When Patricia Highsmith left the theater after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of her debut novel Strangers on a Train, several thoughts flew through her mind, the only reportedly positive one being her admiration for Robert Walker’s performance as her alcoholic, emotionally stunted villain Bruno Antony. The others ran the gamut from confused to outraged. Why had Hitchcock changed her protagonist Guy Haines from an architect to a tennis player? Why did he relocate the story from Texas to Washington D.C. and New York City? Why did he change the plot so much, entirely ignoring the second half of the book? And, perhaps most crucially, why had he stripped the story of all its morale ambiguity? Her novel, written in her late 20s during a stay at the Yaddo artist’s retreat on the recommendation of Truman Capote, was as meticulously structured a crime thriller as any by Agatha Christie, but it demonstrated a psychological depth and complexity characteristic of the European existentialist writers she cherished as a teenager. But more importantly, the story was fodder for espousing her distinctly misanthropic worldview: humans were weak, corruptible, selfish creatures who only needed a simple push to transform into monsters.
The story centered around a simple premise: two strangers swapping murders. After a chance meeting on a train, Guy and Bruno strike up a conversation that quickly turns personal. Bruno learns that Guy is traveling to divorce his philandering, unfaithful wife Miriam, now pregnant by a lover. He strikes on the idea that he could kill Miriam, freeing Guy to marry his new sweetheart Anna Faulker. In exchange, Guy would murder his hated rich father. Being strangers, neither man could be suspected of the other’s killing. Guy rebuffs him, but Bruno kills Miriam anyway, eventually harassing and stalking Guy until he cracks and murders Bruno’s father in return. The second half of the novel charts Guy and Bruno’s downfall as they’re pursued by an ingenious police detective investigating the killings. Bruno collapses further and further into alcoholic psychosis, eventually drowning after falling off a boat while tagging along with Guy on a sailing cruise with Anna. Guy succumbs to his guilt over killing Bruno’s father, breaking down a second time and confessing to the father of Miriam’s unborn child. The icing on the cake? The father is nonplussed by the confession. A stunned yet reassured Guy finally makes peace with his actions—only to be immediately arrested by the investigator who happened to overhear the confession.
It’s a truly nasty piece of work and was almost immediately optioned by Hitchcock. But Hitchcock changed the story considerably, structuring it almost entirely on Bruno stalking Guy (Farley Granger) after killing Miriam (Laura Elliott). He centers the film around a number of set-pieces that, in characteristic Hitchcock fashion, emphasize place and setting as much as story. There’s Guy following and killing Miriam while at an amusement park, including a brilliant fake-out scare in a Tunnel of Love and a famous shot of Guy strangling Miriam in the reflection of her fallen glasses and Guy’s disastrous attempt to break into Bruno’s father’s house at night to warn him about his son’s scheme, complete with not one but two trademark staircase scenes. Later we watch Bruno stalking Guy at one of his championship tennis matches, featuring a chilling shot of Bruno staring straight ahead at Guy from the stands while the crowd’s heads move right and left with the ball. And finally, in the climactic moment of the scene Bruno and Guy returning to the amusement park and fighting on a runaway carousel while a brave carnival worker climbs underneath the machine to reach its controls.
The result is one of the most effectively suspenseful films of Hitchcock’s career. But Hitchcock’s auteurial imprint almost drowns out Highsmith’s authorial stamp. Hitchcock transformed the novel into one of his many stories about mistaken identity. These films focused on innocent heroes wrongly accused for crimes they didn’t commit (e.g. The 39 Steps , The Wrong Man , North by Northwest ). Strangers on a Train inverts this by having its hero pursued not for a crime he’s supposedly committed, but for one he hasn’t. Few directors could visually depict the sickening feeling of being watched quite like Hitchcock, and this film contains two of the most striking examples in his career, the first the aforementioned tennis game scene, the second a chilling extreme long shot of Bruno standing between the columns out front of the Jefferson Monument as Guy walks by talking with a friend. Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Robert Burks, created a claustrophobic world of small, enclosed spaces and deep shadows. Notice the early scene on the train when Guy and Bruno first meet: their A-B shots are framed not only so they loom over each other in their respective foregrounds, but Bruno’s face is splashed with horizontal shadows from the window’s blinds, suggesting a split personality or the bars of a jail cell. Or consider a later scene where Bruno confronts Guy outside his apartment to tell him he’d killed Miriam: though they’re in an outdoor courtyard, Burks frames them on opposite sides of a steel gate, further emphasizing the visual motif of the jail cell, while also placing them so close together that if either actor sneezed their heads would knock the other out.
Hitchcock’s need to create an innocent protagonist who could be so specifically wronged led him to water down Guy’s characterization in the novel from a complex, emotionally tortured thinker to a noble yet cardboard-flat doer. If not for his athleticism, he could almost be accused of being milquetoast; he certainly doesn’t make much of a physical impression in his various array of dress suits which costumer Leah Rhodes seemed to tailor specifically so he’d look like he’d been run over by a steamroller. Much like many of his protagonists, Hitchcock’s Guy is reactive, a far cry from Highsmith’s Guy who proved capable of scheming and killing as effectively as Bruno.
The film wasn’t entirely a rejection of Highsmith. In many ways it underscores Highsmith’s misanthropy, but through distinctly Hitchcockian modes, most notably in the characterization of Miriam. In the novel, she’s largely an incidental character, an unfaithful wife, perhaps, but her destruction is less karmic justice than a case of her being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hitchcock’s Miriam is a cruel extortionist who threatens to destroy Guy in court with a wronged woman act if he stops financing her promiscuous lifestyle. (Actress Laura Elliott commented that she was a witch with a capital “B.”) Additionally, in keeping with his career-long obsession with overbearing mothers, Hitchcock warped Bruno’s mom Mrs. Antony (Marion Lorne) into an air-headed dolt who, when presented with evidence of her son’s crimes, nervously laughs it off. Hitchcock spends so much time mocking her that he forgets to develop Bruno’s hated father entirely, leaving us wondering why Bruno wanted him dead when his mother was so obviously the more poisonous, parasitic influence in his life.
In truth, Strangers on a Train synthesizes Highsmith the misanthrope and Hitchcock the paranoiac. Nowhere was this mixture more potent than in a 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich where Hitchcock tipped his hand:
Bogdanovich: Granger kills Walker but Walker actually freed him of his horrible wife. Doesn’t he owe something to Walker?
Hitchcock: Well, he didn’t kill Walker’s father. He ratted on Walker. [Laughs]
Bogdanovich: And one feels at the end, poor Walker. He did this thing, but now [Granger] can marry [Anne]—
Hitchcock: —and live happily ever after, sure.
But it’s only a happy ending if you don’t think about it: it turns out murder really was the answer to all Guy’s problems.