Hitchcock Vs. Highsmith

Posted by on December 30th, 2009 at 12:01 AM

With his usual perspicacity, the undervalued and now virtually unknown film critic Charles Thomas Samuels wrote this about adapting fiction to film:

Distributed rather than translated by filming, fiction is also thereby reduced. Our culture is strewn with the flesh of great novels rotting away as nonreaders march to local movie houses to see the narrative bones reassembled. But even lesser books are disintegrated. The venality that sends filmmakers to fiction is usually accompanied by laziness. Books are exploited not only for a story line in which to hang visuals or as a known commodity to attract ticket-buyers but also as a substitute for all art save the technical one of transcription.

I always considered Strangers on a Train minor Alfred Hitchcock, but it shriveled even further in my estimation after I read Patricia Highsmith’s novel. Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train probably ranks among those lesser books to which Samuels refers, but its virtues are still real enough so that the only proper reaction to the violence Hitchcock inflicted upon it is perturbation.

After the commercial (and artistic) failures of Under Capricorn and Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train represented, in the words of François Truffaut, a “spectacular comeback.” It was well received and highly regarded, not just by Truffaut (for whom Hitchcock could do no wrong) but other authorities as well (such as Pauline Kael, who described it with enthusiastic approbation as a “bizarre, malicious comedy” and Peter Bogdanovich, who called it “one of his great films.”). It has also garnered lavish praise long after its release: Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia noted that Strangers “signaled a return to greatness” and was a “superb achievement in suspense buildup and audience manipulation”; and David Thomson in his own Biographical Dictionary of Film referred approvingly to Strangers as “a key exposition of the madman hero.”

Strangers on a Train was Highsmith’s first novel, published in 1950. Prior to that, upon graduating from Barnard College, she wrote comic books (between 1942 and 1948; in fact, her first position was as a staff writer at Cinema Comics where she replaced the outgoing Stanley Kauffmann, who would later become a theatre critic, film critic, and novelist. Quite an alumni at Cinema Comics). Producing two comic-book scripts a day yielded a salary of $55 a week. She wrote Westerns, romance, super heroes, and documentary-style stories and such characters as The Black Terror, Spy Smasher, and Captain Midnight. The modest success of her first novel was her ticket out of comics.

Strangers on a Train was Hitchcock’s first film for Warner Brothers; according to Bill Krohn, author of Hitchcock at Work, a good summary of the filmmaker’s working methods, Hitchcock considered this to be his first, true American film — a new beginning of sorts. Hitchcock personally chose the novel to adapt. “I felt this was the right kind of material for me to work with,” he said. He accepted the studio’s choice of Raymond Chandler to write the screenplay from his treatment. Chandler was not only a good novelist, but, rarer yet, a good novelist who could write effectively for the screen — as he proved unequivocally with Double Indemnity. (He also had good taste in film; he admired The Bicycle Thieves and Rome Open City.) He didn’t think much of the novel (“It’s a silly enough story and quite a chore”) but apparently did his manful best to adapt it — or to adapt Hitchcock’s treatment of it. Nonetheless, his collaboration with Hitchcock, if it can be so characterized, was a failure; Chandler proceeded to write two treatments and a script, which were so wrong-headed in Hitchcock’s view that he hired a Ben Hecht assistant, Czenzi Ormonde, to go back and write the screenplay from his original treatment, which she did.

The plot that Hitchcock excavated from the book is roughly as follows: Two strangers, Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony, meet on a train. Bruno ingratiates himself with Guy and they retire to Bruno’s cabin to dine, where Bruno maneuvers the conversation around to the subject of the perfect murder. He postulates that two strangers could pull off two perfect murders by killing the victim designated by the other; perfect precisely because they were heretofore strangers and therefore have nothing prior to connect them to each other. Guy uneasily laughs this mad scheme off, but Bruno takes this as a tacit acceptance of his plan — and proceeds to murder Guy’s wife, from whom, it has been established, Guy desperately wants a divorce. Once the deed is done, he feels that Guy owes him a murder and hounds him to fulfill his part of the “agreement” to murder his father. Guy refuses, recognizes that Bruno is a sociopath, but can’t go to the police and turn Bruno in because it will look like he collaborated with him in the murder of his wife. Throughout the rest of the film —roughly two-thirds of it— they play a cat-and-mouse game that ends when Bruno is crushed under a carnival carousel following a fight with Guy.

