Strangers on a Train is 29-year-old Patricia Highsmith’s dark debut novel from 1950. It involves the folies à deux of two passengers who, after a chance meeting, must navigate their way through a labyrinth of homoerotic impulses, crime and guilt. Typical of most Highsmith’s writing, Strangers On a Train is not merely a suspense thriller but noir fiction which slinks into subterranean tunnels of the dangerous and the amoral.
One of Highsmith’s biographers, Andrew Wilson points out that as Highsmith brings Gothic themes and experiential conundrums into modern contexts, her writing shows the influence of Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and other existentialists. In the words of another biographer, Joan Schenkar, Highsmith’s books “…are like nothing else in their literary landscape … [they] suck another reader into their bottomless vortex of moral relativities, transferable guilts, and unstable identities.”
Highsmith is gripping. Period.
Early in the story, 25-year-old decadent Bruno preys on Guy, a 29-year-old career oriented architect. Highsmith swiftly co-opts her readers into the insecurity of Guy’s inner world:
“How could he talk so intimately to Bruno, he wondered, reveal the best of himself? Who was less likely to understand than Bruno?”— Strangers on A Train.
Guy talks about his profession and his aspirations. Before long, Bruno knows of Guy’s shrewish wife Miriam, who is resisting a divorce, and of Anne, the woman Guy wants to marry. Bruno, yet to reveal himself in his full, mother-fixated colours, announces his grand theory: “A person ought to do everything it’s possible to do before he dies and maybe die trying to do something that’s really impossible.”
Bruno then outlines his “wonderful idea” for the murder of his dominating father and of Guy’s difficult wife. Now, if Bruno and Guy could just swap murders, each would end up killing a total stranger and no motives would be traced back to either of them. In Highsmith’s world of coincidence, irrationality, ambiguity and amoral leakage, murder can be committed even on a whim.
Unknown to Guy, and with irony that borders on the grotesque, Bruno locates and murders Miriam at an amusement park. “He [Bruno] heard his teeth crack,” Highsmith writes, and tells us Bruno’s fingers made “deep dents in her throat as in a piece of dough”. This tersely worded visceral sequence is ironically capped off the following day when Bruno’s grandmother innocently asks to be taken to “maybe a good movie – with a murder in it – or maybe the amusement park”.
The rest of Highsmith’s story concerns the manner in which Guy expiates for Bruno’s crime, first by murdering Bruno’s father and then grudgingly but gradually absorbing Bruno into his life with Anne. After Bruno has a fatal accident, Guy is unable to live with his guilt any longer and allows himself to be arrested. Highsmith has the same questions for her protagonist as her readers: “What did he feel about Bruno besides hatred and disgust? Was he afraid?”
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 screen version offers a more flamboyant and flirtatious Bruno (spectacularly played by Robert Walker) who picks up the title-holding tennis player Guy (Farley Granger). As in the novel, the murders are announced by Bruno and Miriam is indeed strangled to death by him in an amusement park. But Hitchcock abandons the complex characters of his source material and opts for typical Hollywood fare – a completely innocent man is made to bear the guilt of a crime and must be exonerated.
“Two people in each person. There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world and he waits in ambush,” says Highsmith’s Bruno.
Hitchcock does not belabour this premise, nor does he compromise the suspense of Highsmith’s grim and humourless novel. Through the lens of expert cinematographer Robert Burkes, Strangers On A Train becomes a gallery of sensational chiaroscuro, where the story is told through startling and unforgettable images. Dmitri Tomkin’s thrilling as well as chilling score adds the sinister touches to a film that has not lost its appeal since its release.
It is Hitchcock’s wit and imagination that give the film a special edge. Several pairs of strangers on trains keep the audience subliminally connected to the doppelganger idea that runs through the story – double drinks, double murders and double sets of tennis – to name just a few. “Criss cross” is the other suggestion from the novel that is carried forward from the opening shots of diverging and intersecting train tracks to the tennis racquets embossed on Guy’s lighter and finally to a crucial tennis match in the penultimate reels of the film.
Engaging cameo characters include Bruno’s eccentric mother (delightfully played by Marion Lorne), Anne’s outspoken sister (Patricia Hitchcock) and an incredibly silly dinner guest, Mrs Cunningham (Norma Varden). But the real stars of Strangers on a Train are a cigarette lighter , a pair of thick lensed glasses and a wildly spinning carousel.