Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

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 Guy is serious, hard-working, educated and withdrawn whereas Bruno is unpredictable, spoiled, impulsive and clearly emotionally unstable.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.

strangers on a trainHighsmith 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.” 

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9 Comments

Filed under Highsmith Patricia

9 responses to “Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

  1. Rob

    I like the concept of the lurker. Who else might qualify? I can’t think of anybody off the top of my head, but maybe that’s in the nature of the beast.

  2. I think Simenon is a lurker too.

    If you go over to the internet movie database site and put his name in the search box, an incredible list of films pop up. He was an extremely prolific writer who has faded from prominent view. But he’s still there–off in the sidelines. Never completely dropping off the radar.

    Some people have never read his (100s of )books but when they read a list of his film credits, they’ve often seen a few. People will have watched the Inspector Maigret series, for example, but never make the connection to the author behind the series they enjoyed so much.

    Penguin and New York Review Book Classics have both reprinted some of Simenon’s titles, and so the interest remains.

    I’m a die hard Simenon fan, by the way.

  3. Nick

    I really like the movie so if you say the book is better than the movie, I won’t have much choice but to read it.

    For some unknown reason Highsmith has always been in my mind a second rank writer. I don’t think I’ve ever read her so it is pretty stupid of me.
    This dislike is probably loosely based on the French book covers.
    Maybe it is time to set the record straight.

  4. Can’t give away too much of the book’s plot, but the novel is much darker. After finishing the book, I thought about the film version and the changes made for the screenplay (and accepted morality, I suppose). The comparison made me think of the film differently.

    I can’t comment on Highsmith as a writer since this is the only one I’ve read. I have a few other titles now though, so that will be remedied.

    Since you enjoy Balzac, then I’d say that you’d like this one too for its human motivation and character aspects.

  5. Viewed as a Hitchcock movie, the film is pretty great. Viewed as an adaptation of the novel, it’s a failure. It establishes a clear line between good and evil, a line which Highsmith thought either didn’t exist or was artificial if it did. “Given the same circumstances, I could break you down and make you kill someone.” This is part of why the Ripley books are so powerful. Readers are disturbed not because they’re horrified by what Ripley does, but because they identify with him. You get sort of a “there but for the grace of God” feeling, a sense that anyone could become like him under certain circumstances.

    This sense is strongest in Ripley’s Game, which is a variation on the plot of Strangers on a Train: one man (Ripley/Bruno) becomes interested in another (Jonathan/Guy) and drives him to murder. But this book is more interesting to me, since Ripley succeeds despite not pushing as hard as Bruno. Bruno practically forces Guy into murder, but Ripley merely drops a hook in the water and sees if Jonathan will bite. Jonathan had the choice that Guy didn’t, the choice to say no, but he goes through with it anyway. It would be simple for a filmmaker to view Ripley as the “bad guy” and Jonathan as the “good guy” who’s corrupted by evil, but that would be missing the point.

    Strangers on a Train isn’t the only film that watered down Highsmith. The two adaptations of The Talented Mr. Ripley thought that Ripley needed to be punished for his actions (again, missing the point of Highsmith entirely), so Purple Noon punishes him with police capture, and the remake punishes him with tormenting guilt. Luckily, there are other films that don’t chicken out, like The American Friend (based on Ripley’s Game) and the 2009 version of The Cry of the Owl. These are my two favorite Highsmith adaptations. (The second film version of Ripley’s Game also isn’t bad, but it’s more Hannibal Lecter than Tom Ripley.)

  6. Thanks for the comment. I’ve been trying to watch Hitchcock films lately (Frenzy, Jamaica Inn, Rich and Strange) but haven’t returned to my favourite, Strangers on a Train yet.

    I’ve seen the Ripley films but haven’t read the books–although I have read and seen the older version of The Cry of the Owl which misses the book’s complexities.

  7. I think Rope is my favorite Hitchcock film. I’m surprised that it gets so overlooked, always being classified as “minor Hitchcock” or something. I’m also quite fond of Strangers on a Train, but like I said, as a fan of Highsmith it does seem watered down. I try to judge it on its own merits rather than what I think it should be.

    I tried watching the 1987 version of The Cry of the Owl, and I was so bored that I shut it off before an hour had passed. It just had no life to it at all. I recommend trying the 2009 version if you can find it. Just beware that I’m in the minority in saying that it’s good: it’s got a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. (Ouch!)

    If you like Strangers on a Train (the book), you’re almost guaranteed to like the Ripley books. Most people seem to agree that The Talented Mr. Ripley is one of Highsmith’s masterpieces, and I agree. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on the sequels; some people dismiss them outright, but others, like me, hold Ripley Under Ground and Ripley’s Game in pretty high regard.

    Everyman’s Library sells a nice hardcover volume that includes Talented, Ground, and Game. I would recommend starting there if you’re interested. It’s cheap, too: Amazon sells it for about $20 (or £10 if you’re in the UK), which is cheaper than buying three paperbacks.

    • Yes Chabrol can be hit and miss, but when he’s good, he’s excellent.

      I have all the Ripley books as I tend to buy books faster than I can read them–residue of childhood deprivation. Still there are worse things. I’ve read just a couple of Highsmith novels and a collection of short stories. The Cry of the Owl and Strangers on a Train contain such darkness, it’s perhaps inevitable that the more complex elements would be left aside in the film versions.

      I’ve heard the Ripley debate (are they all worthy or are the sequels minor?). Do you think they should be read spaced apart or read all in one go? A Ripley marathon in other words.

  8. It’s up to you, but if you read the first book and like it, I say keep going. It’s difficult to overdose on Ripley since the plots never repeat. The first book has Tom becoming obsessed with another young man and overtaking his life, the second has him dealing with people who are investigating the artwork forgery scheme that he masterminded, the third has him coaxing an innocent young man into murder for hire (and subsequently incurring the wrath of the Mafia), the fourth has him mentoring (and later rescuing) a young would-be Ripley, and the fifth has him fending off some new neighbors who are trying to dig up his past. The series is wonderfully diverse.

    As for the “debate,” I’ve never heard anyone claim that the sequels are downright bad, only that they don’t quite measure up to the first book. But they seem to be getting the recognition they deserve, because I’ve noticed more and more people over the last couple of years claiming the second or third book as their favorite. For me, the third is the best, but I find all five so good that I can’t dismiss any of them. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who enjoyed The Cry of the Owl and Strangers on a Train not digging the whole series.

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