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The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of this article. Please read Part 1 in the previous blog entry.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 2 of 2)

4. Downhill Battle and Grey Tuesday

“A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense.”

–Lawrence Lessig

I do not want to suggest that remix practices are a priori liberatory in a political sense. Neither remix culture nor social computing are guarantees that progressive values will be advanced, that the Internet will be the locus of a renewed democracy and engaged citizenry, or that if we keep making remixes we will solve longstanding, intransigent problems associated with copyright law, globalization, or neoliberalism. But I do wish to note that remix and activism have and will continue to cross, and that there have been politically informed activities to protect remixed works valued by certain kinds of media producers and consumers. And without such activism in the early days of the mashup, we would be telling a very different story in this paper.

In this historical-political vein, it is worth noting that things could have turned out very differently for The Grey Album. Right after its release, its very existence was threatened by EMI. According to EMI, DJ Danger Mouse did not have rights to use the Beatles music. It was a classic David vs. Goliath battle. EMI lawyers sent cease and desist orders letters to outlets that were distributing the album. In practice, this meant that EMI wanted all record stores to destroy physical copies of the album, and for all websites that contained the digital files to immediately remove them from their servers. This approach is the most consistently used weapon in the copyright war as fought by corporate media companies. They choose to go after the “nodes and networks” instead of the creators, and usually instead of the end-user. They choose to choke off the source for further piracy and dissemination by making service providers accountable for whether their end-users are obeying existing US copyright law. As EMI embarked upon this approach, The Grey Album was about to become a famous “lost project” in remix circles. EMI’s desire was to criminalize downloads of the Grey Album that would make Danger Mouse’s effort a “digital media pariah” which few website owners, let alone music lovers, would want to risk putting on their servers or placing in their digital music libraries. EMI wanted the stigma of litigious retribution attached to The Grey Album. But the same energy that EMI was willing to expend because one of its most cherished copyrights was at stake (the Beatles music catalog) is the same energy harnessed by music and copyright activists on the web. How DJ and activist culture intertwined is an important part of The Grey Album story.

A historic online protest known as Grey Tuesday was the result. Grey Tuesday was organized by Downhill Battle, a music activism project begun in August 2003. As stated on their website: “Downhill Battle is a non-profit organization working to break the major label monopoly of the record industry and put control back in the hands of musicians and fans…[and to] counter the distortions of the RIAA and the major record labels.”[1] While there are echoes of utopian battle in the group’s description, most of its efforts work to productively inform music buyers about the business nature and legal maneuvers of the music industry. For the protest around The Grey Album, Downhill Battle wanted to stress the need for new laws governing sampling and loops, otherwise remix culture would be severely curtailed if this form of creativity had no ability to fairly use existing bits of music.

Grey Tuesday was a very successful day of protest that resulted in over one million downloads of tracks from The Grey Album. In ways that social computing portend, Downhill Battle successfully organized a massive protest using social networks and the architecture of the web as a key part of its strategy. Therefore, Downhill Battle sent out a call for sites that would be willing to host the files for the Grey Album on Tuesday, February 24, 2004. Hundreds and hundreds of sites participated in the protest[2], and the publicized generated around Grey Tuesday, helped to account for the number of downloads that took place. Grey Tuesday can be understood as a tipping point in what had been up until that moment a fairly small online movement.

A legal assessment of Grey Tuesday done by the Electronic Frontier Foundation demonstrates that EMI might not even had had a case regarding “cease and desist” orders of The Grey Album. nasIt is important to note the critical difference here with Napster, Grokster and other cases involving the peer-to-peer sharing of digital music. Ultimately, Grey Tuesday was not about illegal downloads, digital rights management, or CD piracy. The sites were not hosting the copyrighted files of the original Beatles’ white album nor Jay-Z’s black album, but a remix album called The Grey Album.

Even when copyrighted material is involved, the law does make a distinction regarding what constitutes “infringement.” In a court of law, EMI would have had to prove that The Grey Album infringed on the rights of Lennon-McCartney compositions. Legal statues are clear that for a violation to occur, “a substantial portion” of the original work has to be involved. It is unclear whether a court would have taken Danger Mouse’s snippets of Beatles music as “substantial” infringements. But even if a court of law deemed Danger Mouse’s samples were “substantial,” the protesters could still advance another legal claim: that their hosting of the files constituted “fair use.”

