Hitchcock's Dark Dreamboat: Farley Granger (1925-2011)

A vagabond actor for the last five decades of his career, Granger gave sensual, almost perverse life to four great roles

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Farley Granger in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train.

His good looks—sensuous face, doe eyes, full lips, jet-black hair—could have come from a casting director's composite sketch of the Hollywood romantic lead. His bearing was straight, his lean body subtly muscled; here was a generic handsomeness suitable for an audience's worship. Even the stately name, which matched his patrician profile, sounded fake, as if the front office had confected it for their latest pretty-boy star. But he really was born Farley Granger. He actually was a fine actor. And for directors who knew how to expose the emotional instability behind that gorgeous facade, he was the troubled soul of postwar America's moral turmoil—softer than Brando, darker than Dean.

Granger, who died Sunday at 85 in Manhattan, spent more than a half-century in American and Italian movies, in TV dramas and on and off-Broadway. In later days he became something of a gay icon for the bisexuality he may have suggested in his film roles — and, he later acknowledged, in his personal life. But Granger is best remembered, or ought to be, for four pictures he made in his early prime: Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (made in 1947, released in 1949), Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951) and Luchino Visconti's Senso (1954). That's a quartet of films and performances any actor could be proud of.

Farley Earle Granger, Jr., was the son of a San Jose car dealer who, after his business failed in the first years of the Great Depression, moved the family to Los Angeles. There a talent scout for the Samuel Goldwyn studio spotted the teenage Farley, Jr., in a play and signed him for the powerful independent producer, who wanted to change the actor's name to Gregory Gordon; Granger resisted. Now 18, he was immediately cast in two war films directed by Lewis Milestone: the pro-Soviet The North Star (which would be recut for television during the Cold War 1950s) and The Purple Heart, in which he plays a member of a bomber crew captured and tortured by the Japanese. After his own service in the U.S. Navy, Granger made other films for Goldwyn, including Enchantment and Roseanna McCoy, but his most important work was on loan-outs.

The first was Ray's debut feature, originally called Thieves Like Us (after the Edward Anderson novel it was based on) and renamed They Live by Night when RKO, now owned by Howard Hughes, released the film two years later. Granger is Bowie, a 23-year-old who's spent the last seven years behind bars and has just broken out with two other cons; hoping to go straight, he falls in love with Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell), daughter of one of the gang's confederates. Like Fritz Lang's 1937 You Only Live Once, the Ray film takes the story of real-life outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and glamorizes them as almost innocents speeding away from an unjust society and toward a doom they don't deserve. In 1950, Gun Crazy would put a tarter spin on the tale, with naive John Dall seduced by sharpshooter Peggy Cummins to finance their amour with a crime spree. Ray himself would use the soulful-teens-on-the-run plot device in Rebel Without a Cause, with James Dean and Natalie Wood as the star-crossed pair.

Age 22 the summer They Live by Night was shot, Granger looks more prep-school than prison-bred, but his sullen, saturnine aspect makes an ideal complement to O'Donnell's pale sweetness, especially as captured in gigantic, moody close-ups that prefigure by a few years similar shots of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun. Though he is the ex-con and she his loyal helpmeet, she is often the dominant figure—driving their car, for instance, and patting his head as he rests on her shoulder. Keechie will be Bowie's lover, his mother and, if she can, his savior. Until the end, his premonitions of doom can't stanch her optimism. "I tell ya I'm just a black sheep," he says, and the besotted girl replies, "The only thing black about you is your eyelashes. She won't be the last movie female to be blinded by Granger's beauty.

Hitchcock cast him as a villain in Rope and the putative hero of Strangers on a Train; but Phillip Morton and Guy Haines have a lot in common. Phillip, in Rope, is persuaded by his more malevolent friend Brandon Shaw (Dall, two years before Gun Crazy) to kill a boy and, as a game showing their superiority, to stuff the corpse in a steamer trunk that will be left in their living room during a party. Guy, in Strangers on a Train, is a tennis pro who is nearly blackmailed into committing a murder at the urging of a charming psychopath, Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), who's already done Guy the favor of killing his shrewish wife.

