by Richard von Busack
By the time he was 30, the late Farley Granger had worked for Samuel Goldwyn, Nicholas Ray, Lewis Milestone, Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli and Lucino Visconti. He had also fought in World War 2.
If the strain of this rocketing career showed in the faces and gestures of his characters—a nervous tension that often led his characters to abuse, ruin or murder—if it suggested that there was something perhaps unsavory behind the generous mouth, the perfect hair and air of thin and artistic sensitivity…maybe it was working in that kind of company he kept.
At the end of his life, Granger told a reporter, “I was never actorish.” He meant socially, but there was something in the wounded yet wired performances that heralded the direction of postwar acting.
Granger was born (July 1, 1925) and raised in San Jose, the son of a man who owned an auto dealership. The crash, debt and, reportedly, familial alcoholism chased the family to Los Angeles. There, acting in a play titled The Wookie (British slang, now outdated, of course, meaning a odd person) Granger was discovered at age 17 by talent scouts. He was cast in the Goldwyn/Milestone The North Star (1943).
Meant to propagandize for the cause of our then-allies in World War II, the Soviets, it met with controversy as Communist sympathetic. It’s Oscar-bait possibilities were summed up by a noted Goldwyn malapropism, according to the producer’s biographer A. Scott Berg: “I don’t care if it makes a dime, as long as it’s seen by every man, woman and child in America.”
This wasn’t the case. Granger found himself languishing at Goldwyn Studios. He was only to spend about ten more years in Hollywood until he moved to New York to work on the stage. He stayed there more or less until his death yesterday, penning a lively memoir about his career and his sexuality; his title appropriation of a Goldwynism, Include Me Out was the tip off, since Granger favored both men and women in bed.
Of Granger’s key years in films, there are a few masterpieces. Nicholas Ray’s 1949 They Live By Night has Granger as a doomed, escaped con in the Deep South who finds a short instant of romance before fate catches up with him. The film never was properly introduced to the world of the exhibitors, thanks to upheaval at the as-always struggling RKO Pictures. Ray, who’d known the South (he’d accompanied the Lomaxes on their Depression era songcatching expeditions), brought in the atmosphere of small time criminals on the run. The innovative sound and vision of the film included what is supposed to be the first helicopter shot in a feature film
They Live By Night is a dreamy, soft-spoken love story that unfolds against the background of a typical gangster movie. A clutch of unsuccessful prison escapees who survive by robbing banks ("They're thieves, just like us") hide out somewhere in the general vicinity of Oklahoma. Yet Ray elides most of the action here, bringing us into focus on the aftermath of botched jobs and small hauls. The emphasis is on the helpless love of the youngest member of the gang, Bowie (Granger), and the ignored girl Keetchie (Cathy O'Donnell), who as Ray put it, is so plain that she's beautiful. The movie doesn't get off on violence, and even brings some sorrow into the blowing up of an automobile: its radio is playing a swan song as the car burns. RKO—undergoing a change of management—shelved it, retitled it and released it abroad, where its fatalism found some fans and apt comparisons to the work of Robert Bresson. Still, it's hard to imagine any time or place when a film this delicate and haunted would have been a hit.
Yet the movie was a cult favorite even before it was released; Hollywood directors watched it privately. Granger’s atypical approach to the lead role got him fans even when he was still a contract player in one uninteresting Goldwyn production after another.
Hired on to another film with experimental trappings, Granger played one half of a pair of Leopold and Loeb style killers in Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope. It’s Granger’s job to be the weak link in the pair of thrill killers, and for him to lose his nerve bit by bit during the course of the closed-in story.
It was a 1929 play, and WW2 had rather decisively changed even the most susceptible people’s minds about Nietzsche authorizing the use of murder. The stunt of ten minute long takes, caught in enclosed spaces and the beautiful cyclorama of New York, reportedly the largest made for a film: all distract one from a less interesting species of closed room murder mystery.
Hitchcock didn’t have a lot to say about Granger in his interviews with Francois Truffaut; he called Granger a weak actor, compared to someone he would have preferred to cast on the next film they made together, Strangers on a Train.
Hitchcock was thinking like the producer of commercial films that he was, when he told Truffaut that William Holden would have been his pick for the part of Guy in Strangers. The marquee value would have helped, certainly. Still, it's depressing to imagine what that kind of casting would have done to the film in question. That Strangers on a Train is Granger’s most popular film is due, in part, to him. His Guy is a touchy climber out of some Pennsylvania industrial town who has made it as a tennis player, and is romancing his way into the power elite. Unfortunately, Guy has an obstacle in his life—a working class harlot of a wife, from whom he is separated. On a train, Guy meets the smooth and sexually ambiguous Bruno (Robert Walker, in one of the most deliciously mean performances in the cinema), who offers to clear up Guy’s life in exchange for one little favor.
Holden would have made it a more even battle of good and evil. The fact that Guy is neither as sympathetic, or funny, or smooth, or sophisticated as Bruno: that’s what gets him to the point of eating out of Walker’s hand. And it also convinces us that Guy could be fooled. It’s not hard to imagine people coming out of Strangers wondering why William Holden wasn’t smart enough to detect Guy’s duplicity.
Granger hadn’t been in a film for ten years, and to my knowledge, he didn’t make any local appearances in San Jose in recent years. (He did, however, turn up in San Francisco at the Noir City festival in 2006.)
He was a stage actor by choice, happier with a live audience.
More than a few of Granger’s films deserve another look: the noir Side Street, for instance, where he plays a hapless embezzler. In The Story of Three Loves, Granger stars in one third of 1953 omnibus film, directed by Vincente Minnelli. Granger as a little boy who gets to be grown up for a day; one of the first uses of this popular kind of story, done later by Disney and beyond (Big, for instance). In grown-up form, Granger gets to romance his French teacher (Leslie Caron).
His extensive 1970s work suggests that a fine psychotronic film festival could be made out of some of the foreign, giallo and horror work he did: the fondly remembered spaghetti western My Name is Trinity as well as a dozen flamboyant titles (just one: Amuck (1972) aka Leather and Whips.) Obviously, directors remembered that lethal chilliness, that facility at playing a man in trouble, long after the mainstream audience who had made him a screen heartthrob had gone elsewhere.