Eva Vitija didn’t want her documentary on Patricia Highsmith to turn into a parade of literary experts and bibliophiles analyzing her work.
The Swiss filmmaker knew her portrait of the famed suspense novelist—and noted misanthrope—needed to feature recollections from people who knew Highsmith intimately. That led Vitija to Texas, which influenced a significant section of Loving Highsmith. The film opens this weekend at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth.
Highsmith was born in Tarrant County and lived her first six years there. She still made subsequent periodic visits before settling in New York and later Europe.
“The first six years of her life really formed her. She mentioned that in her diary several times,” Vitija said. “Already as a child she had some very unique characteristics. Her grandmother had a very important influence on her, and also the Texas culture somehow.”
Highsmith was known for works like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, pieces that became successful films and were regarded as canon in the genre. Vitija starts her documentary at the beginning of the author’s life. Highsmith’s relationship with her biological parents was turbulent, but as the film illustrates, she was fond of her maternal grandmother who essentially raised her.
Although that was nearly a century ago — Highsmith died in 1995 at age 74 of lung cancer — Vitija tracked down surviving relatives who still own a ranch near Weatherford.
“It wasn’t easy because they didn’t have the same name,” said Vitija, who later connected with them on social media. “They were quite open to me visiting them.”
They weren’t close with Highsmith personally, but the visit provided the filmmaker with some perspective on the family history. They also had some material in storage, including unpublished photos and a 16-millimeter film reel that Vitija took back to Switzerland to digitalize.
“I was super excited. This was the surprise of the century. I just found the big treasure,” she said. “But it was only rodeo. At first I was disappointed, but it was like a metaphor for her family culture. She was like a cowboy herself.”
Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, is set partially in a fictional Texas town with some resemblance to Fort Worth, although the setting was changed for Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation.
The documentary provides a tribute to the iconoclast — whose other works include the crime thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley and the lesbian romance Carol — while showing how Highsmith’s cynicism and tumultuous personal life, including her inability to fully embrace her sexuality, inspired much of her writing.
Highsmith’s archives are housed primarily at an estate in Switzerland, where she lived as a recluse in her later years. As part of her research, Vitija was granted permission to read through Highsmith’s unpublished notebooks, and later, her private diaries — some of which are excerpted in the film.
“She had a somber image and there were old stories of her being quite a nasty person,” said Vitija, who spent about four years working on the project. “I encountered this young woman who was enthusiastic toward writing and love. I discovered a very touching person.”