Friday Film Review: Strangers on a Train

In lieu of my mention of Hitchcock in an earlier post this week, I thought I would review one of his films for my “Friday Film Review,” which I have not done in quite some time.  This post is also a review of Patricia Highsmith’s novel by the same name, as Hitchcock used it as the basis for his film.

Two strangers meet on a train. Guy Haines: sensible, decent, accomplished, respectable. The other, Anthony Bruno: spontaneous, extravagant, rich, bored, obsessive. It doesn’t end there, Bruno is also deeply disturbed, manipulative. . . a psychopath. These two seemingly polar opposites share a train compartment and so begins a swirl of conversation and confession during which Bruno suggests that “everyone is capable of murder.” Is he right?

This is the shared premise of both Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel and Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation. However, that’s where the similarities pretty much end. The two go in very different directions with this concept. As for the above question, Highsmith and Hitchcock seem to be on opposing sides of this issue.

During their conversation on the train, Bruno proposes to Guy a double murder deal, where they will each do away with the person who is the thorn in the other’s side. For Guy, it’s his soon to be ex-wife who is making unreasonable demands and trying to interfere with his success. For Bruno, it’s his father whom he abhors. To Bruno, this seems to be the perfect solution since no one knows that he and Guy know each other and there would be no perceived motive.  Guy is not so easy to convince. He leaves the train disturbed, and content to never see Bruno again.

However, through mere happenstance, Guy leaves behind a token of his identity which Bruno exploits and proceeds to haunt Guy, calling at all hours, showing up at social events pretending to be an old friend and embarrassing Guy. All the while, attempting to manipulate, provoke, and convince Guy to do the deed, to become his partner in crime. Which again raises the question, is Bruno right, is every seemingly decent human being capable of murder?

Highsmith seems to side with Bruno and in her uniquely evocative way, calls into question what the seemingly decent human being is capable of when all that he cherishes is suddenly threatened. I felt that Highsmith’s novel was strong up until the very last page. And I mean that, excluding the last page. The ending sort of left me fingering the last few pages to make sure that there wasn’t some hidden prologue, some secret last chapter that I was about to miss out on. The resolution was rather abrupt.  It felt rushed and didn’t seem to mirror the pacing of the rest of the novel. With that said, it didn’t ruin it for me. Highsmith produced a well-written, well-crafted novel with dynamic characters and a subtly suspenseful and addictive plot.

Hitchcock takes the other side of this issue, rooting for the decent ones among us, in his 1951 film that was nominated for best cinematography in that same year. We can see why in one of the most intriguingly artistic scenes of the film when we view a murder through a reflection in the victim’s glasses which have fallen on the ground during her struggle.

The film is not an exact or even close adaptation of the novel, but as I continue to read books that were made into Hitchcock films, I’ve come to love that about him. Reading the book never ruins the movie! Of course the reverse is true as well because they usually share only a central idea or concept and the rest is entirely different.

As with a number of Hitchcock films, some events in the plot are not completely plausible or even logical. An example from this film is when Bruno drops Guy’s lighter.  I won’t say why because I don’t want to totally spoil it, but suffice it to say that it’s a particularly suspenseful scene in the movie.  We witness this scene from two perspectives, with camera shots from both above and below the surface. From below the surface, we see Bruno’s arm slowly extending further and further until he finally grasps the lighter. Then the camera flashes to street level where it becomes obvious that Bruno’s wrist would not even fit in the drain, much less his entire arm! Hitchcock said that he was annoyed with critics who brought up such criticisms because he believed that fear and suspense should suspend all logic. In other words, you should be so on the edge of your seat to know how it will all come together that you’re not even thinking about whether or not it makes sense. And perhaps I would have been if I had not previously read Hitchcock’s statement. Ever since then I’ve been on the lookout for such implausibilities.

Though for entirely different reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed both this book and the film adaptation.