As Lawrence Lessig points out in his book Free Culture, fair use is a very nebulous concept, and the lack of clarify around fair use is one of the motivations behind the flexible copyrights of the Creative Commons movement. But within existing legal definitions of fair use, the protesters who participated in Grey Tuesday could claim:

1. It was a non-commercial effort

2. The Grey Album is not a substitute for the original albums

3. The Grey Album is transformative of the White Album

4. Grey Tuesday is a commentary on copyright law

Logo for E.F.F.

These arguments, advanced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are fairly persuasive and remind us that remix culture operates somewhere between the “free culture” of the public domain and the permission culture of copyright law. And the fair use argument picks up another ally when you consider that Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella record label did not follow in EMI’s footsteps. One key difference is probably Jay-Z’s roots in hip-hop culture; sampling has been a major element of his artistic output, just like other hip-hop artists. For example, the only way to understand Jay-Z releasing an a cappela version of his vocal tracks is in the spirit of encourage remixes, just like DJ Danger Mouse’s. And in ways that benefited Jay-Z, the popularity of the Grey Album lead to his Linkin Park mashup reaching number one on the US singles chart.

Furthermore, the real concern here–the issue that spurred on Downhill Battle–seems over how creativity will be allowed to develop in DIY culture on digital networks. Lawrence Lessig, among others, have persuasively argued that copyright laws have to be reconsidered in the age of social computing. Otherwise, culture itself might be compromised. Lessig’s line of reasoning, for example, argues that the US Constitution always intended to allow for cultural works to build off one another. While artist rights need to be protected, the trend toward microcontent challenges traditional notions of the copyrighted work, and how does copyright law operate in a world of Flickr and YouTube? Ultimately, Creative Commons and public domain archives like the Prelinger Archives are important in this regard, but beyond the scope of this paper to address in any detail.

Finally, now that some time has elapsed since the release of The Grey Album, it is clear to see that there was no harm to the Beatles music sales or their musical legacy. In fact, I think Paul McCartney’s response is instructive here. He has publicly admitted that he has listened to The Grey Album, and it encouraged him to collaborate with DJ Freelance Hellraiser, and the two produced an album called “Twin Freaks,” that mashes up the music of Wings and McCartney’s solo career.[3] And remix music is played before many of his concerts. It was his willingness to open his oeuvre to remix artists that can properly contextualize his Grammy appearance.

The work of Downhill Battle and Grey Tuesday helped open up the debates around copyright activism, and clarified how remix culture and musical samples needed new rules governing their use. While Grey Tuesday has not stopped the music industries pursuit of copyright violators, it did mark a visible turning point in the movement. I would argue that certain remix experiments, such as one pursued by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails who has released many of his songs in Garageband and Acid formats, is a growing part of a movement by commercial artists that recognizes a key difference between peer-to-peer file sharing of complete songs, and the microcontent behind the remix aesthetic.

5. Ramon and Pedro’s The Grey Video

“Warning: The following was done as an experimental project”

–Opening words of The Grey Video


If the preceding argument surmised that The Grey Album is lucky to remain in existence, then The Grey Video is an object that never needed to exist at all. The very existence of The Grey Video intrigues me because it is not just another audio mash-up of Jay-Z’s vocal tracks. The idea of a mash-up of the music of the Beatles and Jay-Z is something that might have been confined to the sonic realm. But Danger Mouse’s tracks jump from the musical register to a high-end video project. How would any video designers be able to translate to a visual medium? What indexical footage would be able to capture a moving image mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z? This is part of the growth of remix culture. The video is a creative demonstration of the stimulative effects of DJ Danger Mouse’s remix activity; remixes beget remixers.

The creative design team of Ramon and Pedro made The Grey Video as a “bootleg homage” to Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. Ramon and Pedro are excellent examples of the pro-amateur and how the DJ metaphor is influencing the arts beyond the music world. The Grey Video is a dynamic and technically demanding work of the highest artistry. In what sense then, is it amateur? Here the notion of “experimental” project is provocative. Both DJ Danger Mouse and Ramon and Pedro assert that these are “experimental projects.” But what does that mean? Such statements can act as legal defenses against charges of copyright violations, and I am sure that is one potential motivation. But I would argue that such language highlights the works “amateur status” and singles out the important role that can be played by amateurs outside of the commercial sphere.

