Strangers on a Train | Critical Essay by MaryKay Mahoney

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Strangers on a Train.
This section contains 4,517 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by MaryKay Mahoney

SOURCE: "A Train Running on Two Sets of Tracks: Highsmith's and Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train," in It's a Print: Detective Fiction from Page to Screen, edited by William Reynolds and Elizabeth A. Tremblay, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994, pp. 103-13.

In the following essay, Mahoney provides a comparative study of Highsmith's novel Strangers on a Train and Alfred Hitchcock's film adaptation of the work, concluding that "the two works are substantially different in focus and direction."

Highsmith's Strangers on a Train provides a psychological analysis of Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno and their intertwined relationship. Hitchcock transforms the material into a thriller, focusing on action, suspense, and surprise. In the novel, the personalities of the characters, Highsmith's stylistic techniques, and the plot structure emphasize the similarities between Haines and Bruno; in the film, however, the visual links between the two are confused by the transformation of Haines into an innocent hero.

It begins with a casual conversation between two men on a train. When one of them shifts the topic to a "trade" of murders—"I kill your wife and you kill my father"—the first strands are spun of a web of violence that will entangle both men. Readers of suspense fiction and fans of Alfred Hitchcock films will immediately identify this plot: Patricia Highsmith's novel Strangers on a Train (1950) and Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film adaptation of the same name.

Highsmith describes the starting point for her novel [in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction]: "the germ of the plot for Strangers on a Train was: 'Two people agree to murder each other's enemy, thus permitting a perfect alibi to be established.'" Highsmith's own novel deals somewhat ironically with that plot germ, since Guy Haines does not, on the train, "agree" verbally to the trade of murders suggested by his fellow "stranger" Charles Anthony Bruno. In Guy's revelations about his wife, Miriam, to Bruno, and in his silence after Miriam's murder, however, there is an implicit consent, and Guy eventually becomes a full accomplice in the exchange of murders, killing Bruno's father as his part of the trade. In Hitchcock's film, on the other hand, the exchange of murders is far more one-sided, with Bruno Killing Miriam but Guy, in return, attempting instead to warn Bruno's father, the intended second victim.

As suggested by the dramatic plot change in the film, the two works are substantially different in focus and direction. Highsmith focuses on the psychological analysis of the two men and their intertwined relationship, whereas Hitchcock's transformation of the material into the genre of the thriller means a corresponding focus on action and the characteristic Hitchcock elements of suspense and surprise. According to John Russell Taylor, "In Strangers on a Train Hitch had managed, by instinct rather than conscious thought, to find a deeply disturbing subject—that of an exchange of guilt—which could be satisfactorily externalized in thriller form." Hitchcock himself commented, "Strangers on a Train wasn't an assignment, but a novel that I selected myself. I felt this was the right kind of material for me to work with."

As various film critics have pointed out, Hitchcock's opening shots for the film capture a sense of the film as a whole:

Extremely low camera placements in the opening sequence prepare us for a film that will take place largely in a subterranean world of anxiety and nightmare. The credits run over a scene looking back from the inside of a cavernous train station to the brightness of the world outside. As they end, a cab turns into the entrance. It disgorges Bruno, or more accurately, Bruno's garish shoes and trouser legs. A second cab pulls up at the dark curb and unloads Guy's legs, feet, and tennis racquets. The film begins with a movement into darkness from which it will return only at the very end….

As the action of guilt and entrapment commences, images of descent and imprisonment proliferate. The camera stays at knee level for a minute and a half after the credits, until Bruno's foot and Guy's bump under a table in the lounge car. This opening sequence includes an expressive shot of the shadow of the train proceeding along the intersecting and diverging tracks of the railyard…. The image of the converging rails at the beginning of Strangers on a Train serves as an emblem of the plot, in which characters in a chaos of unconnected human lives coincidentally converge and collide, turn apart, and pursue crucial actions in parallel.

Those opening shots of the two pairs of feet moving towards each other and of the converging railroad tracks emphasize the connection between the two men, the deliberate image of them as doubles. Robin Wood points out that, in the process, our sense of the opposition between the two pairs of shoes seen in the opening sequence—Guy's modest dark shoes and Bruno's flashier two-toned spats—becomes a parallel "imposed by the editing on what would otherwise be pure contrast." This sense of Bruno and Guy as doubles is reinforced both visually and linguistically throughout the scenes that follow by such elements as Guy's lighter with its engraving of crossed tennis racquets, the link between the "doubles" of tennis player Guy and the scotch doubles ordered for them both by Bruno, and Bruno's thoughtful murmurs of "Crisscross" as he lies back in his private compartment, holding the lighter Guy has left behind and contemplating the trade in murders he has just suggested to Guy.

