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Analysis of The Film Adaptation of 'Strangers On A Train'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3629 words Published: 4th Aug 2021

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Patricia Highsmith’s by Strangers on a Train (1950) and Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of the work immerse the audience into the noir thriller’s cunning sphere of crime, a world where the impression of dread and unease is bolstered through the theme of the divided self and the uncanny form of the double, or doppelganger.

Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train offers a psychological exploration of Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno and their entwined connection. Hitchcock alters the composition into a thriller, concentrating on surprise, uncertainty and action. In the text, the nature of the characters, Highsmith’s technical methods, and the plot configuration accentuates the resemblances between Haines and Bruno. In the motion picture conversely, the visual connections amid the two are tangled by the conversion of Haines in a guiltless hero. It commences with a chance exchange between two men on a train. Once Bruno alters the subject to an exchange of murders – “I kill your wife and you kill my father.”  The primary components are spun into a torrent of violence that will ensnare them both. Bruno advances to murder Guy’s wife, Miriam and extorts the latter into realising his part of a covenant that he was unaware he had enlisted into. Whilst in Highsmith’s other much-admired thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) sees its central character Tom Ripley embark on an expedition to Italy to return Dickie Greenleaf back to his father in the United States, but sooner than returning Dickie, he murders him and then assumes his character. Tom physically personifies both guises (Dickie and himself) whereas in Strangers on a Train, Guy progressively starts to emulate Bruno’s behaviour and consequently the figure of the divided self is devised. Moreover, it comes to be obvious that the motif of the doppelganger exposes vaster social qualms of deceit and permits Highsmith to present a social criticism of America and its misguided ‘dream’.

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Highsmith outlines the foundation for her novel in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966) as “the germ of the plot for Strangers on a Train” being “Two people agree to murder each other’s enemy, thus permitting a perfect alibi to be established.” Highsmith’s novel confronts somewhat incongruously with that plot nucleus, since Guy Haines does not agree vocally to the exchange of murders proposed by his fellow “stranger” Charles Anthony Bruno on the train. In Guy’s revelations about his spouse, Miriam, to Bruno and in his silence following Miriam’s murder, however there is a tacit acquiescence, and Guy ultimately turns into a full collaborator in the trade of murders, killing Bruno’s father to death as his share in the exchange. In Hitchcock’s adaptation, conversely, the trade of slayings is considerably more partial, with Bruno murdering Miriam however Guy, in response, strives instead to forewarn Bruno’s father, the intended second target. As implied by the vivid plot transformation in the film, the two compositions are markedly dissimilar in focus and direction. Highsmith concentrates on the intellectual exploration of the two men and their interwoven relationship as each other’s doppelgangers. Hitchcock’s however transforms the material into the genre of film noir meaning a subsequent focus on action and the distinguishing Hitchcock rudiments of tension and surprise to reveal a visual allusion to the theme of the divided self.

Hitchcock’s introductory shots for the film encapsulate an impression of the film as a whole. Particularly low camera arrangements in the opening sequence prepare the viewer for a scenario that will take place principally in a clandestine world of tension and incubus. The opening credits run through a scene looking back from the interior of a cavernous train station to the brightness of the world outside. As they draw to a close, a taxi turns into the entrance. Bruno exits the vehicle, or more precisely, Bruno’s garish shoes and trouser legs. A subsequent taxi pulls up at the curb and discharges Guy’s modest trouser legs, shoes, and tennis racquets. The film commences with an interchange into darkness from which it will return only at the conclusion. As critic Lesley Brill points out:

“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.”

These opening images of the two pairs of feet travelling towards each other and of the converging railway tracks accentuate the correlation between the two men, the premeditated image of them as doubles. One’s perception of the aesthetic opposition between the two pairs of shoes is revealed in the opening sequence. Guy’s plain dark shoes and Bruno’s more ostentatious two-toned spats become an equivalent “imposed by the editing on what would otherwise be pure contrast.” This perception of Bruno and Guy as doppelgangers is fortified both visually and verbally throughout the scenes that ensue by such elements as Guy’s cigarette lighter with its engraving of crossed tennis racquets, the connection between the ‘doubles’ of tennis player Guy and the scotch doubles ordered for them both by Bruno. Bruno’s contemplative mutters of “Crisscross” as he reclines in his private compartment, retaining the lighter Guy has left behind and musing over the exchange in murders he has just proposed to Guy.