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6 Responses to “Hitchcock Vs. Highsmith”

  1. R. Fiore says:

    I have nothing to say about Strangers on a Train, known to the cognoscenti either as “the one with the tennis game” or “the one with the carousel.” Hitchcock was never a great respecter of source material; this is after all the same Hitchcock who made a version of The 39 Steps without the 39 steps. On the Highsmith on film front, though, I do want to recommend to anyone that you dig up Ripley’s Game to see John Malkovich as Tom Ripley. There should be a law that nobody but John Malkovich plays Tom Ripley. It’s the great unsung performance of the decade.

  2. patford says:

    Fiction is most often, but not always reduced by film.
    Two genre examples come too mind.
    Kubrick’s treatment of King’s “The Shinning,” and the Orson Welles rewrite of the script based on Whit Masterson’s “Badge of Evil” which resulted in “Touch of Evil.”
    In both instances there is a mirror image of what Gary is pointing out in contrasting the Patricia Highsmith novel with the Hitchcock film.
    In the case of Welles and Kubrick it is the film which takes the shell of a shallow story and adds the same elements Hitchcock has reduced from the Highsmith novel.

    Persona has been one of my favorite films since I snuck out of my bedroom at one in the morning when I was in the fourth grade and watched it on the KTLA morning movie. I don’t think I understood it at that time, but there I was transfixed two feet from the TV set until three in the morning. Years later Robert Altman added a third woman.

  3. Mike Hunter says:

    A fine write-up!

    In Hitchcock’s defense, though, a “Strangers on a Train” true to Highsmith’s novel would represent, “after the commercial (and artistic) failures of [i]Under Capricorn[/i] and [i]Stage Fright[/i],” a commercial failure, and all-too-likely one which mainstream critics of the time would have attacked as “confusing, depressing, immoral.”

    Hitchcock was asked once if he’d ever considered making a [i]personal[/i] film, with no thought of commercial considerations. He replied it’d be a betrayal of the trust Universal had placed in him.

    After reading a couple of Hitchcock bios, and a making of “Psycho” book, it’s pretty clear that business took a highly important part in the unappealingly tight-fisted* filmmaker’s mind.

    From “The New York Review of Books,” Michael Dirda’s “This Woman Is Dangerous” – focusing on her Ripley books – describes Highsmith’s third published novel:

    In [i]The Blunderer[/i] (1954) Highsmith fully established what would become her trademark theme: the blurring of fantasy and reality, usually reinforced by some sort of folie à deux, in which two very different people, almost always men, grow symbiotically obsessed with each other, ultimately to the point of madness and mutual destruction. In this case, a successful murderer is undone because a blundering fool hopes to emulate him.

    * [i]Never[/i] gave to charity; was constantly searching for tax loopholes; purchased the rights to film “Psycho” covertly, lest Bloch – knowing a famed director wanted his book – ask for more money; promised his personal assistants of many years’ devotion he’d provide for them in his will, then left them high and dry…

  4. Mike Hunter says:

    Hurmmph! No previews, editing or italics in responses, then?

  5. Wesley says:

    I think you can have italics–you just have to use proper html. (If I’m right, “can” will be in italics.)

  6. steelydan says:

    “Even as a movie qua movie, and without reference to the source material, Strangers on a Train may not be the train wreck that later films like Torn Curtain or Topaz were, but it was still a second-rate effort.”

    I could probably be pretty accurately described as a Hitchcock apologist, but I’ve never really understood the love for “Strangers on a Train” either. It’s good, but definitely second-tier Hitchcock. Strangely, I’ve actually changed my mind about “Topaz” in the last couple of years and now consider it a minor, albeit flawed, success (even though it goes on for about 20 or 30 minutes too long).

    I’m working my way through the “Ripley” novels now, and as much as I like them, I do find Highsmith’s prose to be weirdly clunky at times, and her plots frustratingly anti-climactic. Great set-ups, flat resolutions.

    I agree, though, that the film version of “Ripley’s Game” (especially John Malkovich’s performance) is surprisingly good.