‘Strangers on a Train’: The Hitchcock/Highsmith Smack-Down!


*Please note: spoilers below*

Before I begin, I should point out that I’m not the sort of person who usually succumbs to apoplectic rage over the perceived imperfections of a film adaptation of a book. I was, in fact, immensely irritated by those Harry Potter fans who squawked ‘That’s not in the book!’ and then insisted on listing every single detail that the latest film had left out in order to fit an 800-page book into two-and-a-half onscreen hours. No, I don’t get worked up about this sort of thing because books and films are two different media, and if you really want The Film Of The Book, well, why not just read the book? The idea behind an adaptation is to create something based on the original, but it should be something that explores the text in a different format and perhaps ends up saying something new about it, encouraging the audience to go back to the book and read it again with new eyes. In short, there is NO POINT in simply filming the book. Faithful adaptations are all well and good, but I always think of them as a missed opportunity to say something new.

Having said all that, I HATED Hitchcock’s adaptation of Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and I hated it so much that I have to write a post about it in order to get it off my chest. I know Hitchcock was an innovative and inspired director, and that he contributed a great deal to the art of filmmaking, but on the evidence of this film I’d have to say that as a reader of narratives, he was a bit of a duffer.


Highsmith’s novel is a brilliant piece of exceptionally accomplished writing, made all the more astonishing by the fact that this was her first novel, published originally in 1950 when Highsmith was still only 29 years of age. Hitchcock’s film appeared the following year, and the film’s Wikipedia page notes that Hitchcock purchased the rights for only $7,500 after having been careful to keep his name out of the proceedings. Highsmith was understandably annoyed about having been cheated like this. Raymond Chandler produced a screenplay for Hitchcock based on the novel, but almost none of Chandler’s work made it into the final script: you can read his marvellously rude letter to Hitchcock here. (Chandler’s name remains on the credits, though, at the insistence of Warner Bros.)

Highsmith’s novel is based on a very simple premise: two strangers, Charles Anthony Bruno and Guy Haines, meet on a train. Bruno has an idea for the perfect murder: he will murder Guy’s wife Miriam, who is causing trouble over their divorce, and Guy will murder Bruno’s father, who is keeping Bruno on a too-tight rein. If both men are absent with alibis at the time of each murder, there is nothing to link them and their chances of getting away with it are therefore greatly increased. Guy is horrified by the idea, but Bruno goes ahead and murders Miriam while Guy is elsewhere, and Guy is eventually coerced into fulfilling his part of the bargain. Among the many themes of Highsmith’s novel is that of the double, or doppelgänger – the Hyde to one’s Jekyll, a darker side who enacts one’s secret desires, a theme that is brought out through liberal use of free indirect discourse and the ceaseless and seamless interweaving of voices. Hitchcock introduces the double idea at the beginning of his film by showing us Guy’s feet and Bruno’s feet in parallel scenes as they make for the train, but the idea is never pursued as thoroughly as it is in Highsmith’s novel – essentially because Guy has to be a Hollywood hero and isn’t allowed a dark side.


Guy’s status as hero proves detrimental to the entire film, the biggest single problem being that a hero cannot be a murderer, so Guy does not gun down Bruno’s father as he does in the novel – he tries to warn him instead*. But the most terrifying thing about Highsmith’s novel is Bruno’s relentless pursuit of Guy, so in the end Guy is left with no choice but to carry out the deed.

Highsmith’s Guy Haines is an architect at the beginning of what promises to be a brilliant career, but Hitchcock’s Haines is a tennis player, already well-known and riding a tide of success. This switch of profession is an inexplicable decision on Hitchcock’s part, because Guy’s status as an architect is crucial to an understanding of his character as a sensitive and creative soul whose buildings are inspired by his faith. Highsmith underlines this by ‘quoting’ an article about Guy taken from an English architectural magazine, part of which is reproduced below:

Haines [has] set forth principles of grace and function to which he has steadfastly held, and through which his art has grown to its present stature. If we seek to define Haines’ peculiar genius, we must depend chiefly upon that elusive and aery term, ‘grace’, which until Haines has never distinguished modern architecture. It is Haines’ achievement to have made classic in our age his own concept of grace…

