Thursday, April 20, 2006

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

(pb; 1950)

From the back cover:

“Here we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train. But while Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. ‘Some people are better off dead,’ Bruno remarks, ‘like your wife and my father, for instance.’ As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world, where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder...”


Strangers is a promising and flawed novel from a master noir author who would later give the world the excellent Ripley series.

It is flawed because the characters are too flawed. Charles Anthony Bruno, a “loathsome” sycophantic rich Mama’s boy, gets too much time to ruminate about his murderous obsession. Guy Haines is a spineless lying protagonist who waffles about moral issues when he should be putting Bruno in jail – again, like Bruno’s morbid ruminations, Haines’s waffling goes on for far too long to read realistically. The economic prose that would later make up Highsmith’s finer novels is seen here and there in Strangers, but much of the novel is unnecessary, rambling.

Despite these major flaws, it is easy to see why readers were taken by Highsmith’s debut novel. Highsmith’s coolly analytical tone, a trademark of her writing, and the alternating killer(s)-panic-then-gloat structure that framed The Talented Mr. Ripley is evidenced here, wedged between the lengthier passages. Also, her clever wordplay and dark humor regularly spice up the action.

Ultimately, it’s worth reading, if you can get past Highsmith’s chattering tone and largely unlikeable characters.


Three films resulted from this novel.

The first film version was released stateside on June 30, 1951. Alfred Hitchcock directed it, from a screenplay by Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde and an uncredited Ben Hecht. (Whitfield Cook provided the adaptation for the film.)

Farley Granger played Guy Haines. Robert Walker played Bruno Anthony. Ruth Roman played Anne Morton. Leo G. Caroll played Sen. Morton. Patricia Hitchcock, daughter of Alfred and Alma Reville, played Barbara Morton.


The second version, titled Once You Kiss A Stranger, was released stateside on November 12, 1969. Highsmith's novel is the uncredited source, but is widely -- unofficially -- acknowledged as such.

It was directed by Robert Sparr, from a screenplay by Norman Katkov and Frank Tarloff.

Paul Burke played Frank. Carol Lynley played Diana. Martha Hyer played Lee. Whit Bissell played Dr. Haggis


The third version, Once You Meet A Stranger, is a television film. It aired stateside on September 25, 1996. Tommy Lee Wallace directed it, from the screenplay of the original film.

Jacqueline Bisset played Sheila Gaines. Nick Mancusco played Aaron. Theresa Russell played Margo Anthony.

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