Having read the book and seen a stage version of Strangers on a Train so recently, it seemed only right to complete the trio by watching the famous Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation as well.
There was much that I enjoyed about the film, and many attributes that made it a very good conversion to the big screen. It felt very faithful in tone to the original text, particularly with regards to the overall concept and the narrative of the first half – more so than the play I saw, which favoured a camper tone over the tension Patricia Highsmith set out to create with the book.
That said, Hitchcock wasn’t at all afraid to deviate from certain aspects of Highsmith’s story. Chief amongst these has to be the omission of one of the key murder scenes. By having Guy not go through with the murder of Bruno’s father, the dynamic of the second half shifts dramatically. Whilst in Highsmith’s version of events, the two characters are drawn inexorably towards each other and seem almost to merge into one being as the story progresses, exploring notions of obsession and guilt, Hitchcock’s version establishes a much clearer divide between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, eliminating the moral ambiguity of Guy and presenting him very much as the hero of the piece that we’re supposed to get behind.
This change means that the latter portion of the story becomes a race against time between the two, with Guy having to outsmart an increasingly unhinged Bruno before he is framed for the murder that did go ahead; the role of the police greatly reduced. I must say, I felt this actually resulted in a better sense of building tension than the book, culminating in a more clear-cut climax. Even if this climax verges on the ridiculous by modern standards, there’s no denying it’s a more dramatic and visually striking final sequence than was present on the page. The book went in for deeper psychological analysis of what it takes to commit a crime and then live with it, whilst the film follows the path of a more traditional thriller.
Though I found the decision to make Guy a well-known tennis player rather than an architect a little odd at first, it did serve to speed up the initial meeting between the eponymous strangers, and it worked as a handy plot device later in the story to build more tension.
As for the characterisation, the homoerotic undertones between the two male leads was indeed still present, though definitely toned down. I found Anne less warm in the film than I did in the book; her role reduced largely to that of a stoic beauty without much impact. The sub-plot of Bruno’s alcoholism is removed, though his is still an enigmatic character that initially sits on the fence between anti-hero and full-blown villain, before landing firmly in the villainous camp. It is in fact Bruno’s eccentricity that carries the whole film, as it did the book, with Robert Walker understated though very convincing in the role.
To me, it was actually the supporting cast that stood out in terms of the performances, however. Patricia Hitchcock (yes, Alfred’s real-life daughter) and Laura Elliot were both great in their roles as Anne’s bold and amusing sister, Barbara, and Guy’s flirtatious though ultimately doomed ex, Miriam, respectively. Marion Lorne also made great comic impact with her role as Bruno’s mother.
There are some fantastic and creative cinematic moments, courtesy of Hitchcock’s distinct directorial style, and though it was due to the era of production more than anything, the black and white visuals served to enhance the old-school crime-noir tone of the story.
Having now seen both a play and a film that drastically changed the final outcome of the story in different ways, it seems Ms Highsmith’s book is destined not to receive a truly faithful adaptation, but that didn’t stop me enjoying this version for what it is.