, in Texas) to East-Coast high society, on merit. But in Hitchcock's film, the route is sports, not art. As a result, in the film we don't get any sense of Guy's aestheticism. He's no yahoo, but he's clearly not from the "tennis, anyone" class that have courts on their estates and the like. In the novel, Guy is a gifted artist who has met Anne at design school; and in the novel Anne is a successful designer. In the film she's just a Senator's daughter and seems to have no role in life except the ornamental. (In both versions, Bruno is the wastrel heir of a big capitalist, allied with his mother against the old man.)

I am not quite sure what to make of all these contrasts, except to say that Highsmith's novel seems a more coherent observation of class, work, and art in America. In fact one imagines that Czenzi Ormonde's screenplay made Guy into a tennis player just to set up the one famous sequence where fans swivel their heads to follow the play while Robert Walker, as Bruno, stares chillingly at Guy himself.

But lack of nuance scarcely means that the film is weak. Precisely because the film Strangers on a Train hews to Hollywood conventions – the clean-cut hero, the devoted virginal fiancée, the triumph of family values in the end – it generates more tension within its constraints than a more ambivalent film like In a Lonely Place. Robert Walker gives the performance of his life; the gay subtext which is barely concealed in Highsmith's novel becomes a smoldering closet fire on screen, more torrid because it's repressed. The interplay between the two masterpieces is the stuff of much better criticism than this brief review, and bears much deeper consideration.

Highsmith, Patricia. Strangers on a Train. 1950. London: Vintage [Random House], 1999.