The Grey Video is a very sophisticated video. It is not typical of video mashups. It is not just the taking of an audio track from one source and marrying it to the video track of another object, like “This Place Sucks,” which mashes the dialogue of Office Space with the cartoon of SuperFriends. Nor is it a parody, in the spirit of the Brokeback Mountain spoofs that proliferate on the Web, such as the one involving recontextualized scenes from Back to the Future. And this is not the work of unskilled creative workers. Finally, in many ways, it is not just a mash-up of the song “Encore” from The Grey Album. While it seems like the video is going to restrict itself to playfully placing Jay-Z concert footage within the confines of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, a major change occurs about halfway through the video. Beyond simply combining two pre-existing video tracks into a new melding, Ramon and Pedro use motion graphics and green-screen technologies to extend their video remix. They in essence create footage they don’t otherwise have. They use motion graphics to place words behind the Beatles performance–the words are the lyrics to “Encore.” They create a “hip hop” version of the Beatles and this is part of its most dynamic vernacular. We witness as Ringo Starr becomes “the Brooklyn Boy”—this linkage is achieved through word and image relations—and then Ringo starts scratching on the song. We watch as John Lennon breakdances. And surprisingly, we watch as Paul McCartney and George Harrison both leave the stage for two female back-up singers. Intriguingly, for all the visual excitement of The Grey Video, it actually has the wrong reference for the Beatles. Danger Mouse samples from the Beatles later musical period, and A Hard Day’s Night still shows the Fab Four in their early days with their matching suits and their Beatles boots.

It is unclear how Ramon and Pedro could be possibly compensated for The Grey Video. This is a work that had to take a tremendous amount of time and resources. There is no commercial venue where the footage was released, and if the video did by some method make money, the copyright holder of a Hard Day’s Night would probably sue immediately. Why do it then in the first place? First, Ramon and Pedro are highly regarded motion graphics artists who have several notable commercial projects on their resume.[4] Second, Ramon and Pedro definitely are expressing in a visually kinetic sense, an analogue kinship to DJ Danger Mouse. Like Danger Mouse, Ramon and Pedro is a pseudonym. Like Danger Mouse, this visual design duo is a rising star in the mainstream culture industries. And like Danger Mouse, they are probably better known for their work than for their “names.” In fact, if you watch the Grey Video, you will realize that it is an “unsigned” work. There is no obvious name attached as author of this project, but this is not unusual in remix culture. Even searching the Internet, it is not easy to locate the “authors” behind the Grey Video. Once however it is known that it is the work of Ramon and Pedro, the final shot of The Grey Video (R+P) makes much more sense.

The existence of The Grey Video strikes me as a kind of proof for theories of postmodern authorship; Grey Video = remix = QED. DJ Spooky ruminates that his “work asks about how the networks of creativity that we have inherited from the “bricks and mortar” world of the 20th century have imploded, evolved and accelerated the ‘im-material’ networks of the frequencies, fiber optic networks, and mathematically drive world of the 21st century. That’s the real ‘dematerialization’ of the art object’–it becomes patterns meshed, working between the spaces of pre-scripted behavior.”[5] In this regard, DJ Spooky recalls a description of the “postmodern artist” as articulated by Francois Lyotard, who stated that:

“The postmodern artist or writer is in the situation of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he performs are not in principle governed by already established rules, and they cannot be subjected to a determined judgment by applying known categories. It is these rules and these categories which the text or the work seeks. The artist and the writer work therefore without rules, in order to establish the rules of what will have been done. Hence the work and the text have the quality of an event; they arrive too late for their authors, or–what amounts to the same–their realization begins always too early. The postmodern needs to be understood through the paradox of the post anterior tense.” [6] (Italics in original)

Lyotard’s deployment of the term “post anterior” is decisive here. Coming from Lacanian psychoanalysis, Lacan’s work on the future anterior suggests that “What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, nor even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”[7] It is in this sense, that the role of the DJ is instructive. The DJ, that designer of beats and rhythms, is driven by performance, is in “the process of becoming.” The DJ aesthetic does not necessarily know where it is going to end, and it is very event driven.