Yet despite the film's technical brilliance in suggesting the idea of doubles, the viewer's sense of Bruno as the representative of Guy's unexamined and repressed desires is shortcircuited by the plot level of the film, resulting in a significant departure from the dynamics of the Highsmith novel. In plot terms, Guy is an innocent man, guilty on a conscious level of neither Miriam's death nor Bruno's plans to have his father killed. Hitchcock's editing techniques visually link Guy and Bruno; for example, when Hitchcock cuts from a scene in a telephone booth where Guy, drowned out at first by a train, shouts about Miriam, "I said I could strangle her!" to a shot of Bruno's curved, upheld hands, the sequence directly links Guy's desire for Miriam's death to the means by which Bruno will accomplish that death. Yet the essence of the film's plot is that Guy, the innocent hero, will eventually emerge uncorrupted from the world of darkness into which Bruno has temporarily plunged him.

When Hitchcock's Guy, having entered Bruno's father's bedroom at night in accordance with Bruno's murderous plan, attempts to warn the father (only to find a suspicious Bruno there in his place), the opposition, rather than the likeness, between the two men becomes marked. Even though Guy carries a gun with him on his nocturnal expedition, the speed with which he pockets the gun outside the bedroom and calls out the name of Bruno's father makes it nearly impossible to believe that Guy is seriously tempted to carry out the killing to protect himself from Bruno's blackmailing threats. As a result, the scene's suspense derives from Hitchcock's deliberately misleading the viewer, rather than from any sense of Guy as a potentially complex and unpredictable character torn between two possible choices. When Guy is confronted on the staircase by an apparently vicious guard-dog and the viewer is swept into fear for Guy's safety, that very anxiety (considering that Guy may be about to kill a defenseless old man in cold blood) is designed to force viewers to deal with the moral ambiguity of their own reactions. Yet the viewers' moral dilemma is patently manufactured if there is no real chance of Guy's killing Bruno's father, and this converts the whole sequence to the level of a clever trick. (Interestingly, Wood, in revising his essay on the film, shifts from seeing this problem as simply a "misjudgment" to commenting that "Major lapse in artistic integrity' is perhaps not too strong a description.")

This confrontation between Bruno and Guy reveals to Bruno as well as to viewers that Guy will not succumb to Bruno's dark desires. In retaliation, Bruno threatens to find an appropriate revenge for the "betrayal": he will falsify evidence of the innocent Guy's guilt. After Bruno's decision, the film moves quickly to two dramatically crosscut races against time: Bruno's attempting to rescue Guy's lighter from a sewer so he can use it to incriminate Guy, and Guy's attempting to win his tennis match at Forest Hills as quickly as possible so he can thwart Bruno's plans. This crosscutting emphasizes the differences between the two men by means of a striking visual contrast: the darkness of the sewer scenes and the open, sunlit scenes of the tennis match represent each character's moral condition.

As the film progresses, viewers clearly discern the men's dramatic opposition despite the chaos of events and the confusion of the police. In the film's climactic scene Guy follows Bruno to the carnival grounds where Bruno killed Guy's wife, Miriam. There the police are misled by the ambiguity of a carnival worker's cry; looking towards the two men, he exclaims: "He's the one. He's the one who killed her." As the accidental shooting of the carousel operator sends the carousel hurtling at top speed, Guy is swept dramatically from the ordered safe world he craves into the instability and disorder linked with Bruno. Nevertheless, the opposition between the two men remains paramount, captured in miniature by a vignette where a young boy attempting to help Guy is pushed viciously by Bruno and nearly falls from the wildly spinning carousel; Guy risks himself to save the child, with the result that he himself is nearly killed by Bruno.

As soon as the carousel's crash and the discovery of Guy's lighter in the dead Bruno's hand have revealed Guy's innocence to the police, Guy is able to return to a harmony with the ordered world beyond the carnival gates. The film ends, however, not with the death of Bruno, but with a humorous parallel that indicates the degree to which Guy is free of Bruno and the threat to Guy's world and his sense of self that Bruno represented. A minister on the same train as Guy and Anne (the woman Guy loves and intends to marry) inadvertently repeats Bruno's opening question, "Aren't you Guy Haines?"; Guy and Anne look at each other and exit the car, leaving behind the bemused minister. The repetition of Bruno's comments by this clearly harmless "stranger" underlines Guy's return to a world of order and normalcy.