Note that the word ‘grace’ features three times in this very short paragraph, and this is surely important. The novel begins with a temptation scene – Bruno, bearing the mark of the first murderer Cain in the form of a boil in the middle of his forehead, outlines his idea for the double murder – and Highsmith’s story ends with a confession, in which Guy blurts out the truth to Miriam’s ex-lover, Owen Markman. Now, I’m not a religious person and I don’t pretend to understand these things, but my reading is that Guy is tempted and falls, but his confession, and the beautiful buildings he creates, lead him finally to a state of grace. With Guy as tennis player, all this is lost, and we’re left with Farley Granger’s knobbly knees in tennis shorts and some rather dodgy shooting of a match that Guy is trying to win as quickly as possible for reasons that are not in the least bit clear. There is one superb, and very famous, shot which comes out of this tangle, however: all heads are turning to watch the ball except for that of Bruno, whose eyes are fixed on Guy…


And now for Bruno. Robert Walker puts in a marvellous turn as Hitchcock’s bad guy, but he is a cut-price two-dimensional version of Highsmith’s Charles Anthony Bruno. Hitchcock’s Bruno is a murderer who is inept enough to display his name for all to see in the form of a tasteless tie-pin:


Bruno as Highsmith wrote him is young, rich, bored, an avid reader of detective novels (hence his fascination with the perfect murder), and he is terrifying. He is both stupid and an alcoholic and this combination means that he is extremely dangerous because he is unpredictable. His wealthy, cushioned life has made him arrogant. He thinks nothing of murdering Miriam – indeed, it is only a game to him – and he plots the killing of his own father so that he can have full and immediate access to the allowance his father metes out so carefully. The detective Gerard notes that Bruno hates women, and indeed, his latent homosexuality is as clear to the reader as is his Oedipus-like status: the only woman Bruno will tolerate is Elsie, his mother, who in Highsmith’s novel is an attractive, still fairly youthful woman. Hitchcock turns Elsie into a senile old baggage, thus depriving us yet again of an area of potential intellectual interest.


However, I did find something that I liked about Hitchcock’s handling of the Bruno character. Bruno’s ‘bed-trick’, in which he pretends to be his father so he can confront Guy, was a point which sparked my interest, namely because I wondered when I was reading the novel whether it would turn out to be Bruno underneath the bedclothes. Given Bruno’s implied death wish and his adulation of Guy, I entertained the possibility that Bruno would consider it a great adventure to be shot dead by the man he clearly adores. But far more likely that Hitchcock wanted Bruno to call Guy’s bluff at this point so Bruno could direct his attention instead to trying to frame Guy for Miriam’s murder, because from this point onwards, the film departs completely from the narrative as set out in Highsmith’s novel and instead we get a lot of farting about with a lighter which Bruno is desperately trying to deposit as evidence of Guy’s presence at the scene of the crime. As if that would prove anything.

Hitchcock’s plot is ludicrous and scarcely credible. The events of Highsmith’s novel have been twisted beyond recognition simply so that the director of the film can stage set-pieces such as the fast and noisy destruction of the carousel at the end. And I hate the way Hitchcock directs women, how he reduces them. The Anne of Highsmith’s novel is an independent woman with her own successful career: Hitchcock turns Guy’s fiancée into the simpering daughter of a rich Senator, all ready to be passed from one man to another…


…and the film introduces the character of Barbara, Anne’s sister, who plays Scooby Doo’s Thelma to Anne’s Daphne. Of course, the other important thing about Barbara is that she wears spectacles and Bruno’s reaction to the sight of her (because Miriam too, wore spectacles) miraculously informs Anne that he is the murderer:


What utter, utter tosh. But here we come to the only other thing I liked about the film, and that was the way in which Miriam’s murder was filmed, reflected in the lenses of her spectacles which have fallen to the ground:


This shot is really rather good, especially because it leads one to ask exactly who is doing the seeing. We watch the scene through the eyes of the spectacles, as it were: ironically, the spectacles are seeing something that Miriam can no longer see. The spectacles are an inanimate witness to Bruno’s crime.

While I’m on the subject of Hitchcock and women, I feel I have to say something about Miriam as victim. Most notable here is that while Highsmith’s Miriam suffers a miscarriage before she is murdered, Hitchcock’s Miriam is still pregnant when Bruno strangles her. So, for Hitchcock, a pregnant woman and the old man working the carousel are fair game, but Bruno’s rich father is out of bounds in order to protect Guy’s status as hero. That stinks. It just stinks.