Ramon and Pedro demonstrate how the DJ can now challenge the film director as authorial force. They reveal the potential stories embedded in the previously sealed archives of our Hollywood memories, display the range of new tools of visual creativity, and open up the “already mixed” to new interpretations. The Grey Video is a template for the rise of the video mashups: a post anterior re-performance of a cinematic icon through a rap dialectic, conditioned by the reverberating logics of digital video recorders, channel surfing, music videos and the viral mentality of YouTube.

6. Today and Yesterday

Through tracing these moments in the tale of The Grey Album, I have suggested that remix is a style of cultural production that can influence the emerging directions of social computing, and that remix activities participate in a “greying” of the Internet itself. But I am not advocating a naïve belief in something like remixism or remixology. And while there might be some wisdom in tapping into the underlying ethos of the remix, there is no inherent virtue that resides inside the act of remixing itself. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics reminds us of that: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[8] As remixes circulate and amplify around the world there are no guarantees that such acts will be a progressive, trangressive, and generative. Remix, after all, might just stay in the register of “play” and fail to bring about any meaningful social and political change.

However, in closing, I would like to draw attention to a similar historical moment when an artistic movement contributed to meaningful social change. I feel that there are important parallels between the Situationist International (SI) and remix culture.[9] SI and its major innovator, Guy Debord, came out of a critique of the society of the spectacle, and some of its major aesthetic maneuvers, such as detournement, derive and psychogeography, are part of the legacy behind remix culture. And as SI burst into political consciousness in May 1968, one can imagine how remix culture might have similar impacts, if Grey Tuesday is more of the movement’s seedbed rather than its major political flowering. And while this type of stance might be more associated with the ideas of DJ Spooky–an avowedly political DJ–, more than DJ Danger Mouse, the act of DJing has its “virtuous” aspects.

Remix is filled with potential. Remix can resist totalizing narratives and open up texts to new meanings. It can be deeply multicultural. The Grey Album was more than just underground entertainment; it lead to new moments of activism and creative expression. Remix is an activity that can celebrate our diversity, explore our differences, and renew our histories. In these uncertain times, there are more reasons than ever to embrace remix culture and give mix a chance.


[2] There is no easy way to confirm how many sites participated, but it was at least in the hundreds.

[5] See DJ Spooky Interview with Carlo Simula for his book
MILLESUONI. OMAGGIO A DELEUZE E GUATTARI
(Cronopio Edizioni) http://www.djspooky.com/articles/deleuze_and_guattari.php

[6] Bennington, Geoffrey. Lyotard: Writing the Event. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988. p. 104

[7] See Time and the Fragmented Subject in Minority Report by Martin Hall in Rhizomes 8, spring 2004. Though it is beyond the scope of this paper, I see Minority Report as a key remix allegory, especially in its innovative gestural interface. In many productive ways, and as I have argued in several of my course lectures, Tom Anderton (Tom Cruise) in Minority Report–though obstensibly a law enforcement officer– is coded as “a DJ” and a remix artist. His remix abilities are the basis of his skill in reading the clues given by the Pre-Cogs. The “Larval Subjects” blog has a great analysis of Hall’s argument if you would like to pursue this line of argumentation further: http://larval-subjects.blogspot.com/2006/11/future-anterior.html

[8] See Plato’s Nichomachean Ethics.

[9] See my previous blog entry on Guy Debord’s Memoires for more on the Situationist International.

Noircon, Part 1: A Criss-Cross Theory of Noir Adaptation

This essay was originally written for Noircon 2010. If you don’t know about Noircon, it is an amazing conference dedicated to all things noir. It is held every two years in Philadelphia, and was originally known as Goodiscon back in its inaugural year of 2006. You can visit the Noircon site by clicking here.

Noircon 2010 produced a great conference booklet with contributions by such writers as Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Ken Bruen, Otto Penzler, Charles Willeford, among many others. I was honored to have my article included in this collection. Moreover, the Noircon conference booklet was cleverly printed and packaged as a throwback pulp paperback as seen in this photo of the book’s cover art (done by artist Jeff Wong, based on the cover art for Goodis’ Black Friday):

Finally, I am interested in revising this article for publication in a film journal. So, I welcome any and all comments on this piece. Thanks again to Lou Boxer, Deen Kogan, and all who make Noircon a truly remarkable one-of-kind event. Looking forward to 2012.