Earlier in the film, the use of other minor "strangers" on trains also de-emphasizes the idea that the link between Guy and Bruno is predestined, necessitated by something within Guy himself rather than by random chance. Just as the minister's question is a harmless repetition of Bruno's, so another passenger has earlier nudged the foot of another man accidentally, just as Guy had nudged Bruno's. And Guy's supposed acquiescence to Bruno's murder plot—"Now, you think my theory's okay, Guy? You like it?" "Sure, Bruno, sure. They're all okay"—is humorously repeated, on the same night that Bruno kills Miriam, when Guy casually assures the drunken Professor Collins, in response to a confused question about differential calculus, "Yes, I understand."

The clear separation between Guy and Bruno during the later part of the film is responsible for an element of moral ambiguity in the film as a whole: Guy's pleasant future of marriage to Anne and a political career has been provided for him courtesy of Bruno, who has removed Miriam, the only obstacle to Guy's happiness. Guy's ability both to separate himself from that murderous desire and to profit from its results has been described variously: Spoto calls it "one of Hitchcock's darkest ironies," whereas Wood notes that "the effect seems at times two-dimensional, or like watching the working out of a theorem rather than a human drama."

In contrast to the portrayal in Hitchcock's film, Highsmith's novel makes the link between Guy and Bruno a major component of the book's overall direction. Highsmith's use of both Guy's and Bruno's narrative points of view acts structurally as Hitchcock's crosscutting does in his adaptation: forcing us to picture the two men as inextricably linked doubles, rather than as separate individuals. But whereas in the Hitchcock film this visual fusing runs counter to the development of the plot itself, in Highsmith's novel the personalities of the characters, the stylistic techniques, and the structure of the plot all emphasize the doubling.

The fusing of the two main characters in Highsmith's novel begins, as does Hitchcock's visual linking, with the train journey. The encounter between Highsmith's Guy and Bruno is accidental only in the most superficial way; though the encounter is not planned, the sense of shared identity arises immediately and is reinforced by Guy's denial of its existence: "All he despised, Guy thought, Bruno represented. All the things he would not want to be, Bruno was, or would become." Despite these protests, Highsmith's Guy is quickly drawn to something in his companion, unlike Hithcock's Guy, who is presented as alternately amused, annoyed, or irritated by Bruno and his notions. When Bruno propounds his theory that "a person ought to do everything it's possible to do before he dies, and maybe die trying to do something that's really impossible," Guy's reaction reveals a likeness to Bruno: "Something in Guy responded with a leap, then cautiously drew back. He asked softly, 'Like what?'"

Highsmith continues to stress the psychological links between the two men through her portrayal of Guy's passive vulnerability when he is confronted with Bruno's aggressive curiosity. Hitchcock's adaptation de-emphasizes this sense of passivity, instead presenting Guy as a successful professional tennis player—a career choice which helps emphasize his physical presence and suggests that he is a man of action. In the film, Miriam's threat to Guy is minimal, existing only because it is impossible for Guy to refute her false charge that the child she is carrying is his and she an abandoned wife. This strong, active, tennis-playing Guy effectively resists Bruno's murder scheme by attempting instead to warn the intended murder victim. In contrast, Highsmith's Guy is not a tennis player but a successful architect with a tendency to live in his mind, to see the world in ideals and abstractions while refusing to recognize or fully acknowledge his own suppressed emotions and needs. Until he meets Bruno, his companion on the train is a volume of Plato, an old high school text that he accidentally leaves in Bruno's compartment and that later becomes a clue to be used against him. He has brought the book as "an indulgence to compensate him, perhaps, for having to make the trip to Miriam." But while the words he reads make sense to him, an inner voice questions, "But what good will Plato do you with Miriam."

Guy's inability to face his tangled feelings about Miriam makes him an easy prey for Bruno, with his cool, unshockable curiosity. Finding in Bruno the stranger to whom he can admit Miriam's unfaithfulness, Guy realizes that "he had never told anyone so much about Miriam." Bruno evokes in Guy the feelings he has tried both to conceal and ignore; when Bruno asks how many lovers Miriam had, Guy, in answering, finds himself caught in a surge of emotion: "'Quite a few. Before I found out.' And just as he assured himself it made no difference at all now to admit it, a sensation as of a tiny whirlpool inside him began to confuse him. Tiny, but realer than the memories somehow, because he had uttered it."

