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 Highsmithâs novel. Highsmithâs 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 FranÃ§ois Truffaut, a âspectacular comeback.â 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 âbizarre, malicious comedyâ and Peter Bogdanovich, who called it âone of his great films.â). It has also garnered lavish praise long after its release: Ephraim Katzâs Film Encyclopedia noted that Strangers âsignaled a return to greatnessâ and was a âsuperb achievement in suspense buildup and audience manipulationâ; and David Thomson in his own Biographical Dictionary of Film referred approvingly to Strangers as âa key exposition of the madman hero.â
Strangers on a Train was Highsmithâs 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 Hitchcockâs first film for Warner Brothers; according to Bill Krohn, author of Hitchcock at Work, a good summary of the filmmakerâs working methods, Hitchcock considered this to be his first, true American film â a new beginning of sorts. Hitchcock personally chose the novel to adapt. âI felt this was the right kind of material for me to work with,â he said. He accepted the studioâs 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 â as he proved unequivocally with Double Indemnity. (He also had good taste in film; he admired The Bicycle Thieves and Rome Open City.) He didnât think much of the novel (âItâs a silly enough story and quite a choreâ) but apparently did his manful best to adapt it â or to adapt Hitchcockâs 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 Hitchcockâs 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 Brunoâs 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 â and proceeds to murder Guyâs 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 âagreementâ to murder his father. Guy refuses, recognizes that Bruno is a sociopath, but canât 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 âroughly two-thirds of itâ they play a cat-and-mouse game that ends when Bruno is crushed under a carnival carousel following a fight with Guy.