 

 

A Criss-Cross Theory of Noir Adaptation by Richard L. Edwards

“I do your murder. You do mine. Criss cross!”

Bruno Anthony, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train (1950). Still from http://thisdistractedglobe.com/

Given that many of the greatest films noir have been based on short stories and novels, you would expect more attention paid to the issue of noir adaptations. In fact, adapting a previously published work into a screenplay is a challenging artistic task, and this type of writing is given public acknowledgement with its own award every year at the Oscars. However, studies of noir screenwriting and noir adaptations are still too few, and the roles of screenwriters in the production of films noir tend to be footnotes. Even knowledgeable film noir fans may think writers’ greatest contribution to the noir style involves their crafting of hard-boiled dialogue. But screenwriting is a complex process, frequently done collaboratively in the Hollywood system. And the process of writing a screen adaptation is more than merely transcribing or rearranging a novel or short story into a screenplay format. Writers matter, and bring with them to the writing process a constellation of ideas and practices that impact what ends up in the final screen version. The development of film noir benefited from the criss-crossing of writing talent. Each time different writers and directors criss-crossed, the potential of film noir increased, creating new stories and new possibilities.

Screenwriters tend to get short shrift due to the predominance of auteur theory in film circles. First articulated by French cineastes in the 1950s such as François Truffault, auteur theory claims that the author of a film is its director. This reinvention of film authorship does much for the stature of film directors, but tends to minimize the importance of screenwriters. Even from the outset, as Robert Carringer points out, auteur theory diminishes the truly collaborative nature of film authorship. Carringer argues that what is needed is an approach to film authorship that entails “the temporary suspension of single-author primacy” and that has “the primary author…reinscribed within what is now established as an institutional context of authorship.” (377) Interestingly enough, Carringer uses the film Strangers on a Train to explore his thesis. I will also use Strangers on a Train as my main example, but investigate this question from a different point of view. I am interested in how noir adaptations often entail a “complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing.” (Wittgenstein §66).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “criss-cross” as “a network of intersecting lines.” This is a useful way of thinking about the process behind noir adaptations, of thinking about screenwriters as part of a “network.” Screenwriting (like many forms of creative writing) can be a solitary activity with minimal interactions with other creative personnel. While there is some truth in the “lone writer” model, a criss-cross theory of noir adaptation explores areas of collaboration and commonality in the screenwriting process. In this regard, a criss-cross theory has connections to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of defining things by way of their “resemblance” to other things. In other words, noir writers working on an adaptation have similarities to each other, just like members of a family resemble each other while also being distinct and separate personalities. Such authorial networks can be quite complicated, but teasing out the resemblances—a kind of “family tree” of noir—between different writers yields new insights into noir adaptations. In many ways, the writer of a noir adaption is engaged in Bruno Anthony’s notion of “criss cross.” The hired screenwriter is literally “doing” someone else’s murder (albeit in a fictional writerly sense!). Furthermore, screenwriters do not tend to coalesce randomly around certain types of films. Rather, writers are drawn to film noir by a shared interest in similar kinds of characters, themes and stories associated with hard-boiled or mystery writing.

First edition cover of Highsmith's Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train brought together a killer ménage-a-noir in Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, and Alfred Hitchcock. Strangers on a Train was Highsmith’s first novel. Even though she was paid a mere $7,500 dollars for the screen rights, the money paled to the prestige and visibility her novel received by being made into a major motion picture. Hitchcock, on the other hand, was in mid-career and in a bit of a crisis. His latest films had been flops (Under Capricorn and Stage Fright), and the great director was in need of a comeback. Strangers would fit that bill superbly and kick off Hitchcock’s greatest decade of filmmaking. Finally, the screenwriter chosen by Hitchcock to adapt Highsmith’s novel was at the end of his celebrated career. For the Strangers screenplay, Hitchcock and Warner Bros. hired one the most accomplished noir writers of the 20th century, an author synonymous with hard-boiled detective fiction. While the film would be a boon to Highsmith’s nascent career, it was Raymond Chandler’s fallow finale to Hollywood screenwriting. Chandler ended up having to fight for screen credit on Strangers, and he co-received an onscreen credit swith the little known Czenzi Ormonde, an assistant of Ben Hecht’s who worked on the script after Hitchcock largely threw out Chandler’s draft. Therefore, Chandler’s writing efforts are largely absent from the final film.

