Friday, May 28, 2021

Strangeness on a Train


I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Of Patricia Highsmith, I was never as enthused. But after reading Strangers on a Train, I’m enthused enough to re-read Ripley.

Why, you ask? Well, Hitchcock made a really masterful film, Strangers on a Train, in stunning black & white. Two men, Guy Haines, a tennis player, and Bruno Anthony (Charles Anthony Bruno in the book), meet on the pre-Amtrak passenger train running between D.C., where Guy lives, and New York. Through both the dialogue and the visual storytelling Hitchcock was so good at, we learn Bruno is a psychopath, who wants his mommy to himself, and would like to be rid of her wealthy capitalist husband—”the Captain,” she calls him—whom Bruno hates. Guy wants to divorce his wife, and but she’s refusing to sign the final divorce papers. One of Bruno’s hobbies is plotting perfect murders, and he proposes one to Guy—swap murders. You do my murder, I’ll do yours. Criss-cross. Bruno thinks it’s brilliant because, no one can connect Guy and himself, therefore, he’d have no motive for killing Miriam Haines, just as Guy has no motive for killing Bruno’s father. Guy absolutely refuses, but Bruno has another hobby, drinking, and ignores Guy’s objections.

Murder at the amusement park
Murder at the Amusement Park

Shortly after they meet, Bruno travels to Metcalf, follows Miriam, and in a classic scene still studied by film students, strangles Miriam (in a reflection in her eyeglasses) in an amusement park. He gets away clean, and proudly tells Guy what he’s done, and asks Guy to keep his part of the bargain, the bargain Guy never made. The film ends with another classic scene, (one which I like because it is so over the top), with a terrifying out-of-control merry-go-round ride, cops who shoot first and look out for bystanders later, children trapped on tons of whirling machinery, manic carousel horses, and a struggle to the death between Guy and Bruno.

Much as I love this film, which I’ve seen numerous times over the last 40 years, I am now in awe of the novel which I just completed for the first time. Whereas my man Hitch builds suspense through visual storytelling and action, Patricia Highsmith rachets up the tension in her writing by increasing the psychological pressure on the protagonist.

Patricia Highsmith is hard to like. She was a drunken, atheist, lesbian, who hated blacks, Koreans, and Jews. I’d previously read and enjoyed The Talented Mr. Ripley, but felt while it was a clever idea, it was too wordy, too introspective, and too slowly paced. In a word, overrated. And frankly, I spent several weeks trying to get traction in Strangers, falling asleep each night wondering how long Highsmith could drag out the initial scene on the train.

Recorded books seem to make all the difference for me on these slow-paced introspective books. I bought Strangers on Audible, and the opening flowed as easily as the movie version. Soon I found that some of those boring bits I’d rather skip when I’m reading show the characters’ psyches and in the case of Bruno, his psychosis. Guy is a contrast to Bruno in every way. Guy is sober; Bruno is a drunk. Guy is in love and planning to marry Anne; Bruno hates women, except his mother. They’re opposites. Or wait, as the book goes on and Highsmith weaves her web, maybe they’re not opposites. Maybe they’re opposite parts of the same character. Maybe they’re doppelgängers.  

For Margaret avec plaisir
Inscribed "For Margaret avec plaisir
Patricia Highsmith"

A key difference between the Hitchcock film and the Highsmith book is that just a few pages past the midpoint of the book, Guy gives in to Bruno’s demand that he fulfill his part of the bargain—the other half of the double murder. Guy kills Bruno’s father. From there on Guy becomes guilt ridden and increasingly like Bruno.

It’s fair to say Hitchcock and Highsmith take the Train on two separate tracks from this point on. There is no tennis match in the book, no return to the amusement park, no final shootout, no merry-go-round disaster, no resolution of the plot in a final burst of action. In the book Guy is consumed with an ever-growing sense of guilt.

Charles Bruno’s father employed a full-time detective, Arthur Gerard, (suggestive of Inspector Javert) on his staff. Gerard knows Bruno hated his father and knows of his hobby of plotting murders. The story is set in the days when people wrote down names, addresses, and phone numbers of their acquaintances, and it’s not long before Gerard is asking Bruno, “Who’s Guy Haines? When did you meet him?” Gerard learns Haines’s wife Miriam was murdered not long after Bruno met Haines. Hmmm.

Bruno continues to foist himself on Guy and Anne, and Gerard, relentlessly, gathers in the threads, forms his theory.  What’s most interesting though is how Highsmith entangles her characters, Guy and Bruno, in their webs of lies. Will they get away with it? Or will Gerard trap them? Highsmith builds suspense by dragging out Guy’s internal dialogues to the limit, keeping emotions heated to a fever pitch, and delaying the denouement, (or is it the actual climax?) Truly, she’s a master of suspense like Hitch himself, and in a way I might never have thought possible. In the end of the book, Gerard extracts a confession from Guy, a guy who could have committed the perfect crime if he’d kept his nerve.

Patricia Highsmith wrote a short book called Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, which I read several years ago, hoping it might help me learn the writing game. The book contained plenty of anecdotes about short stories--she was a big fan of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as a market for her work, and thus far in my career, it’s been the best market for my short stories—but I thought it was a little light on the “how to.” One takeaway though is the precept, “The starting point for a chapter outline should be the question to oneself, ‘How will this chapter advance the story?’” I perceive in Strangers on a Train, Highsmith advances the plot by progressively pushing the characters’ emotions to the point of no return, through strongly written chapters showing how their internal tensions build.

This little essay is primarily about what I learned about writing suspense from reading Highsmith. But here’s a sidebar. Many of Hitchcock’s films were adaptations from existing literature. Over the years, have read Robert Bloch’s Psycho, Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds,” John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, Vertigo (D’Entre les Morts) by Boileau Narcejac, and “Rear Window” by Cornell Woolrich. I had no overarching plan in reading these. They fit in with my interests. Then last winter, I took a class called “Alfred Hitchcock and Adaptations,” and read

·  Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

·  “The Song of the Dragon” (Notorious) by John Taintor Foote

·  The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) by Ethel Lina White, and

·  Rope by Patrick Hamilton

Some of the Hitchcock films follow the writing closely, others use the text more as a jumping off point. But in all cases, it’s been fun to look at the similarities and disparities between the different mediums, and see how Masters of Suspense work in their art forms.

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