Hitchcock Vs. Highsmith

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

Oddly, or ironically, or just weirdly enough, Hitchcock exploits rather than explores this theme nine years later in Psycho; he uses it as an ex post facto rationale for the scary directorial manipulations that preceded it. Cinematically, Hitchcock is a precocious child to Bergman’s grown-up. Even Highsmith’s is not as great an achievement as Bergman’s, partly because it’s buried in an otherwise undistinguished novel, whereas Persona is all of a piece; but it is nonetheless the centerpiece of the novel and is masterfully modulated. Guy begins to unravel, moves from loathing to fear to something approaching — love? Need? (The homosexual overtones are more emphatic in the novel than the movie for obvious reasons; Sir John Suckling: “One is no number, till that two be one.”) Consider how she unveils the process by which Guy begins to consider murder as an option, first by rendering victim and victimizer as abstractions:

But having been there once, it was easy for his mind to go there again. In the nights when he could not sleep, he enacted the murder, and it soothed him like a drug. It was not murder but an act he performed to rid himself of Bruno, the slice of a knife that cut away a malignant growth. In the night, Bruno’s father was not a person but an object, as he himself was not a person but a force. To enact it, leaving the Luger in the room, to follow Bruno’s progress to conviction and death, was a catharsis.

Several pages later, Bruno moves from abstraction to an adroitly described presence that is at once concrete and spectral:

Guy awakened to Bruno’s presence in the dark, though he heard nothing. After the first small start at the suddenness, he felt no surprise at all. As he had imagined, in nights before this, he was quite happy that Bruno had come. Really Bruno? Yes. Guy saw the end of his cigarette now, over by the bureau.

Guy heard him stumble against the bureau and heard the draw pull out. The lampshade crackled, the light came on, and Bruno stood there huge and tall in a new polo coat so pale it was nearly white, in black trousers with a thin white stripe in them. A white silk muffler hung long around his neck. Guy examined him from his small brown shoes to his stringy oiled hair, as if from his physical appearance he could discover who had caused his change of feeling, or even what the feeling was. It was familiarity, and something more, something brotherly. Bruno clicked the gun shut and turned to him. His face was heavier than the last time Guy had seen it, flushed and more alive than he remembered ever having seen it. His grey eyes looked bigger with his tears and rather golden. He looked at Guy as if he tried to find words, or as if he pled with Guy to find them. Then he moistened the thin parted lips, shook his head, and reached an arm out towards the lamp. The light went out.

When he was gone, it hardly seemed he was gone. There were just the two of them in the room still, and sleep.”

This required both skill and insight. Hitchcock had the former in spades but displayed little of the latter, and evidently chose not even to try in this film. He chose the path of least resistance and was rewarded with a commercial blockbuster.

Whereas the movie ends with our innocent hero’s innocence confirmed and he and his steadfast fiancée riding a train into marital bliss, the book ends badly for just about everyone: Guy’s wife and Bruno’s father are murdered; Bruno drowns in a boat accident; and Guy’s confession is overheard, cleverly, by an indefatigable detective. Presumably, Guy will go to the gas chamber rather than the conjugal bed.

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. Hitchcock’s films are widely perceived as thrillers with romantic elements, but his best films were ones where the suspense served as scaffolding for the romance (Notorious, North by Northwest, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Foreign Correspondent, and a movie that was all romance and no suspense, Mr. and Mrs. Smith). This is why he needed strong, attractive, romantic leading men and women; here he merely had two creepy actors — Robert Walker, good, in a role that required creepiness, and Farley Granger, ineffective, whose role did not. Ruth Roman was foisted on Hitchcock by the studio and while she was no Grace Kelly or Ingrid Bergman, she at least was not a Tippi Hedren, and performed adequately in a subordinate role that couldn’t generate any heat. And, to Hitchcock’s credit, he rendered the relationship between Guy and Anne with greater plausibility than Highsmith, which wouldn’t have been hard; relationships were not the author’s forte, in life or in art.

In a way, the Samuels quote I opened with is not entirely to the point: Hitchcock didn’t so much transcribe the book as circumvent it. And the movie didn’t so much betray the book as ignore it. Laziness may be one reason Hitchcock chose to film it, but if creative laziness was part of his make-up, he nonetheless adapted some of his best films Still, Strangers on a Train is a sad commentary on the mechanical nature of Hitchcock’s imagination, not to mention the imagination of those who enthuse over it.


Persona directed by Ingmar Bergman (1966). Liv Ullman as Elisabet Vogler photographed by Sven Nykvist. From John Simon’s book Ingmar Bergman Directs. [©1972 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.]

Strangers on a Train directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1951). Farley Granger as Guy Haines and Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony. Photographs by Robert Burks [©1951 Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.] From Bill Krohn’s book Hitchcock at Work.

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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.