However, in spite of the film’s technical virtuosity in implying the theme of the divided self, the viewer’s impression of Bruno as the delegate of Guy’s unexamined and subjugated desires is extinguished by the plot aim of the film resulting in an exodus from the subtleties of Highsmith’s novel. In terms of narrative, Guy is a guiltless man, culpable on a conscious level of neither Miriam’s death nor Bruno’s plans to have his father murdered. Hitchcock’s editing procedures visually conjoin Guy and Bruno, for instance, when Hitchcock cuts from a scene in a telephone booth where Guy, drowned out at first by a train, yells about Miriam shouting, “I said I could strangle her!” to a view of Bruno’s curved, upheld hands. The progression unequivocally connects Guy’s yearning for Miriam’s death to the methods by which Bruno will achieve that murder. Yet the quintessence of the film’s plot is that Guy, the blameless protagonist, will ultimately arise uncorrupted from the world of darkness into which Bruno has momentarily thrust him.

Hitchcock’s Guy, having entered Bruno’s father’s bedroom at night in harmony with Bruno’s homicidal plot, endeavours to forewarn the father, only to find a dubious Bruno there in his place. The disparity, rather than the resemblance, between the two men becomes discernible. While Guy carries a firearm with him on his nocturnal mission, the haste with which he pockets the gun outside the bedroom and cries out the name of Bruno’s father makes it unfeasible to consider that Guy is truly coaxed to perform the murder to shield him from Bruno’s coercing extortions. Consequently, the scene’s tension arises from Hitchcock consciously deluding the audience, rather than from any impression of Guy as a potentially multifaceted and capricious persona dithering between two possible alternatives. Once Guy is faced on the staircase by an evidently ferocious guard-dog, the viewer is swept into concern for Guy’s welfare, that very unease (bearing in mind that Guy may be on the verge of murdering a vulnerable old man in cold blood) is devised to coerce the audience to consider the ethical equivocality of their own responses. Thus far the audience’s moral quandary is manifestly contrived as there is no real possibility of Guy murdering Bruno’s father, and this alters the whole progression into the degree of a clever ruse.

As the film continues, viewers visibly distinguish the men’s vivid opposition regardless of the turmoil of proceedings and the commotion of the police. In the film’s crucial scene, Guy pursues Bruno to the carnival grounds where Bruno murdered Miriam. The unintended shooting of the carousel operator drives the carousel to hurtle at top speed, Guy is darted dramatically from the structured, benign world he desires into the volatility and anarchy linked with his doppelganger, Bruno. Yet, the opposition between the two men remains vital, encapsulated by a vignette where a young boy struggling to help Guy is shoved violently by Bruno and almost tumbles from the wildly revolving carousel. Guy endangers himself to rescue the child, with the consequence that he himself is almost killed by Bruno. Once the carousel’s collision and the discovery of Guy’s lighter in the dead Bruno’s hand have exposed Guy’s guiltlessness to the police, Guy is able to resume to a concord with the ordered world outside the carnival gates and his divided self. The film finishes, however, not with the fatality of Bruno, but with a droll correspondence that denotes the extent to which Guy is free of Bruno and the danger to Guy’s world and his sensation of self-conflict that Bruno signified.

Previously in the film, the function of other lesser ‘strangers’ on trains also understates the impression that the nexus between Guy and Bruno is inexorable, compelled by something within Guy himself rather than by destiny. Just as the minister’s inquiry is a inoffensive reiteration of Bruno’s question earlier in the film, so another passenger has earlier jolted the foot of another man inadvertently, just as Guy had jolted Bruno’s. Guy’s hypothetical compliance to Bruno’s murder conspiracy – “Now, you think my theory’s okay Guy?” You like it?”, “Sure, Bruno sure. They’re all okay”, is amusingly echoed, on the same evening that Bruno murders Miriam, when Guy heedlessly reassures the drunken Professor Collins, in response to a muddled query about different calculus, “Yes, I understand.”

