“I don’t want to know movie directors”: Patricia Highsmith on her film adaptations

During a rare public outing in 1988, master crime writer Patricia Highsmith gave an audience to Gerald Peary, who quizzed her on her thoughts about the many lesser and greater film adaptations of her books, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train to Wim Wenders’s The American Friend.

19 March 2021

By Gerald Peary

Patricia Highsmith
Sight and Sound

Toronto. An hour after disembarking from a plane from Zurich, minutes after a leap through a hotel shower, Patiricia Highsmith, 66, has slipped into slacks and loafers to meet me, the press. The author of Strangers of a Train, the Ripley novels, and other suspense classics made into movies (Wim Wenders’s The American Friend, from Ripley’s Game, remains the best-known European adaptation) introduces herself guardedly.

“Call me Pat,” she says, shaking hands. She is determined to be cooperative, though burnt in the past by other (rare) interviews. “I only know it takes weeks to recover, as if one had been in a car accident,” she wrote in 1967. “I think J.D. Salinger is correct in granting no interviews, and in making no speeches.”

Twenty years after, Highsmith has been coaxed to take part in the Toronto International Festival of Authors, to read publicly from her latest novel, Found in the Street, and even to appear on a panel with other writers concerning books made over into films.

This is a coup for the eight-year-old Toronto festival. No one can recall when Highsmith last left Europe to venture into the public arena in North America. Highsmith, however, sighs at the repeated press descriptions of her as a “recluse”. “It’s because I prefer to live in the country where it’s quiet.” Where exactly she won’t say, though it is in a two-street town in the Italian part of Switzerland, three-and-a-half hours from Zurich. “Woody Allen movies there are dubbed into Italian,” she says.

This feature was first published in our Spring 1988 issue

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 meagre 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.

Leo G. Carroll, Farley Granger, Ruth Roman and Laura Elliot in Strangers on a Train (1951)

About Strangers on a Train: she adores Robert Walker as the psychopathic Bruno. (“He was excellent. He had elegance and humour, 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.”

Carol Lynley as Diana in Once You Kiss a Stranger (1969)

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 (Tell Her I Love Her) 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.

Maurice Ronet as Walter and Yvonne Furneaux as Clara in Le Meurtier (Enough Rope, 1963)

Several of Highsmith’s favourite versions of her works have been for television: a West German adaptation of Deep Water, and a Quebec retelling of several short stories. She thinks Le Meurtier (Enough Rope, 1963), from her 1954 novel The Blunderer, is “a jolly good film,” and she is negotiating now to sell rights for a remake. She must choose between competing bidders: an Italian producer and French filmmaker, Claude Chabrol.

“Lately I ask for four-, five-, six-page treatments from [potential] buyers of my books. I turn down plenty of them because they aren’t inspired.“ Le Meurtier, directed by Claude Autant-Lara, moved Highsmith’s New York setting to Southern France. “I hope this time it will be set in California,” she says. And why? A character in The Blunderer is a sadistic New Jersey policeman who commutes into New York and beats up murder suspects as part of his investigations. “In a way, I made a mistake,” Highsmith admits, “because a New Jersey policeman can’t operate that way in New York. But in California, he can move between different counties.”

Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet and Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird in Carol (2015)

In 1952, under the nom de plume Claire Morgan, Highsmith published The Price of Salt, a novel of lesbian love, notably radical in its day for having a happy ending. [Update: Todd Haynes adapted it as Carol in 2015.] The heroine, Therese, rejects her boyfriend (who is given to quoting from A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man) for a passionate new life in the arms of sophisticated Carol. This was Highsmith’s only overtly gay novel prior to her new Found in the Street, which is set in the casually bisexual New York art world.

Critics, however, have noted homosexual underpinning in Highsmith’s many tales of unusual male friendships, especially the four Ripley novels. Tom Ripley is constantly mistaken for being ‘queer’. He likes to attend all-guy parties and to masquerade in other men’s clothes, particularly the garments of males who obsess him. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, he develops an undeniable crush on Dickie Greenleaf. When Greenleaf spurns him, Ripley kills the young man. By the fourth novel, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, her hero, Tom, has committed eight murders (by Highsmith’s count) and got away with all of them.

“I don’t think Ripley is gay,” Highsmith says adamantly. “He appreciates good looks in other men, that’s true. But he’s married in later books. I’m not saying he’s very strong in the sex department. But he makes it in bed with his wife.”

Dennis Hopper as Tom Ripley in The American Friend (Der Amerikanische Freund, 1977)

In The American Friend, an idiosyncratic reading of Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, Wim Wenders made Ripley (Dennis Hopper) into a bachelor once again. “Ripley has some nice friends though,” Wenders told an interviewer. “He’s not a solitary and he’s not a homosexual. Not explicitly. But the way he handles Jonathan has a lot to do with homosexuality.” 

When these comments were quoted to her, Highsmith counters, “Ripley is married. And he’s not lost. He has his feet on the ground.” As for Wenders, Highsmith says, “He mingled two books for American Friend. One of them he didn’t buy.” (Wenders’s frame story concerns forged paintings, a plot fragment borrowed, uncredited, from Ripley Under Ground.)

Highsmith met Wenders before The American Friend, when he tried to buy film rights to one of her books. According to Wenders, the novels he was interested in, Cry of the Owl and The Tremor of Forgery, were already optioned. Highsmith suggested he read the one she had just finished writing. “It was Ripley’s Game,” said Wenders, “and I liked it from the beginning.” And Highsmith liked Wenders. “There’s something about him that’s OK. His artistic quality, his enthusiasm.”

The American Friend, she concedes, has a certain “stylishness”, and she thinks the scenes on the train are terrific. Also, she liked Wenders’s Paris, Texas. But, back in the American Friend, she is confused by Dennis Hopper’s highway cowboy rendition of Ripley. “Those aren’t my words,” she says of his philosophical soliloquies.

Alain Delon as Tom Ripley in Plein Soleil (1960)

Highsmith thinks that handsome Alain Delon was excellent as Ripley in Plein Soleil/Purple Noon (1959), René Clément’s adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, though she was jolted by the ending – not hers! – in which Ripley is caught after throwing the murdered Dickie Greenleaf overboard.

But perhaps she says, Strangers on a Train’s Robert Walker might have been the best Ripley of all, if he had lived.

Alas, Highsmith has become bored in Toronto talking about the movie versions of her novels. Finally, she says, film directors can do what they want with her books, once she has signed the contract. Especially since she isn’t interested in doing the scripts herself. “I started screenplays two or three times, and I can assure you that I failed. I don’t think in the way a playwright thinks. So if people have bought something of mine, they know by now that I will decline writing it for the movies. Anyway, I don’t want to know movie directors. I don’t want to be close to them. I don’t want to interfere with their work. I don’t want them to interfere with mine.”

Matt Damon as Tom Ripley and Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

She rarely sees movies. When she does, it is usually to catch up, such as on a jaunt to the Locarno Film Festival near her home. A decade ago, Highsmith was president of the jury at the Berlin Film Festival. “I was not particularly good at it,” she remembers. “I hated cracking the whip, and these juries turn into political things. Some fellow from the Third World kept hammering for prizes for a Communist film which was rotten.”

An obvious final question. Does Highsmith have a favourite movie of all time? “No.” Not Citizen Kane or Casablanca? “No, no,” she says again, but then she smiles to herself. “Maybe Gone with the Wind – and it’s a great book as well.”

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