Despite, or perhaps because of, this whirlpool of emotion, Highsmith's Guy remains vulnerable and passive, enabling Miriam to control him through his inability to confront difficult situations. He is willing to give up the chance to bring into actuality the Palmyra, a building he has designed, rather than face the emotional chaos and failure of his relationship with her. Miriam recognizes Guy's weakness and taunts him about his decision to give up the Palmyra to keep her from coming with him: "Running away?… Cheapest way out." Guy later tells Anne that, because of Miriam, he had decided the Palmyra simply wasn't part of his "destiny."

While Hitchcock's stronger, more active Guy Haines successfully resists Bruno's attempts to draw him into crime, Highsmith's confused, passive architect fails to resist Bruno because Bruno represents a part of Guy himself. In fact, in the novel the interaction between Guy and Bruno immediately takes on an overtone of mutual sexual attraction downplayed in the film's presentation of their first encounter. In the film, Bruno has no sooner met Guy than he launches into innuendoes about Guy's publicly known relationship with Anne, a senator's daughter, and his desire to get a divorce so that he and Anne can marry. In the novel, Bruno's conversation focuses on Miriam, the hated and destructive other. He knows nothing about Anne, and later feels cheated when he learns about Guy's relationship with her. However, the novel's Anne is significant in her absence, since Guy is thinking about Anne when he initiates the meeting with Bruno: "Suddenly he [Guy] felt helpless without her. He shifted his position, accidentally touched the outstretched foot of the young man asleep, and watched fascinatedly as the lashes twitched and came open." Thus begins the complex triangle as Guy's allegiance shifts between her and Bruno.

Later in the novel, Guy's relationship with Anne and Bruno becomes an almost mystical ménage à trois. During his wedding, Guy discovers Bruno in the church: "He [Guy] was standing beside Anne, and Bruno was here with them, not an event, not a moment, but a condition, something that had always been and always would be. Bruno, himself, Anne. And the moving on the tracks. And the lifetime of moving on the tracks until death do us part…." Soon, however, three becomes a crowd. Guy and Anne's home is invaded by an uninvited Bruno, who is as immediately comfortable as if he were one of the inhabitants. Before long, Bruno comes to view Anne as the invasive presence and begins to think and act destructively toward her. Anne's prized sailboat is damaged on a surreptitious sail that Guy and Bruno take together; and Bruno finally considers eliminating Anne as the only obstacle left between himself and Guy: "Anne is like light to me, Bruno remembered Guy once saying. If he could strangle Anne, too, then Guy and he could really be together."

Guy's suspension between Anne and Bruno represents the struggle between the creative and destructive elements within himself, a struggle which Hitchcock's secure playboy is never forced to endure. For Guy, his architectural designs represent in concrete from the grace, beauty, and order that he discovers in the act of creation; as Kathleen Klein describes it, "His work is, for him, a spiritual act, defined by unity and wholeness; it rejects disorder, fragmentation and shallowness." His ultimate dream as an architect has always been to build that visible symbol of unity and balance, a bridge—he imagines designing "a white bridge with a span like an angel's wing." Guy's vision of Anne as an ideal—the light opposed to the darkness represented by Bruno—links her directly with the creations of his mind; and at Guy's wedding, Bob Treacher, who later offers Guy a chance to realize his dream, notes that Anne is "as beautiful as a white bridge."

Similarly, Guy recognizes a starker, destructive side of himself mirrored in Bruno. As Guy journeys to Great Neck to kill Bruno's father, he defines the relationship between them quite differently than at their first meeting: "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." After the murder, that sense of shared identity tightens; as Guy considers how good and evil, hate and love exist simultaneously in the human heart, he thinks, "Bruno, he and Bruno. Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved." This insight is confirmed by a dream later that night, in which Guy imagines himself waking to find Bruno springing into his room. To Guy's question, "Who are you?" Bruno finally answers, "You." While he and Bruno are on the train early in the novel, Guy sees how the intelligence and clarity of his creative professional life run counter to the confused emotion and blindness of his personal life; once he has murdered, Guy understands a starker contrast:

He felt rather like two people, one of whom could create and feel in harmony with God when he created, and the other who could murder. "Any kind of person can murder," Bruno had said on the train. The man who had explained the cantilever principle to Bobbie Cartwright two years ago in Metcalf? No, nor the man who had designed the hospital, or even the department store, or debated half an hour with himself over the colour he would paint a metal chair on the back lawn last week, but the man who had glanced into the mirror just last night and had seen for one instant the murderer, like a secret brother.

