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Sight and Sound (2009) - Transfer of Guilt




Petrie recounts the controversy that surrounds Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film Strangers on a Train, which was an adaptation from Patricia Highsmith's classic English mystery novel. Among other things, he discloses that the film caused the relationship between Hitchcock and scriptwriter Raymond Chandler to break down after the director overheard Chandler referring to him as a "fat bastard". He also reveals that none of the climactic scene of Strangers on a Train has any relation to the ending of Highsmith's book, however, another crime novel in 1946 exactly mirrors the ending of the film.


Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film Strangers on a Train, made the year after the publication of Patricia Highsmith's novel (her first), is a key example of the 'transfer of guilt' theme identified by Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol in their influential 1957 book on the director: one person commits a crime; another takes on the responsibility or feels guilt for it or feels tainted by it. Though this theme is present in the novel - we are told on page 120 of the Penguin edition that Guy felt "at least partially guilty of Miriam's death" book and film diverge radically after about the halfway mark.

Hitchcock's film is too well-known to require detailed exposition, but a brief summary is needed to isolate the differences between book and film. In the latter Guy, a famous tennis player, encounters (probably not by accident) Bruno, an implied homosexual with a mother fixation, during a train journey. Aware of Guy's marital problems and his wife's refusal to divorce him so he can marry his girlfriend Anne, Bruno proposes an exchange of murders: Bruno will dispose of Guy's wife, Miriam, if Guy kills Bruno's hated father. Guy doesn't take the suggestion seriously so, to force his hand, Bruno murders Miriam at a fairground and tries to incite Guy into fulfilling his part of their 'bargain'. Pretending to agree, Guy attempts instead to warn the father, but is forestalled by Bruno, who decides to revenge himself on Guy, framing him for the murder of Miriam. In a climactic f...

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