Annex - Granger, Farley (Strangers on a Train)_02

I’m reading Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley now. I hope Clément (1960) and Minghella (1999) did a better job of adapting this one for film, otherwise I really am in danger of turning into someone who says things like ‘That’s not in the book!’


*Compare this with Hitchcock’s Rebecca – Maxim de Winter, played by Laurence Olivier, does not murder Rebecca as he does in du Maurier’s novel. If memory serves, Rebecca falls and fatally hits her head, so our hero can remain blameless.

It Could Have Been So Good: Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’


I was bowled over recently when Roy confessed to never having read Rebecca. ‘What?’ I spluttered. ‘But I’m always going on about it! Do you mean you’ve just been pretending to understand what I was talking about?’ Shocking, yes, I know. I immediately put aside my glass of red and hoofed it upstairs to grab my copy from the shelf. Roy is now in the process of filling this unacceptable gap in his knowledge.

Du Maurier’s novel has been the subject of at least two sumptuous adaptations for film and one very dodgy amateur stage production that I saw a few years ago in Plymouth, in which the actor playing the second Mrs de Winter had failed to button her dress properly so when she sat down on the centre-stage sofa, every member of the audience could see her rather dull knickers. No knickers, but plenty of cleavage in the image above which is, of course, a still from the celebrated Hitchcock screen adaptation, depicting the moment when evil old Mrs Danvers is trying to persuade the new Mrs de Winter (whose own name is never revealed) to chuck herself out of the window. The same moment is shown in the image below, from the screen version starring Emilia Fox as Mrs Deedoubleyoo and Diana Rigg as Mrs Danvers. I particularly like the effect of the reflection – it makes the second wife look as if she’s a ghost already:


Forget knickers and cleavage, this latter version goes straight to the full-frontal both-breasts shot and Emilia Fox’s nipples are staring you in the face before you can say ‘Goodness, I don’t remember this bit, is it in the book?’ All a bit unnecessary, I think, especially as the debate still rages over the actual extent of the sexual activity between Maxim and his second wife. It’s even been suggested that the newly-weds don’t enjoy any kind of physical intimacy until the night of Maxim’s confession. Charles Dance and Emilia Fox certainly do get it on in this adaptation, however, which to me looks a bit like interpreting the text liberally enough to allow for an ‘artistically justified’ booby shot.

Anyway, jarring as it is, this isn’t really what I want to write about. The point I’d like to make is that Rebecca could have been a much better book if Maxim really had loved Rebecca and if she really had been everything we believe her to be until we learn the ‘truth’*. As a study of jealousy, the first half of this novel is an absolute masterpiece. The second-best second wife, dowdy, timid and self-effacing, believes herself to be in the unenviable position of trying to take the place of a woman who will always be young and beautiful, who will never grow old, and who didn’t live long enough for her husband to tire of her. Du Maurier’s writing here is absolutely superb. The second wife becomes gradually more and more obsessed with Rebecca, recreating her image and bringing her to life again in many and various situations such as unpacking the valuable china cupid which is later broken. Aided by Mrs Danvers in particular, she constantly compares herself to the beautiful and much-beloved first wife and finds her own self wanting.

But the narrative goes downhill once Maxim spills the beans, and then the story turns into a thriller in which it becomes imperative to demonstrate to the court’s satisfaction that Rebecca committed suicide rather than being murdered – which she did, in a way. How much better the book would have been if Rebecca had died in a freak boating accident after all, leaving Maxim alone and lovelorn, only to marry again quickly in an attempt to find happiness with another. The second wife would have been driven insane by the knowledge that she could never be another Rebecca, that her husband had been lost to her from the start. The only ending that book could have had would be the second not-good-enough wife chucking herself out of the window after all. Much better. In fact, if I fancied myself as a creative writer, I’d rewrite Rebecca along those lines and I bet the new version would be a corker. The trick, of course, which was adopted in both screen adaptations discussed here, is never to show Rebecca. Her myth mustn’t be punctured. It has to be left to the reader/viewer to create their own mental image of the perfect wife for Maxim: tall, slim, elegant, staggeringly beautiful, the perfect hostess; someone who can ride a horse and who knows a lot about china. Actually, the Dance-Fox adaptation did show an actor’s back and her mouth, and even that was too much. Rebecca needs to be left out of it entirely, so the reader/viewer can experience the same mental processes as the second Mrs de Winter and is given a free hand to invent an impeccable and irreplaceable Rebecca. Pitted against that, who wouldn’t chuck themselves out the window?