In each case, the Granger character is bullied into complicity by a stronger, stranger man who, the director makes clear, feels a homoerotic attachment to him. Hitchcock had earlier managed, in Suspicion and Notorious, the trick of making Cary Grant a threatening, unsympathetic figure; later, in Vertigo he would locate aspects of a necrophiliac stalker in Jimmy Stewart. His Granger films focus on the slow distortions in that matinee-idol face, as Phillip's and Guy's bulwarks of ego are breached, and unease escalates into panic, and the Dorian Gray features corrode with weakness and real or imagined guilt.

"I never pass a mirror without looking at myself," Granger's Franz Mahler says in Senso. "I like to look at myself to make sure I'm me." "Is that the only way you can be sure?" asks the elegant Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli). "No," Franz replies. "Also when a woman looks at me. The way you're looking at me right now." The moment she sees Franz, who is an Austrian lieutenant in occupied Venice just before the revolution that brought unification to Italy in 1871, Livia falls for him. Within four days she has visited his quarters, he has lifted her sheer veil just above the mouth that receives his passionate kiss, and they are lovers. Her marriage, her title, her country are nothing, as her post-coital eyes glow with a sexual intensity—senso—that she feels for the first time. Playing a couple in the luscious first bloom of passion, Granger and Valli admirably fulfill the first rule of movie romance: at that moment, in that film, they seem the two most beautiful people in the world.

Visconti had hoped Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando would play the lovers. But Bergman was busy with her own lover, director Roberto Rossellini; and Brando, though he came to Rome for a screen test, finally said no. That was a great break for Granger, who got the role of his lifetime, and for the film—because Senso is the story of a strong woman ruined by her passion for a handsome, weak man, exactly the sort Granger had played before. This is a woman's picture, a domestic tragedy about the destructive effects of a lady's self-deception. And if Livia's plummet into despair and madness carries echoes of Blanche DuBois's in Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire, it's no coincidence: Williams and Paul Bowles wrote the dialogue for this Italian film's English version, which was known, in its brief U.S. release, as The Wanton Contessa.

A woman's picture belongs to its female lead: Valli. This cool enchantress, who had starred for Hitchcock in The Paradine Case (his film right before Rope) and proudly bore her hopeless love for the charismatic criminal Harry Lime in The Third Man, here plays her emotions about two octaves above Granger's—until the climax, when Franz reveals that what for Livia was a life-and-death mad love was to him only a caprice. Introducing her to a prostitute he has engaged for the evening, Franz laughs at Livia's misery and mortification. It is a scene few actors would care to play, for it exposes Franz not just as a cad but also as a small creature, a parasite sucking away the dreams of its host. And Granger dares to give the scene its full, mean justice. He was 28 when he made Senso; it would be his last exceptional role in films.

So, for the next 47 years, until his last film role in the 2001 comedy The Next Big Thing, the handsome movie star became a vagabond actor. On Broadway he starred in First Impressions, a 1959 musical version of Pride and Prejudice—naturally he was Mr. Darcy—and replaced George Grizzard as The Son in a 1965 revival of Williams' The Glass Menagerie; off-Broadway he won a 1986 Obie for playing the factory owner in Talley & Son by Lanford Wilson (who also died this past week).

His 2007 memoir is called Include Me Out — a malapropism attributed to Granger's first film employer, Goldwyn, but also a sly hint that the bisexual actor was no respecter of closets. In the book, written with Robert Calhoun, his partner since 1963, Granger details his dalliances with Ava Gardner, Shelley Winters, Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents, who had penned the Rope screenplay. All very juicy stuff. But his most intense affair was with the movie camera, a lover that could appreciate his beauty and his flaws, and that retains the image of the forever-young, eternally beautiful Farley Granger.