Farley Granger figures in film history for four reasons, all of them very good ones -- though the two most significant aren't the most obvious. Granger died Sunday at his Manhattan home.
Granger's name isn't one of those reasons, even if it is awfully impressive-sounding. They just don't make movie-star names along those lines any more. Like its bearer, "Farley Granger" is distinctive: handsome, a bit disengaged, fussy even. It wasn't studio bestowed, though; his father and grandfather were also named "Farley Granger." It's a stagy, drawing-room comedy sort of name. In fact, Granger more or less abandoned Hollywood for Broadway in the mid-'50s, a dozen years into his career. He'd later come back to the screen, in the '70s, but by then he was no longer a star.
Granger's most famous for appearing in two Hitchcock pictures: "Rope" (1948) and "Strangers on a Train" (1951). The star of "Rope" isn't Granger, or his partner in screen crime, John Dall. It's Hitchcock's bravura stunt of seeming to shoot the movie as one long take. Though ostensibly the star, Granger is again subsidiary in "Strangers," a movie that belongs to Robert Walker's blithely murderous Bruno. (Heath Ledger could have been a wondrous Bruno in a remake.) Granger was very good at bewilderment. You can see it on his face in that still at right, with Walker. Extremely good-looking people often are; having won life's looks lottery, they can be at a loss as to what to do next. Certainly, Bruno gives Granger's Guy Haines a lot to be bewildered about. "Criss-cross," eh, Guy, "criss-cross"?
The other obvious reason is "They Live by
Night" (1948). Granger, as Bowie,
a naive young crook on the run, isn't at his best. The movie's set somewhere in a mythic Texas-Oklahoma emptiness, and nothing about Granger's
performance suggests this kid's ever been east of the Pasadena Playhouse. The
movie is fondly, even fiercely, remembered for other reasons. It was Nicholas
Ray's directing debut. (There are moments when Granger is like an older James
Dean, only without an iota of Dean's urgency -- a very problematic combination). Also, the
movie served as partial inspiration for "Bonnie and Clyde"
and is based on the same novel as Robert Altman's "Thieves Like Us." Finally, there's the performance of Cathy O'Donnell (above left, with Granger) as
lover. O'Donnell, who's like a second-generation Margaret Sullavan
(that is very high praise) is a marvel: limpid, unaffected,
heartbreaking. How come she didn't have a real career is one of those great, and awful, Hollywood mysteries.
O'Donnell was so good paired with Granger that MGM reunited them in "Side Street" (1950). It's like "Thieves Like Us" turned inside out: set in New York, told from the cops' point of view, with a different very good director (Anthony Mann), and the ending is almost the exact opposite of . . . well, hardly anyone's seen it, so best not to say. That so few people have seen "Side Street" is a real shame since -- cognoscenti heresy alert! -- it's a better movie than "They Live by Night," or at least it's a lot less uneven. Judge for yourself: They're packaged together as part of Warner Home Video's outstanding five-disc set "Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4."
All right, if "Side Street" is so little known, that can't be one of the other two reasons for Granger's importance can it? No, it can't. Neither of them, in fact, involves a movie Granger was in, per se. The movie he was proudest of having been involved in was Visconti's "Senso" (1954). What matters there, though, isn't Granger's being in "Senso" but Visconti's seeing the possibilities that lay in casting a Hollywood leading man in one of his pictures. Who can say: no Granger in "Senso," no Burt Lancaster in "The Leopard"? What a loss that would have been. Is it possible to understudy someone before he plays a role? If it is, then think of Granger in "Senso" as Lancaster's understudy in "The Leopard."
The other matter, which brings us back to those two Hitchcock pictures, transcends the movies. Granger was bisexual. Nothing unusual there, especially among drop-dead-handsome actors. What was unusual is the same-sex charge that pretty clearly drives the relationship in "Rope" between Granger and Dall and in "Strangers' between Granger and Walker (at least on Walker's part). Was it brave or foolhardy on Granger's part to take on those roles? Who knows, maybe it was just obtuseness, though the man was no dummy. Whatever the reason, we can see those two decisions now, with post-Code eyes, as a step toward a kind of candor, a candor owing even more to emotion than sexuality, whose absence was Hollywood's single greatest failing for far too many years. Farley Granger wasn't a hero. He wasn't all that much of a star, frankly, even during his heyday. He was, however, something like a pioneer, and that is no small thing either onscreen or off.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.
Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.
Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Glenn Yoder is an Arts & Entertainment producer at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.
Swati Sharma is an Arts & Entertainment and Things to Do producer at Boston.com.
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