Monday, November 17, 2014

Reading the Movies, #Noirvember Edition: "Strangers on a Train"

My life has gotten crazy lately, what with working long hours and social engagement. But I am getting serious about updating because it's Noirvember again and I'm excited. Noirvember, in case the punny name doesn't make it obvious, is the month-long celebration of film noir, started by some of the most active members in the TCM Party community.

I'm especially excited I get to combine my Noirvember posts with another feature I started a little while ago on the blog called "Reading the Movies". The film noir canon is full of movies based on pulp novels.

I was actually really surprised to find a copy of "Strangers on a Train" on a stoop sale table last month. I had no idea this Hitchcock gem was originally a book! Written in 1950 by author Patricia Highsmith, who also wrote "The Talented Mr. Ripley", "Strangers" was adapted for film almost as soon as the book was published. The premise of both the novel and the film is two men meet on a train and one of them says hey, we both have people in our lives we hate! If we "trade" our murders, they'll never find out because there won't be an obvious motive! The murders would be Guy's greedy, cheating wife Miriam who refuses to give him the divorce that would let him marry his gorgeous society fiancee and Bruno's allegedly abusive father. This obviously unravels pretty quickly.

Raymond Chandler, who wrote his share of twisted books that were adapted into noirs, softened Highsmith's book a great deal, and nowhere is that more noticeable than with the character of Bruno. In the book, the name is Charles Anthony Bruno but he's called Bruno Anthony in the film. OK, fine, not a big deal. But in the novel, there's no doubt that Bruno is both a homosexual (with an oedipal complex, to boot!) and a homicidal maniac. Also, he's a raging alcoholic who blacks out sometimes. Hitchcock/Chandler's Bruno is effeminate, sure, but is mostly he's a spoiled mama's boy who charms country club guests with his perfect French. And his mother in the movie is a dotty old society matron, whereas book mother is a hot to trot trophy wife of a philandering old man.

Hitchcock's Bruno is of course coded as gay in the movie, especially with hand gestures and wardrobe. In the film's opening, his fancy, detailed wingtips are contrasted with Guy's very sensible brogues. And then, this robe! What is this robe?

Also note Bruno's delicate cigarillo, a tiny phallic object that is thought to be more for women than men. The movie takes almost every opportunity to shout GAY!

I think this shot is a perfect example of something the film hints at and the book makes pretty explicit: Bruno is so obsessed with Guy that he hopes to usurp fiancee Ann's place in his life. He's taunting Ann that of course her beloved Guy is responsible for the murder of Miriam. Chandler pretty brilliantly demonstrates Bruno's obsession with Guy with a lighter that was a present from Ann to Guy. Bruno guards it jealously, refusing to lend it to a train passenger who asks for a light (no, damnit, I will stimulate my little phallus with something that reminds me of Guy and not share!)

But here is where Highsmith draws her pink line in the sand, so to speak, where she marks Bruno as gay: Bruno hates women. Not just Miriam, the woman making Guy unhappy, and Ann, the woman who is standing in the way of his relationship with Guy. He is repulsed by sex with women, and it's suggested that he's only ever tried it with hookers, women he cannot possibly respect. He actually thinks of nearly all women as vulgarly trading sex for something, be it money or European vacations, like mother dear. And, hilariously, typically, Highsmith's Bruno likes clothes. Leave it to a fairy to complain about a woman's socks not matching her shoes before killing her, amirite?

This brings us to the actual murder, which ironically happens on an island all the local kids like to row out to so they can neck. In an arresting bit of directing, Hitchcock shows the murder happening in the reflection of the victim's glasses:

I love this shot so much. When I first saw this movie ten years ago, my jaw dropped and it still does when I see it now. But I gotta say, the murder scene has a stronger impact in the book. Bruno strangles Miriam, but she puts up a fight, so much so that he has to lay on top of her until she finally stops moving. Even in achieving his dream of the "perfect murder", Bruno is repulsed by this close contact with a woman that has a distinctly sexual tone to it.

Book or the movie? Can't believe I'm about to say this, but I think I like the book better. Highsmith leaves more room to think about questions of guilt, innocence, perversion (homosexuality is a shorthand for the antisocial impulse as it so often is in books from this era, but it can really mean anything) and what it takes to actually kill someone. Because Guy in the book goes through with Bruno's murder, and that's when things get really interesting. Not to say Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" isn't amazing--it completely blew me away when I first saw--but Highsmith's book is darker and more complicated. 

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