The well-defined opposition between Guy and Bruno throughout the latter part of the film is accountable for a constituent of moral obscurity in the film as a whole. Guy’s optimistic prospect of marriage to Anne and political career has been offered to him courtesy of Bruno, who has eradicated Miriam, the only hindrance to Guy’s prosperity. Guy’s capacity both to withdraw himself from that homicidal yearning and to benefit from its outcomes has been depicted in various ways. Critic Donald Spoto describes it as “one of Hitchcock’s darkest ironies”, while Robin Wood observes that “the effect seems at times two-dimensional, or like watching the working out of a theorem rather than a human drama.” 

In juxtaposition to Hitchcock’s film, Highsmith’s text constructs the bond between Guy and Bruno a chief element of the novel’s general objective. Highsmith’s utilisation of both Guy’s and Bruno’s narrative perspectives perform structurally as Hitchcock’s traversing does in his adaptation, compelling one to visualise the two men as intricately concomitant doubles, instead of as unconnected entities. In Hitchcock’s motion picture this visual melding flows counter to the development of the narrative itself, in Highsmith’s novel the natures of the characters, the stylistic methods, and the composition of the plot all accentuate the doubling.

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The coalescing of the two central protagonists in Highsmith’s novel initiates, as does Hitchcock’s graphic connecting, with the train journey. The chance meeting between Highsmith’s Bruno and Guy is fortuitous only in the most perfunctory manner. While the encounter is unforeseen, the sense of divided identity surfaces instantaneously and is fortified by Guy’s renunciation of its existence as he ruminates, “All he despised, Guy thought, Bruno represented. All the things he would not want to be, Bruno was, or would become.” Regardless of such remonstrations, Highsmith’s Guy is rapidly lured by something in his acquaintance, contrasting Hitchcock’s Guy, who is portrayed as interchangeably entertained, irritated, or peeved by Bruno and his designs. Once Bruno proposes his philosophy that “a person ought to do everything it’s possible to do before he dies, and maybe try dying to do something that’s really impossible,” provokes a reaction in Guy to expose a resemblance to Bruno. “Something in Guy responded with a leap, then cautiously drew back. He asked softly, Like what?”

The author persists to emphasise the psychological nexuses among the two men by means of her depiction of Guy’s docile susceptibility when he is faced with Bruno’s belligerent inquisitiveness. Hitchcock’s reworking belittles this impression of compliance, rather depicting Guy as a thriving tennis player; a profession of which facilitates him to stress his physical poise and imply that he is a man of action. This tough, dynamic, athletic Guy effectually defies Bruno’s murder plot by endeavouring instead to alert the intended target. In comparison, Highsmith’s Guy is not a tennis player but a successful architect with a penchant to dwell in his own mind, to witness the world in standards and concepts while refusing to acknowledge his own stifled sentiments and desires. When he encounters Bruno, his acquaintance on the train he carries a volume of Plato, an old school text that he inadvertently leaves in Bruno’s compartment and that afterward becomes evidence to be used against him. Guy acquires the text as “an indulgence to compensate him, perhaps, for having to make the trip to Miriam.” Whilst what he reads makes sense to him, a darker, internal voice queries, “But what good will Plato do you with Miriam.”

Haines’ incapacity to confront his problematic sentiments over Miriam renders him an easy target for his doppelganger Bruno, with his nonchalant, unswerving curiosity. Unearthing in Bruno that outsider to whom he can declare Miriam’s infidelity, Guy becomes conscious that “he had never told anyone so much about Miriam.” Bruno arouses in Guy the responses he has struggled both to disguise and obscure. When Bruno probes how many lovers Miriam had, Guy in responding, finds himself ensnared in an outpouring of emotion when he replies, “‘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.” In the face of, or perchance because of, this current of passion, Highsmith’s Haines remains susceptible and submissive, enabling Bruno to control him through his incapacity to tackle problematic situations. His weakness enables Bruno to assume the role of his darker double, influencing his thoughts and emotions more readily that previously conceived.