Guy is at peace in his work on the Palmyra project because of his belief that it will reach perfection: "And the more he immersed himself in the new effort, the more he felt recreated also in a different and more perfect form." The house that Guy designs for himself and Anne is likewise beautiful in both design and final form. But the idea of that house, like the finished and inhabited house itself, becomes infected and changed by becoming linked with the thought of Bruno. On the night Guy learns that Miriam is dead, he has been visualizing the house he will build, seeing it in his hotel room as "shining white and sharp against the brown bureau across the room." After the phone call reporting Miriam's murder, he looks again at the bureau: "Now, where he had seen the vision of the white house, a laughing face appeared, first the crescent mouth, then the face—Bruno's face."

Symbolically, the design of the house, planned by Guy before his encounter with Bruno on the train, reflects Guy's position as the focal point of a triangle. The house is conceived of as "Y"-shaped; and while Guy has considered dispensing with one of the arms of the "Y" in the interests of economizing, "the idea sang in Guy's head only with both arms." The house is designed to project from a white rock, and to look "as if alchemy had created it from the rock itself, like a crystal"; Guy, in fact, considers naming the house "The Crystal." As Guy imagines the house, it is a work of proportion and balance, in harmony with both itself and the environment from which it has sprung.

The idea of the house as a crystal echoes and contrasts with Guy's earlier menial description of himself when he thinks about ways in which he has sabotaged himself and chosen to fail: "There was inside him, like a flaw in a jewel, not visible on the surface, a fear and anticipation of failure that he had never been able to mend." The jewel image is repeated when Guy drops overboard the gun he has used to kill Bruno's father. Bruno has sent Guy a Luger for the murder; Guy rejects the gun for its ugliness and ungainliness, and uses instead a gun he had bought as a teenager, an object purchased solely for its cleanness of design and aesthetic appeal. Guy's use of his own gun indicates the degree to which he is fusing what he considers the best of himself, his sense of beauty and design, with this act of destruction; it also emphasizes that he is acting of his own volition, rather than being compelled by Bruno. After the murder, despite the fact that the gun is the one concrete piece of evidence linking him to a crime, Guy is reluctant to eliminate its loveliness: "How intelligent a jewel, he thought, and how innocent it looked now. Himself—." Highsmith's Guy, unlike his creations or the beautifully designed gun, is "flawed," and he is unable to achieve within himself the harmony and balance he values. This inability renders him vulnerable to Bruno's suggestions and makes him utterly unlike the Guy Haines created in Hitchcock's film.

In the opening minutes of the Hitchcock adaptation, the shot of railway tracks coming together, and then diverging, sets the tone for the film: Guy's and Bruno's lives will converge, and then separate. In Highsmith's novel, however, the image of train tracks is used throughout to emphasize Guy's sense of imposed direction, a cessation of choices: "the lifetime of moving on the tracks."

In the firm, the encounter with a stranger asking "Aren't you Guy Haines?" can be answered differently (and in a sense replayed) and so escaped. But for Highsmith's Guy, a meeting with another "stranger," Miriam's lover Owen, to whom he goes to confess his guilt, brings a fear of being further swept into a cycle rather than a sense of escaping one; as he describes the murder scheme and hears himself voicing Bruno's ideas, he has "a horrible, an utterly horrible thought all at once, that he might ensnare Owen in the same trap that Bruno had used for him, that Owen in turn would capture another stranger who would capture another, and so on in infinite progression of the trapped and the hunted." Guy can be renewed and escape from the cycle only by capture, confession, and punishment. True to his nature, the novel's Guy achieves a new ending for his script by passivity and acceptance rather than by action. He attempts to purge himself by going to Owen, telling him of the two murders, and waiting for him to make the appropriate decision. When Owen refuses to act—and indeed shows little interest in the whole situation—Guy is rescued from his passivity by the actions of the detective Gerard, who has listened to the confession by means of a telephone connection.

Despite the status of the Hitchcock film as an adaptation of Highsmith's novel, the differences in focus and plot ultimately make the two very different and individual works of art. And in spite of the drastic shift in overall effect caused by Hitchcock's plot changes, Highsmith considers Strangers on a Train one of the best of the films made from her novels. Perhaps the key to her ability to accept Hitchcock's vision of her novel as well as her own can be found in a comment Highsmith made on the artistic process:

Every human being is different from the next, as handwriting and fingerprints prove. Every painter or writer or composer has consequently something different to say from the next (or should have). A Rembrandt or a Van Gogh is identifiable from a distance and at once. I believe in individuality, in being oneself, in using the maximum of one's talent…. That is what the public finally loves—something special and individual.

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