Hitchcock Vs. Highsmith

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

Bogdanovich claims that Hitchcock “relished this story,” in which case it’s fair to ask why he didn’t film it. What Hitchcock did was to film the book’s premise and jettison the literary and psychological dimension that distinguished it from your run-of-the-mill thriller. In the movie, Guy and Bruno meet cute, as they say, on a train, and Bruno maneuvers the conversation to murder and suggests, playfully (or is it?) that two strangers who meet on a train and agree to murder each other’s respective victims would achieve the perfect murder because neither could be traced to the other. Guy laughs this off (not implausible since it’s clearly deranged), but Bruno takes this as an agreement and proceeds to murder Guy’s wife. It’s at this point where book and film diverge. In the film, Guy refuses to murder Bruno’s father and, with the help of his loyal and fearless fiancée, spends most of the film avoiding Bruno or trying to clear his name once he’s considered a suspect by the police. Bruno stalks Guy until there is a race against time when Guy has to reach Bruno before he can plant evidence at the scene of the crime that could convict Guy — a bit of illogical hokum, outlandish even relative to the premise. Finally, on his deathbed, so to speak, Bruno still adamantly and somewhat churlishly refuses to clear Guy of his wife’s murder but ultimately, unwillingly, does. Guy and his fiancée walk happily into the night. The entire film is one long cliché tricked up with standard Hitchcock visual gags and flourishes (though the murder of Guy’s wife at the hands of Bruno, seen through the wife’s eyeglasses, is eerily effective, and the one truly imaginatively staged scene in the entire film).

In the book, Bruno methodically harasses Guy after killing his wife, demanding that he kill his father in exchange. Highsmith’s real achievement here is showing Guy’s shift from dismissing the idea out of hand —as any sane reader would do— to slowly embracing it; she makes the implausible utterly plausible, the irrational shockingly rational. Guy is a paradigmatic, upwardly mobile bourgeois, who would no more seriously consider committing murder than you or me. But, he is also insecure, hollow, still unformed (Farley Granger is almost too perfectly cast). Guy starts to go to pieces and Highsmith shows us a mind in turmoil. He establishes a relationship with Bruno, begins to like him, fears him, identifies with him —all somewhat against his will (or is it?). Highsmith is flirting with a profound theme — that of the merging of personalities or “doubling” of identities. It was probably most profoundly and successfully explored in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, perhaps best explicated by Susan Sontag, who wrote:

In my own view, the construction of Persona is best described in terms of this variations-on-a-theme form. The theme is that of doubling; the variations are those that follow from the leading possibilities of that theme (on both a formal and a psychological level) such as duplication, inversion, reciprocal exchange, utility and fission, and repetition. The action cannot be unequivocally paraphrased. It’s correct to speak of Persona in terms of the fortunes of two characters named Elizabeth and Alma who are engaged in a desperate duel of identities. But it is equally pertinent to treat Persona as relating the duel between two mythical parts of a single self: the corrupted person who acts (Elizabeth) and the ingenious soul (Alma) who founders in contact with corruption.

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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.