As someone who loves both good movies and good books, I know that it’s very easy to be disappointed by a movie adaptation of a much-loved book. In my experience, there’s less disappointment if a person sees the movie first, rather than reads the book first. Why? Well, since movies are almost certainly going to have to cut or modify lots of interesting parts from the books they adapt, if we see the movie first we won’t immediately be aware of (and disappointed by) those changes. Then having seen and enjoyed the movie, reading the book will not be a disappointment but rather an added pleasure, as we discover new characters or incidents not included in the film.
Well, that’s my theory, anyway, and it certainly worked this time as I finally got around to reading Patricia Highsmith’s famous thriller Strangers on a Train. For many years the Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of her 1950’s novel for his 1951 film starring Farley Granger and Robert Walker has been one of my favorite suspense film classics. I enjoyed Robert Walker’s wonderfully creepy role as a cheerful, spoiled, wealthy psychopath and Farley Granger’s suave, sometimes weak-willed character as a handsome, easily mislead tennis pro. The wonderful black and white photography made its own presence felt in the film, especially the eerie scene where a murder is captured through the lenses of the victim’s own glasses that have dropped to the ground as she is being strangled!
These kinds of weird, slightly creepy, and at times self conscious shots are de rigueur with Hitchcock films. What I didn’t know is that Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train, has her own distinctive style which wears as well, if not better, than Hitchcock’s brand, as the years go by.
When Highsmith sold Strangers on a Train to Hitchcock in 1951 for $7,500, she didn’t realize that this, her first novel, would catapult her to eventual fame as a best-selling writer of psychological thrillers. In many of her thrillers, Highsmith’s primary characters fall into two categories: the unrepentant evil, and the weak-willed who are swept up in their evil. There are very few people in Highsmith’s fictional world who stand strong and unwavering in support of their principles. Greed, vanity, hubris, callousness, and cowardice are characteristics found equally as often in her hapless heroes as in her merciless villains. In fact, the line between villain and hero is often quite blurred in her stories in which innocence or good intentions are no protection against evil, and may even serve as a kind of unwitting magnet for evil. For this reason Highsmith is often compared to Ruth Rendell, whose chilling novels of psychological suspense also center around the destruction of unsuspecting innocence caught in the net of evil.
Strangers on a Train starts, suitably, on a train hurtling towards Texas, when young Guy Haines, budding architect, is caught up in a conversation with young Charles Anthony Bruno, inebriated and charming scion of a wealthy family. Pretty soon it becomes apparent that Charles is up to no good as he proposes that he and Guy become partners in the perfect crime. Charles says that if he kills Guy’s unloving wife and Guy kill’s Charles nasty father, both killers will get away scot free since there will be no way a motive can be proved or the killer traced. Guy, appalled by the plan, but too drunk to know how to firmly reject it, leaves Charles, thinking the whole scheme will blow over in the morning. What Guy doesn’t know is that Charles is a psychopath, completely amoral, and drawn to the handsome Guy in ways that neither can fully or willingly comprehend.
This story is exciting, tense and disturbing, even when we know who will commit the crimes well before the novel has ended. Part of the excitement comes from Highsmith’s skillful handling of character, setting, and dialogue that make even the improbable storyline seem grimly possible. There is even a kind of dark humor that moves the story along when the stomach-churning suspense draws a brief breath. And although written more than 60 years ago, Strangers on a Train still seems very current, perhaps because Highsmith’s insight into a certain type of warped human personality and behavior can be found in every era of human history, including our own.