Whereas Hitchcock’s tougher, more dynamic Guy Haines effectively opposes Bruno’s efforts to lure him to murder; Highsmith’s perplexed, docile architect fails to contest Bruno because he embodies a part of Haines himself. Moreover, in the novel the parallel between Guy and Bruno instantaneously assumes a nuance of magnetism and rapport tempered in the film’s presentation of their initial meeting. In the film, Bruno has no sooner encountered Guy than he commences into allusions to Guy’s publicly established relationship with Anne, a senator’s daughter, and his wish to obtain a divorce so that he and Anne are able to marry. In Highsmith’s novel, Bruno and Haines’ exchange concentrates on Miriam, the reviled and detrimental third party. He knows nothing about Anne, and later feels resentful when he discovers Guy’s relationship with her. Nevertheless, Highsmith’s Anne is significant even in her nonappearance; given that Guy is thinking about Anne when he commences the encounter 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.” Consequently begins the convoluted triangle as Guy’s loyalty moves between her and Bruno.

Later in the text, Haines’ affiliation with Anne and Bruno develops into an almost ominous ménage à trois. During his wedding, Guy encounters Bruno in the church and muses that “He [Guy] was standing beside Anne, and Bruno was her 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”  This conveys the assimilation of personas between Bruno and Haines and further highlights Guy’s divided self. Before long and in spite of this, three eventually becomes a crowd. Haines’ and Anne’s home is plagued by an unwelcome Bruno, who is as instantaneously comfortable as if he were one of the occupants. After a while, Bruno begins to regard Anne as the intrusive presence and commences to reflect and behave harmfully toward her. Anne’s valued sailboat becomes marred on a clandestine sail that Haines and Bruno embark on together and Bruno ultimately considers killing Anne as the only impediment left stuck between himself and Guy. This is revealed when he ruminates, “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.”

Haines identifies an unadulterated, harmful side of his identity echoed in Bruno. As Guy travels to Great Neck to murder Bruno’s father, he distinguishes the rapport between them in a different way than during their initial encounter: “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.” Following the murder, that consciousness of combined identity intensifies as Haines deliberates how goodness and vice, hatred and love subsist simultaneously in human nature. He reflects, “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 demonstrates that it is hopeless to ‘cast off’ the immoral facet of his being. In struggling to do so, by way of shouldering each other’s culpability, Haines and Bruno become intricately coupled in a process of gradual corruption whereby they begin to bear a stark resemblance to one other. In an enigmatic act of disintegration he does not assume accountability for his own deeds, only for his motivations, illuminating the possible reassuring consequences of externalising his double. Haines suggests that, “The curious thing was that he felt no guilt, and it seemed to him now that the fact Bruno’s will had motivated him was the explanation. But what was thing, guilt, that he had felt more after Miriam’s death than now?” This misallocation of fault generates such a rift that the two parts of his life no longer appear to keep together, and from this point on his identity disintegrates and wanes. This discernment is established by a vision later that night, in which Haines visualises himself awakening to discover Bruno bounding into his room. To Haines’ interrogation, “Who are you? Bruno finally retorts, “You.” While he and Bruno are on the train early in the novel, Guy understands how the intellect and precision of his innovative professional life counteract the disordered emotion and sightlessness of his private life. As soon as he has committed murder, Guy comprehends a glaring juxtaposition:

“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.”

In conclusion, such an incongruity of identity cannot be prolonged, and only one part must be triumphant. In this instance the curbed, immoral side assumes responsibility. In the opening sequence of Hitchcock’s adaptation, the image of railway tracks converging, and then diverging, establishes the milieu of the film. Haines’ and Bruno’s fates will join, and then part. In Highsmith’s novel, on the other hand, the representation of the railway tracks is used throughout to underscore Guy’s impression of foisted direction, a termination of choices, “the lifetime of moving on the tracks.” Ultimately, Highsmith portrays the conflict that lies within the divided-self using the motif of the doppelganger. As well as demonstrating the capacity for criminality in everyone, she criticises a society that commands obedience. This need for conformity is eventually what urges the need for suppression for all that is deviant, leading to the fragmented and duplicitous nature of society and its inhabitants. Highsmith and Hitchcock both exploit the conventions of the dark, subversive world of the noir thriller to reveal that society, like their characters, personify its own sinister double or doppelganger within it.


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