Author: Patricia Highsmith
Year of Publication: 1950
Guardian 1,000 Novels Category: Crime
Over the weekend, I discovered and spent many happy hours reading The Criterion Contraption, one blogger’s attempt to review each and every film released as part of the Criterion Collection. To my shame, I own only a single Criterion disc (Hoop Dreams, which as you know is excellent), though the number of titles on the list that I covet pretty much covers the entire spectrum of their range. ‘Must do better,’ I said to myself as I worked through the site’s history, leaping from the French arthouse to Michael Bay’s Armageddon and then coming across The Most Dangerous Game, a 1932 RKO release that I didn’t know a lot about, but from the stills looked right up my street.
As it happens, the film in its entirety is available (legally, I might add) on Youtube. Instead of doing the right thing and ordering the Criterion, I put my rubbish Broadband connection (too far from the exchange, etc) to the test and watched it, immersed in just over an hour of action-adventure by the people who brought us King Kong. Historians will know that The Most Dangerous Game was filmed in the same studio, using the same sets, the same crew and double-billing a number of the actors. Intended to be a support quickie to the tale of a fifty-foot gorilla, it cost just over $200k and turned a massive profit for its studio.
Even given its slender running time, The Most Dangerous Game had to pad out its source material to feature film length. It’s based on a celebrated short story by Harvard graduate, Richard Connell, whose 8,000 word yarn was originally published in 1924 and remains a fine example of the form (I should know; as soon as I watched the film I paid the princely sum of 77p for the Kindle edition and read it in a single evening). To add an extra dimension to Connell’s text, the film shoehorned in a couple of members from the King Kong cast, most notably Fay Wray, who plays your damsel in distress, and as in her more famous role proved that few damsels were indeed so good at being distressed. With the story’s hero now having to save his woman as well as himself, the tension in the adaptation was cranked up that extra notch and turned out, in every way, to be a success.
All of which calls to mind another translation of book to screen, Strangers on a Train, and the changes script writers have to effect in order to make it work. In 1950, Alfred Hitchcock was dogged by recent failure and in need of some love, both critically and by the public. He bought the rights to Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel, Strangers on a Train, for $7,500 and employed Raymond Chandler – and later Czenzi Ormonde - to turn the text into a workable thriller. As with many of Hitchcock’s adaptations, little remains from the novel, save the central hook. A new character is introduced (Anne’s sister, Barbara, played by the director’s own daughter) thanks to her resemblance to an early murder victim. Guy Haines’s occupation changes from architect to amateur tennis star, which could be for several reasons, though I would love to think it’s for the moment when the people in the stand become a sea of heads turning left and right with the direction of the ball, apart from the perfectly still Bruno, whose attention is fixed on Guy. The biggest differences come in the second half. In the film, Guy emerges as the wronged hero, fighting against time to clear his name and stop the psychotic Bruno from framing him for murder. The guilt-laden later chapters of the book – and the events therein – are more or less excised, and the gay subtext (even on the ‘British’ version that I watched last night) is altered to become a one-way fixation.
Not that any of this makes Strangers on a Train a poor film. Hitch got exactly what he wanted from it, turning out a taut thriller that was loved by pretty much everyone. The shorter running time is an exercise in dramatic tension, certainly in the later scenes when Guy’s tennis match intercut with Bruno’s fevered efforts to retrieve his lighter from a drain remains a masterclass in the art. Hitchcock may be better remembered for his late 50s/early 60s films, but if someone ever wants to know why he was called the ‘Master of Suspense’ you could do a lot worse than sit them down, fill up the popcorn bowls and play the movie.
It is, however, a very different animal from Highsmith’s novel, one that was kicked about by a series of writers who were openly scornful of a first timer’s piece of work. Chandler called it a ‘silly little story’, whilst Whitfield Cook, who Hitchcock employed to produce a first treatment, fundamentally altered Bruno’s character, making him a much more charming beast than in the book. Cook’s work also teased out much of the narrative’s gay subtext. This was only hinted at in the novel, but on the screen it becomes the focus of Bruno’s motivation. Cleverly brought to the fore too was the theme of opposites, made more oblique in the film, whereas the book makes readers work to the end of the story to appreciate how Guy and Bruno begin as completely different sides of the coin, only to become the same by its close.
The homosexual elements of the novel are completely understandable as an undertone. After all, Highsmith was a gay writer working at a time when homosexuality was one rung higher on the American acceptability measure than being a Communist or Nazi war criminal. And yet it’s a key factor in Strangers on a Train. There’s little doubt to 21st century eyes that Bruno, the pathetic, alcoholic mother’s boy, is fixated on Guy, but questions must be asked of Mr Haines. It’s clear that the breakdown of his marriage with Miriam has much to do with a lack of passion, whilst his courtship with Anne appears to be all about being involved with a woman who has the right connections and status, indeed Anne’s own interest seems to depend on Guy’s rising star in the architectural world. Once Bruno kills Miriam, fulfilling his side of the ‘exchange murders’ bargain, Guy doesn’t do what any normal citizen might and instantly shop him, instead falling into a stupor of guilt, the pressure rising to such an extent that he ultimately goes after Bruno’s father.
The book’s first few chapters are all told from Guy’s perspective, but later resumes the tale as seen in Bruno’s eyes. From him, we realise that not only is he psychotic with a completely skewed idea of reality, but that Guy isn’t an especially nice guy either. Superior and snobbish, the architect snubs Bruno at every opportunity and practically pushes him into exerting his obsession by murdering Miriam. There’s very little about Bruno – whose chapters are told through a fog of booze – that’s likeable, but similarly there’s a pathetic and yearning streak to his character. He just wants to be loved, by Guy, and the other stranger refuses to help from the start.
But Bruno does get his revenge, and not in making Haines kill his father in one of the book’s most thrilling scenes – the other, Miriam’s murder, is just as taut – that resolves nothing from either character’s perspective. Over time, Guy finds that he’s becoming Bruno, just as inadequate and needy, to such an extent that he tries to save Bruno when he falls overboard during a sailing cruise. By then, Bruno has gifted Guy with another curse – the detective Gerard, who’s been trailing him since his father’s murder. At first, Gerard’s investigations are routine, but as he finds – through his pursuit – Bruno chasing Guy more and more and comes across the latter’s connection with Miriam, he pieces together the possibility that each has committed the other’s crime. Incidentally, with his scruffy, hangdog manner as beautifully described by the author, Gerard might very well have been the template for TV detective, Columbo, the words ‘Just one more thing’ hanging from his lips as he methodically unravels the so-called perfect crime.
The Hitchcock film aside, a further adaptation of Strangers on a Train was produced for the radio. While it followed the book’s plot much more closely, it again fell short of making Guy anything but the story’s hero, troubled by Bruno but essentially decent. The novel’s brilliance lies in the fact that Guy is no hero, that he’s just one of the narrative’s succession of ultimately unlikeable people destined for an unhappy end.