The Los Angeles Times reports that Farley Granger passed away Sunday of natural causes at his home in Manhattan. The star of many films, including the classic film noir “They Live By Night,” was 85 years old.
Today Granger is probably best remembered as the star of two of Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers: 1948’s “Rope” and 1951’s “Strangers on a Train.” Hitchcock himself wasn’t the biggest fan of Granger’s work, at least in his own movies. In their book-length interview he told director Francois Truffaut he “wasn’t too pleased with Farley Granger; he’s a good actor, but I would have liked to see William Holden in the part because he’s stronger.” Truffaut rightfully came to Granger’s aid, pointing out that part of the reason “Strangers on a Train” works is that Granger downplayed the part of Guy in order to make his opposite number in the film, Robert Walker as the psychotic killer Bruno, a more appealing character. Faced with the choice between rooting for a stiff hero and a charismatic villain, the audience doesn’t know quite who to align itself with, which is what makes Guy and Bruno’s battles so entertaining and suspenseful. Hitchcock couldn’t have hated the outcome too strongly, since he reused that power dynamic of the weaker hero and the stronger villain again in later films, most famously in “Psycho” with Anthony Perkins and John Gavin.
Granger was also the star of Luchino Visconti’s 1954 film “Senso,” which is currently undergoing a bit of a critical rediscovery thanks to its recent release on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. Granger plays Lieutenant Franz Mahler, an Austrian officer in occupied Venice who has an affair with a married Italian countess played by Alida Valli. In his Great Movies column about “Senso,” Roger Ebert wrote, “in terms of the requirements of the roles, the movie was ideally cast, and Granger, who usually made a second-rate hero, made a first-rate cad.”
It occurs to me, reading Ebert’s description, that despite his fame and success, Granger was perhaps pigeonholed his entire career, simply because he had a heartthrob’s good looks. Take a look at this charming clip from the old television series “I’ve Got A Secret,” and watch how easily and how unrecognizably Granger slips into the role of a bumbler.
Like a lot of actors, Granger may have found his talents at odds with his physical beauty. Which is why, despite his director’s complaints, he works so well in “Strangers on a Train.” Make sure you read that Times piece for more of the biographical details of his life, including his departure from Hollywood for Broadway and his long secret bisexuality. They suggest Granger’s generically heroic exterior hid some much deeper complexities.