*In recent years, critics have leapt to Rebecca’s defence, pointing out that Maxim’s version of events must be weighed against his own background and personality; also, Rebecca is dead and cannot speak for herself. I don’t know how far I agree with these arguments because they are written and presented within a theoretical context that has its own agenda, but they do bear some scrutiny and are certainly worth further consideration.

People are very funny about books


Me reading a book in sepia

Me reading a book while on holiday in the Norfolk Broads a couple of years ago

People are very funny about books – funny peculiar, that is, rather than funny ha-ha.

For example, the last time I bought a bookcase, the retail assistant informed me that the smaller compartments in the particular case I was looking at were handy for storing DVDs or displaying ornaments and other such fripperies. ‘No, I need all the space for books,’ I replied, and even as I said it, I knew what her response would be – and yes, it duly came – ‘Oh, yes, well, I’ve got far too many books myself. I never have enough space for them.’ Right, fair enough, but then why try to encourage me to use up valuable book-storing-space by plonking a vase where the books should be? The thing is, the assistant felt that I’d made some kind of imputation about her intelligence because I’d implied that I owned more books than she did, and she felt the need to correct me on this.

But – the number of books you own is not an indication of how clever you are. What sort of books do you have? Do you have a houseful of Barbara Cartlands and Jilly Coopers? All very well if you like that sort of thing, but I doubt it’ll do much for your IQ. And if you own books of a more intellectual nature, have you actually read them? Again, it’s all very well to own expensive hardback copies of the major works by influential western philosophers, but if you haven’t read them, then you may as well clutter up your bookshelves with china dogs and tea-light holders.

People say they don’t like giving books away: ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly part with my books. It would be like giving away a little bit of myself.’ Would it? Of course it wouldn’t. There isn’t any part of my physical being that I would give away – at least not while I’m alive and still using it – but I donate books to Oxfam all the time, because I’ve read them. I give books away partly because I know I only have a finite number of years on this planet and it’s very unlikely that I’ll have time to read them again, but mostly because I only have a finite amount of storage space and I part with the books I’ve read in order to make room for the books that I haven’t read. (Of course, this doesn’t always work. I keep the books I know I will need again – textbooks – plus the books I know I will read again – mostly comic books – and just occasionally, I’ll give a book away and then decide that I wished I hadn’t: I did this recently with du Maurier’s Rebecca. Three weeks after having parted with it, I ended up trotting round the charity shops looking for a replacement copy.)

People like books as a physical object. Kindles and similar products have not really taken off as they might have done, despite some clear advantages over bulky hardbacks: Kindles take up less storage space (again!), and are not so heavy to hold. This latter point may seem frivolous, but I struggle to read Simon Schama’s A History of Britain mostly because it’s so bloody heavy and my hands start to ache after twenty minutes or so. The advantages to Kindles are obvious if you are travelling – no excess baggage payments and more room for insect repellent and stomach tablets. But I must confess here that I prefer a good solid paperback myself, although my own reservations about Kindles have more to do with the comparatively small amount of text shown on the screen and the continuous interruption to the reading experience that ensues as a result. We can’t use our peripheral vision when reading from a Kindle in the same way that we do when reading a book, and as far as I know, there hasn’t been any research into this area yet, so it’s possible that when using a Kindle, we might be missing out on a vital part of the reading experience. I do know that I always cover up the last page of ghost stories with my hand because I don’t want to glimpse the ending by accident before I get there.

People won’t write in books or deface them in any way. Why not? It’s your book. You can do what you like with it. I scribble all over mine. I like my books to contain my experience of reading them. For example, there are crinkly pages in my copy of The Three Musketeers because I blubbed all over the chapter in which Constance is murdered, and as for my copy of Watership Down – well, some pages have been welded together forever with snotty salt water. I like it when I buy a second-hand book and someone has drawn little pictures in the margin, or written a mysterious note to the previous recipient of the book. It’s nice if a book retains that small fragment of human experience.

What I’m getting round to, I suppose, is that a book should be a dynamic, not a static, object. It shouldn’t sit on a shelf gathering dust. It shouldn’t be used as a status symbol. It should be read and wept over and annotated, and then it should be passed on for someone else to read and perhaps spill coffee on, and then passed on again and again, until eventually all the pages fall out when the glue in the binding perishes and then it can be recycled and made into another book. Hurrah!