When the master of suspense hired the legendary hard-boiled detective writer
It is 1950 and Alfred Hitchcock is suffering a mid-career crisis. His latest films, Under Capricorn and Stage Fright have flopped. In need of a hit he comes across a thriller from first time novelist Patricia Highsmith entitled Strangers on a Train.Hitchcock secures the movie rights to the novel, paying $7,500. Highsmith would later be annoyed when she discovers that Hitchcock had bought the rights at a low price as a result of keeping his name out the negotiations.
In the book, tennis player Guy Haines meets a stranger on train and, after sharing their problems, the two men agree to an exchange of murders. This way their crimes would appear motiveless. It seems a perfect plan as each will benefit from a murder for which they will have an alibi. Guy doesn't take the agreement seriously until his wife winds up dead. He is warned that he must fulfil his part of the deal or else…
Nervous of another failure, Hitchcock and Warne Bros. want an acclaimed writer to pen the screenplay. Eight big names are approached, including John Steinbeck, but they all reject the opportunity. Hitchcock turns to the great American crime writers and, after a deal with Dashiell Hammett falls through, he contacts Raymond Chandler. On reading the treatment, Chandler describes it is a “silly little story" and “implausible” but he takes the job anyway.
It seems like a perfect collaboration; a script from the respected master of hardboiled crime fiction and a cinematic genius in the director’s chair.
Chandler is a no-nonsense writer. He wants to crack on with the script and works best alone. Hitchcock demands an input, making suggestions and putting forward his ideas for a scene. It is a recipe for disaster. In no time their relationship is in ruins. Chandler tells Hitchcock, “If you can go it alone, why the hell do you need me?” He describes their meetings as, "god-awful jabber sessions which seem to be an inevitable although painful part of the picture business.” His main gripe is the director’s willingness to forgo story and logic for dramatic effect.
On seeing Hitchcock arrive for a meeting, Chandler shouts, “Look at the fat bastard trying to get out of his car!"
Overhearing the remark, Hitchcock ceases talking to the writer. Chandler completes two drafts of the screenplay, without hearing a word from Hitchcock, before being dismissed.
Czenzi Ormonde is hired to write the screenplay. A fair-haired beauty with long shimmering hair, she resembles one of Hitchcock’s leading ladies and has no formal screenwriting credit to her name. Meeting her to discuss the script, Hitchcock makes a show of pinching his nose, then holding up Chandler's draft with his thumb and forefinger before dropping it into a wastebasket. Ormonde is informed that Chandler hasn't written a solitary line he intends to use.
After reading the final script, Chandler writes the following letter to Hitchcock:
Dear Hitch,In spite of your wide and generous disregard of my communications on the subject of the script of Strangers on a Train and your failure to make any comment on it, and in spite of not having heard a word from you since I began the writing of the actual screenplay—for all of which I might say I bear no malice, since this sort of procedure seems to be part of the standard Hollywood depravity—in spite of this and in spite of this extremely cumbersome sentence, I feel that I should, just for the record, pass you a few comments on what is termed the final script. I could understand your finding fault with my script in this or that way, thinking that such and such a scene was too long or such and such a mechanism was too awkward. I could understand you changing you mind about the things you specifically wanted, because some of such changes might have been imposed on you from without. What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mass of clichés, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screen writer is taught not to write—the kind that says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied by the actor or the camera. Of course you must have had your reasons but, to use a phrase once coined by Max Beerbohm, it would take a "far less brilliant mind than mine" to guess what they were.
Regardless of whether or not my name appears on the screen among the credits, I'm not afraid that anybody will think I wrote this stuff. They'll know damn well I didn't. I shouldn't have minded in the least if you had produced a better script—believe me. I shouldn't. But if you wanted something written in skim milk, why on earth did you bother to come to me in the first place? What a waste of money! What a waste of time! It's no answer to say that I was well paid. Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time.
(Signed, 'Raymond Chandler')
On the verge of releasing the film, Hitchcock and Chandler agree that the novelist should be removed from the credits. However, still wanting the prestige of the Chandler name, Warner Bros. list him as one of the film’s writers.
Strangers on a Train is a success and marks Hitchcock’s comeback. It endures as one of the director’s most popular movies.
Patricia Highsmith's career blossoms. She produces other psychological mystery novels that become adapted for the screen including The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley's Game and Edith's Diary.