Strangers on a Train (1950), By Patricia Highsmith


In his mind, the side of the scale that bore his guilt was hopelessly weighted, beyond the scale’s measure, yet into the other side he continually threw the equally hopeless featherweight of self-defense. He had committed the crime in self-defense, he reasoned. But he vacillated in completely believing this. If he believed in the full complement of evil in himself, he had to believe also in a natural compulsion to express it. He found himself wondering, therefore, from time to time, if he might have enjoyed his crime in some way, derived some primal satisfaction from it–how else could one really explain in mankind the continued toleration of wars, the perennial enthusiasm for wars when they came, if not for some primal pleasure in killing?–and because the capacity to wonder came so often, he accepted it as true that he had.

–Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train.


If you like the movies, you should spend at least a few minutes thinking about Patricia Highsmith, author of  the novel (her debut novel) Strangers on a Train, which Hitchcock transformed into a poetic cinematic black-and-white masterpiece. Strangers on a Train is done in the spirit and vaguely familiar darkness–a jungle night in which from “below consciousness” the story characters representing Everybody, all of us, prowl in a tense predatory zest all too much at home in the primal scenes and unable to remember why out of their primordial cognition in the lower strata of their brains, the archeology of the breathing deadly wakeful killers somewhere In There or Down There from long ago–of an art and thinking we call “Modernism.” In Modernism, the rational is downsized and Freud’s primal forces and Stravinsky’s savage rhythms constrain and impel.  (But we should note: Hitchcock never shows foolish consistency. In his movie version of Strangers, Hitchcock’s inevitable and superb realism, beloved enough by him amidst the Modernist Decline and Fall to be woven in incoherently, intrudes and commits another act of careful and artful preservation of a beautiful refuge, the eerily perfect rescue [rivaling the literary recovery of its wonders by that supreme lover of the game, Nabokov] of the look and feel of tennis in the fading wooden racket era and here portrayed on the long-gone grass at Forest Hills long before the ugly stadia and obnoxious crowds cheering on the fly-swatters at Flushing Meadow).

Highsmith also wrote the Ripliad, the quartet of novels about the sociopathic Tom Ripley, two of which have been made into estimable movies, especially Ripley’s Game (reviewed elsewhere in this blog) with the perfectly cast John Malkovich as terrible Tom, killer with a fine taste in art (and, I guess, maybe Highsmith’s comment on how to think about art as a modernist–she’s certainly that darkly humorous).

Highsmith, battling (or, perhaps, sometimes welcoming) demons in much of her life, writes wonderfully and makes you want to think that she does so in a modernist trance about humankind as not having left the Darwinian swamps very far behind. Creatures are we from the Black Lagoon. (Is it possible Highsmith is the secret, invisible muse for scriptwriters of the classic science fiction movies of the 1950s as well as gangster and crime movies? See below). In Strangers on a Train, here is renowned architect Guy at night approaching the house of the sleeping father of Bruno, Guy’s Inner Killer resurrected in a complicated psychological quid pro quo for the stranger he met on a train, Bruno, who has killed Guy’s inconvenient wife and expects Guy to return the favor by killing the father Bruno detests. (It’s complicated–Highsmith does something like transform Raskolnikov’s abject guilt in Dostoevsky’s  Crime and Punishment into an overpowering urge in her modernist killers to own up, somewhat bravely!, to their swampish nature, which they do, all to be honest about [ugh!] “who they are” [not Highsmith’s words but now just about everybody’s–lets blame it on Dr. Phil]). The scene:

When he moved toward the house, a limb took his hat off. He rammed the hat in the front of his overcoat, and put his hand back in the pocket where the key was. When had he put the gloves on? He took a breath and moved across the lawn in a gait between running and walking, light and quick as a cat. I have done this many times before, he thought, this is only one of the times. He hesitated at the edge of the grass, glanced at the…garage toward which the gravel road curved, then went up the six back steps. The back door opened, heavy and smooth….

To discover more details of the subsequent and successful killing, you’ll have to read the novel. But obviously Guy has been doing these acts for a long time–specifically, since prehistoric times when he was called something guttural rather than “Guy.” (At lunch today with a close friend who is a ranked bridge player, I asked him whether he could teach a great bridge game to anyone and everyone. No reply necessary. In the first place, from whence psychologically does the bridge talent arise? According to Highsmith, it seems, it might have to do with current make-ups reflecting long-ago intense predatory proclivities in some individuals but not in quite that intensity in the generality.)

One giveaway in fiction is the excitement, the movement, in pivotal passages. Guy the night prowler is exciting, the passage is thrilling, all is alive and intense. Highsmith likes this Guy, no question. She’s a practicing modernist. An artist. She shows. She believes we’re pretty much all Guys. It may take war to set the conditions for many Guys to become prowlers and worse. She settles for a chance meeting on a train.

We’ve seen the prowling Guy in many guises in many movies. Take revenge movies. Scriptwriters shy from going into dissertations about “complexes” and “behavioral ills.” They want simplicity. “Revenge” is a serviceable explanation for the evil that men do. A great example? No Country for Old Men. Ultimately the violence just is.

Besides, Freud has been called a literary critic, though by whom I cannot recall. Perhaps by several. I would agree. Highsmith, of course, is an artist. Perhaps in Hitchcock’s Psycho, you can get a very good sense of the distinction here. Dr Fred Richman, who near the end of Psycho gives the silly academic interpretation of Norman Bates’s behavior, is countermanded by the famous and monstrously honest subsequent stare of Norman Bates. Norman’s expression…Highsmith must have liked it, I most confidently surmise. Norman is. Analysis may never catch up to him.

For Hollywood, the thing is, Why complicate matters, especially motive?

Highsmith is their kind of storyteller.