Published in the spring of 1950, Highsmith’s debut novel Strangers on a Train tells of two men who meet by chance on a train journey and plot to exchange murders – each will kill for the other ensuring that neither will be suspected. From this central conceit, Highsmith spins a tense, suspenseful thriller that cried out to be brought to the big screen and sure enough, barely a week after publication, offers started to roll in. Within a couple of months, a deal had been signed – with none other than the great Alfred Hitchcock. The fact that the work of a young first-time novelist had captivated such an eminent figure as Hollywood’s ‘master of suspense’ was testament to the novel’s exceptional plotting, not to mention its sharp, penetrating characterisation.
Commenting on the ‘likability’ of her protagonists, Highsmith once said: ‘I can only suggest giving the murderer-hero as many pleasant qualities as possible – generosity, kindness to some people, fondness for painting or music or cooking, for instance.’ In the novel, Bruno fits this model fairly closely (with an added Oedipal edge – he plays golf and goes to parties with his mother but harbours murderous thoughts towards his father). Architect Guy Haines is repelled by Bruno’s ideas but finds himself inextricably tangled in his plot. (‘Guy looked at him with disgust. Bruno seemed to be growing indistinct at the edges, as if by some process of deliquescence. He seemed only a voice and spirit now, the spirit of evil’).
The adaptation process was far from straightforward. Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely) was brought on board to work on the screenplay but his proposed changes to Hitchcock’s original treatment did not go down well so fellow novelist Czenzi Ormonde took over writing duties. The finished picture may have departed from the book in several areas but Strangers on a Train injected new life into its celebrated director’s career and, in the note-perfect Robert Walker, featured one of the most compelling Hitchcockian villains.