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Strangers on a Train

He felt two forces, one that would move the arm and another that would not, balancing themselves so perfectly his arm was not even tense.

Have we all plotted murder in our minds? It seems like harsh Philistinism to assent to such a claim; yet we have all had our share of enemies, from the schoolchild bully who reappears as the workplace gossip or the ferociously jealous sibling of a friend or beau. The fact is that few of us have pleased everyone; fewer still have remained unscathed from the welts and scars that terrestrial life begets. As children we found it convenient to dispose of our daydreamed foes; but as adults pangs of conscience, a feeling as nebulous as karma (which, if it exists as I believe it does, is simply the boomerang of moral law), and other such qualms usually whisper that these are dark alleys down which we should not venture. Yet what if, in the bloody thrall of a childish daydream while in the body of a law-abiding adult, we come across a being who proposes a diabolic pact to rid ourselves of the person we loathe? An old question, perhaps, but one explored magnificently in this classic novel.  

The young man who would be our hero if it weren't for some serious character flaws is a budding architect by the name of Guy Haines. Guy is twenty-six, "five-foot nine, and one hundred forty pounds," a small, slender man whose nervousness is not mitigated by his awesome coffee consumption ("ten cups a day," he at one point confesses). His ambition involves nothing less than becoming the greatest architect in America, a desire fueled more by energy and talent than competitiveness: he is passionate about architecture, loves working, and, according to everyone else (Guy will pendulate violently between self-doubt and self-exaltation), could be the most talented young architect anyone has ever seen. If this premise sounds a tad overweening, there lurks a commensurate payoff: Guy has a devil of a wife, Miriam, a plague upon his body and mind, who will not so nonchalantly agree to a divorce. Miriam is cruel, vulgar, and promiscuous (a long-faced, married playboy called Steve initially triumphs over a slew of lesser rivals, although he too will be overthrown) – which should tell you something about Guy. But she is also nubile and cunning, as she must be to overcome such frailties. And in their brief span together Miriam certainly succeeded in carving Guy hollow:

The word 'marriage' lingered in Guy's ears ... it was a solemn word to him. It had the primordial solemnity of holy, love, sin. It was Miriam's round terra-cotta-colored mouth saying, 'Why should I put myself out for you?' .... It was Miriam turning from the tall, thin window in the room in Chicago, lifting her freckled, shield-shaped face directly up to his as she always did before she told a lie, and Steve's long dark head, insolently smiling .... He saw the afternoon in Chicago, framed by the doorway of his room, the image grey and black now like a photograph. The afternoon he had found them in the apartment, like no other afternoon, with its own color, taste, and sound, its own world, like a horrible little work of art. Like a date in history fixed in time. Or wasn't it just the opposite, that it traveled with him always?

Guy is professedly a man of faith, which may not be surprising (his conscience will run a decathlon), but Guy is a man of many things. And while the afternoon "like no other afternoon" might remind a reader of Emma Zunz's tragedy as the sole and eternal occurrence, Guy's destiny is sealed when, on an otherwise uneventful train trip, he meets a tall, alcoholic psychopath from Texas called Charles Anthony Bruno. 

That Bruno is insane can be surmised from this first encounter, which showcases one of the more famous offers in modern literature: Bruno will kill Miriam if Guy will do away with Bruno's greedy and unloving father. This trade scheme of unrelated murders is admittedly not very original, having been lifted from numerous noir paperbacks you and I will never read. Yet to Guy, whose last name recollects the French word for hate just as his first name, also French, makes him an average among equals, merely the thought of Miriam dead is so delicious that he has lunch with Bruno as a sort of vicarious pleasure. Some critics would emphasize the career enhancement opportunity stymied by Miriam's presence, a detail I will not spoil; others might think Guy's current girlfriend, Anne, who will make a legitimate run at the title of Longest-Suffering Significant Other, is reason enough to hope for an end to Miriam's days. But an odd passage when Guy is with Anne and her parents in Mexico City suggests something else at work:

