Joan Schenkar’s “The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highmith,” reviewed on this week’s ”Books” page, could’ve been a slog at 686 pages. But Schenkar does a marvelous job of acting as a kind of witty, compassionate public defendant for the vitriolic Fort Worth native, who despised nearly everything but booze, cigarettes, cats, homicidal fantasies, and sex with other people’s wives. And the suspense writer traveled in so many disparate international circles during her tortured lifetime, the size of the book doesn’t feel like an indulgence.
If you need a starting point for Highsmith’s menacing, remorseless prose, I’d go with either “Strangers on a Train” (for a novel) or “The Selected Stories” (for short pieces). Years ago I read “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the first of the so-called “Ripliad,” and although Highsmith’s style is as sharp and discerning as a bloodhound, scam artists and forgers – and Tom Ripley is a casually brilliant variety of both – don’t really hold much intrigue for me. (Ripley’s tendency to beat his victims to death, rather than devise clever and arcane homicidal methods for them, is an interesting twist, though). Still, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” as a book is far and away smarter and more entertaining than Anthony Minghella’s bloated, misguided movie version.
The novel “Strangers on a Train” is vivid and twisted and harrowing, with a spiritual subtext of Christian guilt that Hitchcock’s movie version didn’t address. Still, I love Hitch’s cool, formal take on the book, and his flick contains possibly my favorite sociopathic gay movie villain: Bruno Anthony, played by the exquisitely boyish, louche Robert Walker. Bruno wears ascots and tacky smoking jackets, his mother does his nails for him, and when not actually killing, he enjoys simulating murder on sweet society ladies at cocktail parties. (Walker died tragically in 1952, the year after “Strangers” was released). One of my favorite scenes begins at about 3:20 in this clip, but the whole party sequence is great.