The Perfect Crime: Strangers on a Train

HALLOWEEN 2012: BY ELLA G.

strangers

I’ll just go ahead and admit it. I sometimes wonder about how I could plot and carry out the perfect crime. TV shows like Law and Order show you what not to do; movies like Ocean’s Eleven give you plenty ideas on how to carry off, say, a bank heist. You fantasize of actually succeeding with your mission—no matter how ethically wrong it is—and riding off into the sunset with no one stopping you. Come on. We’ve all done it once in our lifetime. In 1950, a first time author named Patricia Highsmith penned such a tale: the story of a guy who claimed he could pull off the perfect murder. Or could he?

In the novel, Strangers on a Train, the tale begins innocently enough. Charles Anthony Bruno and Guy Haines are just two men with issues plaguing them. Guy, a successful architect, wants to divorce his unfaithful wife Miriam… but he isn’t getting one. Bruno is a psychopath who wants his father killed. After striking up a casual conversation, Bruno proposes a perfect remedy to their problems. What if they take care of the other’s problem? Bruno will “take care” of the adulterous wife and Guy will deal with Bruno’s dad. It’s just the most cockamamie scheme for it to work, or so Bruno tries to convince his newfound “friend” and “partner in crime.” But it’s also the stupidest thing to actually have the guts to pull off, so Guy sweeps Bruno’s comments under the rug. There’s no way someone would actually act on the murderous thoughts that parade around in one’s mind. Until, sure enough, Guy’s wife winds up dead; she’s found strangled and the police don’t have any suspects. It’s as if the perfect crime was really about to unfold.

Only here’s the thing: when someone sees you as being in their debt, they’ll call to collect. Bruno isn’t about to commit a murder for Guy and not get one in return. So he begins to harass. It wasn’t enough to bug a stranger on a train with incessant, seemingly bizarre talk; now Bruno begins calling and sending constant telegrams and letters, reminding him of Guy’s part of the bargain. It’s enough to drive one crazy. Before long, Guy gives in, even though it isn’t a part of his nature, and kills Bruno’s father.

But the perfect crime also needs to be perfect in the psychological success. It’s probably best if one does not feel guilt or else the knowledge of your crime will eat you alive. You begin to act strangely, so strangely people notice that something is amiss. This is what transpires for Guy. A private detective begins to put two and two together (including the first meeting on a train between Bruno and Guy). By the end of the novel, Guy has confessed his guilt to many people, even after Bruno dies in an incident and the murder investigations seemingly die with him. He didn’t want to be in any way, shape, or form associated with a psychopath; he felt like one as it was.

It’s a fascinating tale, isn’t it? It’s a story filled with many layers that seemed perfect for the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. In 1951, he secured the film rights for a mere $7,500 and set about to make an intriguing movie. It wasn’t an easy process from script to screen (a lot of the gems never are) but having seven screenwriters turn it down takes a giant of Hitch’s caliber to handle. Casting choices for the film were a nightmare (supposedly, Hitchcock wanted William Holden in the role, but many said he wouldn’t be convincing. Indeed, Holden is a strong actor and the character of Guy Haines, is, well, not.) And then, there was the matter of handling the entire premise of the plot. There was “The Code” back in 1951. You had to either get justice for the bad guy in some way or you had to have a good character. There was no other way around it. As the novel stood, you had two murderers: one seemingly got away with it; the other didn’t have any redeeming qualities. The underlying homosexual undertones probably made it even more difficult for people to cope with such a story. But not for Hitchcock. The famed director found a way to create a fantastic tale. He made Guy Haines an all American boy, a tennis player. Bruno became more of a playboy psychopath, yet was still a very convincing, creepy psychopath. Underlying “sexual tension” was kept to a minimum. A murder still takes place but the other one is more resolved in not committing murder. Even though the viewer has to know the murderers will not get away with their act, you’re still on the edge of your seat as to see what will happen.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Strangers on a Train. I was discovering that I was more drawn to thrillers that didn’t creep me out and indeed, this film doesn’t. The music and cinematography play into the usual ambiance that one comes to expect from the director. He has a way of making his films appear to be very realistic. I definitely don’t look at talkative strangers the same way anymore, even if I do know the chances of them being psychopaths are slim to none.

The movie does tie into the book in a very important way. There isn’t such a thing as the perfect crime. There never is. Sin will find you out. There are always people watching. While it might seem as if you get away with negative behavior, it’s only for a fleeting moment. Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony discover the hard way that sometimes, it’s better to just plan the crime in your head than actually act on it. Actions always have consequences, no matter what a stranger on a train might say. ■

halloween2012

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