Yep, kindness towards strangers is not only necessary, but vital in our oft bleak and cold world…
…kindness towards strangers doesn’t need to include intimacy. In fact, particularly after watching SOAT, you’re left with the inescapable conclusion that it may be better if it doesn’t.
A little background: SOAT was originally famed American writer Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel, published in 1950. Not long afterwards, Alfred Hitchcock made it into one of his best films, according to Roger Ebert. Since then, Craig Warner turned it into a play… and a gripping psychological thriller it is.
Guy Haines and Charles Bruno meet while traveling on a long-distance train. Guy just wants to mind his own business and read his book --- like many of us, he’s really not interested in idle conversation, especially with someone he doesn’t know at all --- but Charles is seeking conversation, and he comes across at first as one of those cheerfully pushy extroverts who see nothing wrong with badgering people until they get their way. (Hmm. Actually, Charles is way past ‘pushy extrovert’ in terms of characterization… ‘narcissistic, malevolent psychopath’ is a much more apt descriptor, as you’ll see. But I digress.)
So, more from politeness than anything else, Guy responds to Charles’ persistent attempts to engage him in talk. And thereby hangs a tale, as Will so presciently says in As You Like It. (After watching SOAT, I found myself wondering: why, exactly, does Charles single Guy out? That meeting has ultimately devastating consequences for them both. And out of all the people on that train, Guy is the one Charles gloms onto. Just Guy’s plain bad luck? Cosmic coincidence? Karma? Anger of the gods? We never specifically find out… not that it’s particularly important to the story that we do. It may be nothing deeper than Charles being attracted to Guy, which he clearly is; but it would make an interesting additional aspect for a writer to explore…)
It emerges, as Charles gradually draws Guy out and they progress from polite chit-chat to deeper things, that both of them are going places they don’t particularly want to go in order to do things they don’t particularly want to do: Charles will be seeing his overbearing father, whom he loathes (Charles also has a pretty icky relationship with his mother, with obvious incestuous undertones), and Guy wants a divorce from his wife, as he’s involved in a relationship with another woman. It’s at that pivotal moment in the tale that Charles has a truly diabolical idea: he proposes to murder Guy’s wife, and in exchange, Guy will murder his father. Because Guy and Charles are merely strangers on a train, you see --- officially, they don’t know each other at all, so no one will be able to connect them to the killings or find a motive.
Guy attempts to laugh the whole thing off, as most of us would, but apparently, he’s not especially persuasive, because a short time later, Charles goes ahead and murders Guy’s wife. Yikes. Bad enough, but then he starts hounding Guy to keep his end of the bargain. Guy’s feeble remonstrances that he wasn’t party to any bargain and there’s no way he could commit a murder completely fail to move Charles. In fact, Charles gradually ratchets up pressure on Guy, showing up at unexpected times and places, mailing all sorts of compromising letters to Guy’s colleagues and new fiancée. Eventually, close to a nervous breakdown, Guy capitulates and murders Charles’ father. But like one of Will’s tragedies, it doesn’t end well for either Charles or Guy. And the guilt, anguish, bitterness and hate that’s unleashed is totally worthy of Will.
So, yeah… by all means, be kind to strangers… but maybe… just maybe… don’t encourage them, especially so they somehow arrive at the erroneous conclusion that they’re your newest best buddy.
Now, granted, like any cautionary tale, the simultaneously tragic and chilling story of Guy and Charles is a worst-case scenario. My earnest hope is that, as I trundle down life’s expressway, any strangers I might meet or come in contact with will not turn out to be deranged psychopaths with a casual disregard for murder and mayhem. But… it’s a strange old world we live in, you know. ‘Twas always thus, too, although a lot of subjective viewpoints (mine included, at times when I’m feeling especially pessimistic) might argue it’s getting worse, to the point where I’m not exactly sure I could say it’s my expectation that anyone new I might meet would be totally sane and rational. Or not full of gently simmering rage just waiting for the slightest pretext to explode. (There are a lot of angry people in a hurry nowadays.)
So… what are we to do, living under such uneasy circumstances? Besides refusing to engage with anyone we don’t know? Besides creeping furtively along, eyes downcast? (Which might, come to think of it, actually make one a target.) Well, it rather reminds me of a phrase used by American negotiators when they were dickering around in negotiations with their Soviet counterparts concerning trying to curtail the insane proliferation of nuclear weapons. “Trust, but verify,” they said, in a perhaps unwittingly ironic masterpiece of Orwellian doublespeak. And maybe a variation on that is how we have to conduct our relations with others these days: look for the good in people, but be actively alert to and aware of “the possibility of evil” (to borrow a phrase from Shirley Jackson). In other words, trust, but verify.
I know, I know: it’d really be nice not to have to do that. But Guy Haines is the poster child for how horribly wrong things can go when you fail to accurately take the measure of the smiling stranger you’ve just met. Maybe better safe than sorry.