For sake of simplicity, I will focus on the three highest profile authors, and avoid discussing other writers who worked on aspects of the screenplay, such as Whitfield Cook’s work on the treatment or Czenzi Ormonde’s final script revisions. Furthermore, I want to say only a few words about the larger-than-life personalities of Highsmith, Chandler and Hitchcock, as these are topics taken up elsewhere at length. Published accounts often highlight the antagonistic aspects of this collaboration and recount the interpersonal battles between Hitchcock and Chandler.

Hitchcock picture from Tom Sutpen's blog, http://tsutpen.blogspot.com/

While Chandler took the job because he thought he might like “Hitch,” it didn’t turn out that way. There is the oft-recited story that Chandler called Hitchcock “a fat bastard” as the director was getting out of his car during a story visit to Chandler’s home in La Jolla, California. Hitchcock apparently repaid the insult by ignoring Chandler completely during the screenwriting phase and Hitchcock supposedly threw Chandler’s delivered script into his trashcan. Highsmith, for her part, wrote almost twenty-five years later that her book “gave Chandler fits during his Hollywood script writing period…” (5) Nowadays, most scholars tend to point the finger at Hitchcock for giving Chandler “fits” rather than Highsmith’s novel. As his unpublished script testifies, Chandler had some very strong ideas for turning Highsmith’s scenarios into a successful film adaptation. But Hitchcock, in his story conferences with Chandler, offered up a very different treatment than the one in Highsmith’s book. It is not hard to imagine that Hitch’s ending on the merry-go-round and Guy’s final exoneration resulted in the Chandleresque lament that working on this screenplay at times was “damn foolishness.”

While there were incompatibilities and antagonisms between Hitchcock and Chandler in their adaptation of a Highsmith novel, I am more interested in their points of commonality and their networked intersections. What does the criss-crossing of these three authors contribute to the development of film noir? Clearly, all three were drawn to the source material. Hitchcock has said that he found in Highsmith’s novel “the right kind of material for me to work with.” (Truffault, 193). The transference of guilt from one character to another (the core idea in Highsmith’s novel) was already a staple of Hitchcock’s films. For his part, Chandler was probably drawn in by the thematic similarity to his own screenplay for The Blue Dahlia, where a man’s life crumbles due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his wife’s murder. And while Patricia Highsmith wanted nothing to do with the writing of the screenplay, some of the film’s most memorable moments are already found in her novel. Highsmith even included the music cues for “And the Band Played On,” utilized so memorably by Hitchcock in the film version.

Seldom mentioned about the criss-cross of Highsmith, Chandler, and Hitchcock is that taken as a network of writers, the screenplay of Strangers can lay claim to three different, but major, traditions that contributed to the noir style. Highsmith was not only an exceptional novelist, but she began her career writing for comic books.

Two Covers of Comics by Patricia Highsmith, shown by biographer Joan Schenkar at Noircon 2010

As Highsmith biographer Joan Schenkar points out, Strangers owes much “to the crude Alter Ego psychologies which glazed the plots of her comic book scenarios…” (259) Chandler, as is well known, began writing for pulps such as Black Mask, and was a pre-eminent hard-boiled novelist. Hitchcock’s mastery of filmmaking can be traced back to silent era classics such as Blackmail, as well as through his growing embrace of the noir style in films such as Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and Rope. These authors, then, brought to the screen version of Strangers an amalgam of ideas from popular story forms—the comics, the pulps, and film noir—and in doing so, break new ground and generate an exciting new story.

