I haven’t watched every film ever made by Alfred Hitchcock, but of the ones I’ve seen, my favourite is Strangers on a Train. I have a thing for trains, and then the plot–meeting a perfect stranger–a complete pyscho–and living to regret your little chat…well it appeals to me. And so it was probably just a matter of time before I got around to reading the book the film is based on. I don’t know what I expected really–probably a good tale, but in Highsmith’s psychological crime novel, I got more than I bargained for.
Highsmith (1921-1995) is what I term a lurker. By that I mean her books are just out of sight–off in the periphery, but then we come across her name in unexpected moments. Many of her novels have been made into films–including the phenomenal Purple Noon (Plein Soleil)–a terrific film starring Alain Delon. This film is based on Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley–a film that spawned a Hollywood remake in 1999. As a consequence of the resurgence of interest in Ripley, Highsmith novels are receiving a little more attention, and deservedly so.
Strangers on a Train begins with young, promising architect, Guy Haines, travelling from New York back to his home town, Metcalf, in Texas. He’s received a letter from his estranged wife, the chronically adulterous Miriam, asking him to return to discuss a matter of some importance. Miriam is pregnant with another man’s child, and Guy hopes that she is finally ready to discuss a divorce. They’ve been separated for years, and Guy now has a love interest–Anne, the daughter of one of New York’s finest families. Things are looking up for Guy. His career is about to take off and once free of Miriam, he’ll marry into wealth and mingle with New York’s high society.
On the train, Guy meets a man about his age named Charles Anthony Bruno, the scion of a wealthy family. Bruno is on his way to Santa Fe to join his doting mother for a holiday. The two men appear to be complete opposites. Guy is serious, hard-working, educated and withdrawn whereas Bruno is unpredictable, spoiled, impulsive and clearly emotionally unstable. Bruno begins a tirade against his father and ends with the question: “Ever feel like murdering somebody?” While it’s definitely one of those ‘step away from the looney’ moments, Guy allows himself to be bullied and manipulated by Bruno. Trapped in the same railway carriage, the two men strike up a conversation, and Bruno, who’s the pushy type, won’t take no for an answer when Guy refuses to have dinner with him. During dinner and after a few drinks, Bruno confides that he hates his father and wishes he were dead. Bruno also questions Guy about his soured relationship with Miriam. Emboldened with highballs and the thrill of confiding in a total stranger, Bruno goes on to confess more:
“And I did a robbery.” Bruno stared at Guy rigidly. “Good one. Out of an apartment.”
An incredulous smile started on Guy’s lips, though actually he believed Bruno, Bruno could be violent. He could be insane too. Despair, Guy thought, not insanity. The desperate boredom of the wealthy, that he often spoke of to Anne. It tended to destroy rather than create. And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.
Bruno proceeds to expound on his theories of murder–a subject he’s clearly given a great deal of thought to. Apart from the fact he considers everyone capable of murder, he also admits that he has “A lot of ideas for perfect murders.” During the course of the evening, Bruno reveals his plan for a perfect murder:
“We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on the train , see and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis!”
In Metcalf, Guy meets Miriam and is appalled by her schemes for reconciliation. Disgusted and depressed, he travels to Mexico to join Anne’s family. A few weeks later, he receives the news that Miriam has been murdered. While he hopes Miriam’s murder is a random act or the result of jealousy from an abandoned lover, Guy’s unease grows. Did Bruno murder Miriam? At first Guy reassures himself that it’s coincidence and that Bruno had nothing to do with Miriam’s murder, but then the letters and the phone calls begin….
While Strangers on a Train is ostensibly a tale of murder, it’s really the story of the relationship between Guy and Bruno. There are definite strains of supressed homosexuality between Bruno and Guy. Bruno wants to shower Guy with gifts and resents Guy’s relationship with Anne, for example. Bruno pursues Guy rather as an ardent, persistent lover might, but the relationship between Bruno and Guy is far more complex.
Highsmith drops many references to Bruno and Guy being “opposites,” and when they connect they create a toxic, dangerous combination. At the same time, there are instances when Bruno and Guy seem to be halves of the same person, and again the author brings this idea forward in several conversations. As Bruno explains it there are:
“Two people in each person. There’s also a person exactly the opposite of you, like the unseen part of you, somewhere in the world, and he waits in ambush.”
As Bruno unleashes the ‘ unseen part’ of Guy, Guy tries to go on living his old life by compartmentalizing one “self:”:
“But there were too many points at which the other self could invade the self he wanted to preserve, and there were too many forms of invasion: certain words, sounds, lights, actions his hands or feet performed, and if he did nothing at all, heard and saw nothing, the shouting of some triumphant inner voice that shocked him and cowed him.”
A few minutes in Bruno’s company reveal his instability, but Guy is a much darker horse. He works, he has relationships, he has a career, but what lurks under the surface? The first clue that there’s something off with Guy comes in his relationship with Miriam. He’s continually manipulated and pressured by a woman who’s pregnant with someone else’s child. Even his attraction to Anne seems motivated to some degree by her firmness, self-confidence and resolve. Guy’s passiveness covers a type of pathology, and indeed Highsmith uses Guy to extrapolate on this issue making a larger statement about the nature of totalitarianism:
“I was broken down. Bruno broke me down with letters and blackmail and sleeplessness. He drove me insane too. And listen, I believe any man can be broke down. I could break you down. Given the same circumstances, I could break you down and make you kill someone. It might take different methods from the ones used on me, but it could be done. What else do you think keep the totalitarian states going?”
This fascinating character study is far darker, far more complex and far more disturbing than the film version, so it’s one of those familiar instances when the book is much better than the film. Highsmith’s exploration of the relationship between Bruno and Guy raises some intriguing questions about passive behaviour and human motivation that lingered after I turned the final page. The book’s cover says it perfectly–two interchangeable suits. Is Guy so different from Bruno? Are they opposites or is Bruno Guy’s Doppelganger?
“He was like Bruno. Hadn’t he sensed it time and time again, and like a coward never admitted it? Hadn’t he known Bruno was like himself? Or why had he liked Bruno? He loved Bruno. Bruno had prepared every inch of the way for him, and everything would go well because everything always went well for Bruno. The world was geared for people like Bruno.”