He was staying at the Hotel Montecarlo .... One entered it through a wide carriage drive, paved in black and white like a bathroom floor. This gave into a huge dark lobby, also tile floored. There was a grotto-like bar-room and a restaurant that was always empty. Stained marble stairs wound around the patio, and going up behind the bellhop yesterday, Guy had seen, through open doorways and windows, a Japanese couple playing cards, a woman kneeling at prayer, people writing letters at tables or merely standing with a strange air of captivity. A masculine gloom and an untraceable promise of the supernatural oppressed the whole place, and Guy had liked it instantly.

The chessboard floor tiles, "playing cards," "captivity," empty restaurant," and "untraceable promise of the supernatural" all echo the fateful dinner with an evil man he should have avoided, a gambler not unlike the God of Bargains. The woman at prayer may be Guy's mother, or even Bruno's (Bruno will be portrayed as having an unhealthy interest in his mother's looks), and the black-and-white aspect, the suggestion of both newsprint headlines and strict categories, may be understood as corrosive to Guy's mind. Two images, however, extrude the "stained marble stairs," foreshadowing a hideous crime, and the "masculine gloom," the smell of war, of killing your brothers, of the endless protection of endless things, both of which stand in contrast to what Guy really wants – a wife, family, and home. The path to achieve such goals is undoubtedly facilitated by Miriam's bizarre murder, a murder not so much witnessed as sensed by a few of her libertine friends. A murder that so conveniently takes place when her husband is still in the land of Aztecs, Mayas, and very gloomy hotels. Bruno does not delay in refreshing Guy's memory of their little chat – on the train Guy carelessly left behind his personalized copy of Plato's works – and our game has begun.

Cinéastes recur with pleasure to the film based on our novel, but the two works' discrepancies are so glaring as to beggar belief. Hitchcock's Guy is not an architect, but an "amateur tennis star," which makes so little sense for a number of reasons that we had best forget about it. Other alterations, however, are far less pardonable: Guy cannot alibi for himself in Mexico since the action is transferred to the American Northeast corridor, stripping the film of its heat-induced visions and sleazy sultriness; a feeble political undercurrent is generated – 1950s America, like its present version, was infested with panicmongers – by making Anne's father a United States senator; Anne gets a sister who is mauled by Bruno in a regrettable scene which, alas, triggers even more hare-brained vignettes, including Anne's paying a visit to Bruno's mother; and, perhaps most indicatively, Plato is jettisoned in favor of a cigarette lighter with the initials of a famous amateur tennis player. There is, of course, another difference, one so woeful as to deprive the film of any artistic integrity whatsoever, but we will leave that iniquity for the curious viewer to discover. One of the pleasures of reading Highsmith is her fearless attention to detail: "The voice [was] lewd in the morning, ugly with the complexities of night"; "Like an enormous walnut in feeble, jittery squirrel hands, an idea, bigger and closer than any idea he had ever known, had been revolving in his mind for several days"; "Bruno jumped up and shouted against the roar of her running bath"; "A girl's scream was a long arc in silence and somehow the scream made it final"; "In the mirror his face looked like a battlefield in hell"; "The facts repeated and repeated lost their horror and even their drama for Guy: they were like dull blows of a hammer, nailing the story in his mind forever"; "In the night, one approached truth merely at a certain slant, but all truth was the same"; "When she dabbled her paintbrush fast in a glass of water, the sound was like laughter." And yet the most significant and dazzling of Highsmith's sentences may be one of the shortest: "Every telephone suggested Guy." The suggestion is to Bruno, who "didn't care too much about sleeping with women," deeming such acts "a silly business."  What then is not a silly business?  Well, Guy is not silly, and Guy and Bruno are good friends, aren't they now?  Is that why, upon meeting Anne, Bruno claims he and the architect – who have nothing, absolutely nothing in common – were school mates?  If only Guy were as talented in nature as he is in artifice.


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