The criss-crossing of these authors resulted in significant changes from Highsmith’s novel. As primary author, Hitchcock was responsible for the largest changes, including changing Guy’s (Farley Granger) character from an architect into a tennis player, moving the majority of the film’s action to Washington D.C. and creating a brand new ending for the story. In fact, after the halfway point of the film, the novel and film bear little resemblance to each other. Why did the film depart so strongly from Highsmith’s novel? As Chandler writes in his letters from that time, the problem was an issue with character motivation. A film audience would have trouble believing Guy (played by Farley Granger) would murder Bruno’s father, which is what happens in the book. As Chandler writes: “The premise is that if you shake hands with a maniac, you may have sold your soul to the devil.” (206) And Chandler literally begged Hitchcock to consider the “motivation” problem. In a letter he writes to Hitchcock, Chandler says: “Sacrifice a camera shot if necessary. There’s always another camera shot just as good. There is never another motivation just as good.” (142) But Hitchcock was not overly concerned about plot problems or character motivations in this film. As a film director, Hitchcock was perhaps more interested in the formal means by which he tells his stories. Strangers has some brilliant and exciting set pieces including Miriam’s murder reflected in an eyeglass, an unforgettable tennis match, and a thrilling finale on an out-of-control merry-go-round.

Graham Petrie argues that Hitchcock might have gotten the ending of the film from a classic English mystery novel, Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop. Petrie argues that Hitchcock would have been aware of the novel, and the similarities are too similar to be accidental. Crispin’s novel ends with a climatic scene on a merry-go-round (or roundabout) which goes out of control when its

Merry-go-round ending from Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 1950)

operator is shot during an escape attempt. While Petrie’s claim might still be speculation more than proven fact, the filmed ending of Strangers on a Train moves away from the noirish and fateful ending of the Highsmith novel. In the novel, Bruno drowns in a drunken stupor, and Guy ends up being caught by a private investigator and sent to jail for the murder of Bruno’s father. Of more interest to criss-cross theory is that Hitchcock’s change of the ending probably did give Chandler “fits.” Chandler liked the idea of having Guy punished by the end of the story. Regardless of where Hitchcock came up with the new ending, the director exchanged a noirish ending for an ending that would be appropriate for an English mystery cozy (a genre Chandler detested). But the choices made about the film’s ending demonstrate how many different noir and mystery traditions were being evoked out of the authorial networks behind this particular adaptation. And amazingly, when one watches the final film, the adaptation does not come across as a bunch of independent ideas nor as spare and disparate parts thrown together, but a fully realized film noir under the primary authorship of Alfred Hitchcock.

Finally, a criss-cross theory of noir adaptation might help us account for how the noir style matured and deepened long after different groupings of writers collaborated. In this vein, it might be useful to ask what happened to Chandler’s discarded screenplay? Did it really just end up, forgotten, at the bottom of Hitch’s wastebasket? Or did Hitchcock’s fortuitous criss-cross with Highsmith and Chandler affect him and his filmmaking in ways not immediately apparent in 1951? Might there be a film in Hitchcock’s body of work that benefited from Chandler’s critique of Strangers on a Train? Did Hitchcock ever subsequently direct a film where he foregrounds character motivation and risks a downbeat ending centered around a person haunted by an earlier murder in an obsessive compulsive way? Hitchcock probably knew that if he pursued Chandler’s ideas to their fullest in Strangers on a Train, the result was likely to be box office poison. While Chandler’s adaptation tried harder than Hitchcock’s to be faithful to Highsmith’s novel, his ideas for the film, like his own The Blue Dahlia, would be a tougher sell to audiences. In 1951, Hitchcock was desperate for a hit, partially accounting for why the final script for Strangers might not have had “enough” Chandler, and departed so strongly from Highsmith’s novel. But in the creative potential activated by the criss-cross of screenwriting talents, another Hitchcock film might playfully be considered as the filmic realization of Chandler’s unused script ideas and is now a critically acclaimed masterpiece of film noir. And yet even almost ten years after Strangers on a Train, the audience still wasn’t quite ready for that kind of story. So that latter film did end up being a commercial flop that Hitchcock himself removed from circulation for over 20 years: Vertigo


References:

Highsmith, Patricia. “Introduction,” The World of Raymond Chandler. (New York: A & W Publishers, Inc., 1977).

Hiney, Tom and Frank MacShane, eds. The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000).

Petrie, Graham. “Transfer of Guilt: Hitchcock and Chandler on Strangers on a Train,” Sight and Sound, July 2009, 46-49.

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