Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Patricia Highsmith I: Strangers On A Train

Strangers On A Train (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

Patricia Highsmith gave a rare interview with Gerald Peary for Sight And Sound Magazine in 1988. The author of Strangers on a Train, the Ripley novels, and other suspense classics, she discussed her writing process, Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train and other adaptations of her work:

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Highsmith grew up in New York City. She took a degree at Barnard College. Then came years of traveling about Europe. Today she lives in Switzerland alone.‘I can’t write if someone else is in the house, not even the cleaning woman. I like to work for four or five hours a day. I aim for seven days a week. I have no television – I hate it. I listen to the BBC World Service starting at 2 in the morning until 4. I switch off the light and listen in bed. I don’t set the alarm to get up. I get up when I feel like it.’

She owns no copies of films made from her books, not even Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 version of her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950). ‘It seems to be entertaining after all these years,’ she acknowledges. ‘They keep playing it on American TV, ancient as it is. A few years ago, there were requests to me, “Can we make this?” I said that I have no rights. Contact the Hitchcock estate, which won’t release it for a remake.’

Strangers on a Train was sold outright for $7,500, with ten per cent of that to Highsmith’s agent. A meager recompense, some would say, but Highsmith disagrees. ‘That wasn't a bad price for a first book, and my agent upped it as much as possible. I was 27 and had nothing behind me. I was working like a fool to earn a living and pay for my apartment. I didn’t hang around films. I don’t know if I’d ever seen Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes." Anyway, she heard later that Robert Bloch was paid only $9,000 by Hitchcock for his novel Psycho.

About Strangers on a Train: she adores Robert Walker as the psychopathic Bruno. (‘He was excellent. He had elegance and humor, and the proper fondness for his mother.’) Highsmith is less pleased with Ruth Roman as Ann Morton, Guy’s love interest. (‘She should be much warmer.’) And she regrets Hithcock’s decision to turn Guy (Farley Granger), an architect in her novel, into a championship-winning tennis player. Highsmith: ‘I thought it was ludicrous that he’s aspiring to be a politician, and that he’s supposed to be in love with that stone angel.’ She only talked to Hitchcock once, while Strangers on a Train was in pre-production. ‘I was in New York. He was in California. He rang me to make a report on his progress and said, “I'm having trouble. I've just sacked my second screenwriter.’”

Hitchcock eventually hired Raymond Chandler to write the final script. Highsmith never met Chandler or seemingly any other writer of suspense novels. She doesn’t read them, she says, except, over and over again, the master: Dostoevsky. Also Graham Greene, a declared Highsmith admirer, with whom she exchanges occasional letters. ‘I have his telephone number but I wouldn’t dream of using it. I don't seek out writers because we all want to be alone.’

Highsmith has never seen Once You Kiss a Stranger, a 1969 Warners variation on Strangers on a Train, in which a crazy girl (Carol Lynley) offers to assassinate the chief competition of a golf pro (Paul Burke) if this golfer will bump off her psychiatrist.‘God knows, it was certainly done behind my back!’ Highsmith laughs. ‘Strangers on a Golf Course.’

The writer says she is ‘not mad about’ Claude Miller's 1997 Dites-lui que je l'aime from her novel, This Sweet Sickness, and she loathes Ediths Tagebuch, the 1983 West German film by Hans Geissendorfer, drawn from her Edith’s Diary, a rare Highsmith novel with a female protagonist. In the book, Edith Howland, a suburban Pennsylvania housewife, suffers mightily because her homebound son, Cliffie, is so passive, unambitious, mediocre. In the movie, which is set in Germany, Cliffie becomes a psychotic who lusts after Edith, his mom (Angela Winkler).  ‘It's dreadful!’ Highsmith says. ‘Making the son in love with the mother is a lot of Oedipal crap.’ She was taken aback because Geissendorfer’s version of The Glass Cell/Die Glaserne Zelle (1977) was a decent, sensitive film, a notable portrayal of the anguish of a man (Helmut Griem) out of prison for a white-collar crime, who suspects that his wife (Brigitte Fossey) is enmeshed in a love affair...

- Patricia Highsmith interviewed by Gerald Peary.

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