By Michael Wilmington
Farley Granger, who died at 85 on March 27, was the darkly handsome, sensitive-looking lead in four indisputable noir classics: Nicholas Ray’s “They Live by Night” (1949), Anthony Mann’s “Side Street” (1950), and by Alfred Hitchcock: “Rope” (1948) and “Strangers on a Train” (1951).
Blessed (or sometimes cursed) with pretty-boy looks, dark curly hair and an expression that could vary from bruised innocence and outright anguish to wary bemusement and dissolute sadism, Granger became a Hollywood movie star at 18, right out of North Hollywood High, when Samuel Goldwyn decided to sign him and groom him.
The teenager was cast in two Lewis Milestone World War II movies, “North Star” (1943) and “The Purple Heart” (1944). Goldwyn signed him again when Granger returned from WWII service in 1948.
It’s his noirs that make Farley Granger a movie immortal. We remember him best as the murderous but conscience-plagued college boy modeled on thrill-killer Nathan Leopold in “Rope”; as the desperate young husband caught in a web of crime in “Side Street”; as the bank-robbing outlaw, Bowie, part of a Bonnie-and-Clyde team with Cathy O’Donnell’s Keechie in “They Live By Night” (O’Donnell also co-starred with him in “Side Street”); and as socially ambitious tennis star Guy Haines, bedeviled by the persistent “criss-cross” killer, Bruno Anthony (the magnificently deranged Robert Walker), in Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Strangers on a Train.”
After a minor noir “The Naked Street” and a lush period crime drama “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” (both 1955), Granger returned far less often to the big screen, though he remained a permanent part of Hollywood’s historical landscape.
And of the international film landscape. One of his finest performances was as the handsome, seductive and amoral Austrian Army officer, Lt. Franz Mahler, the wastrel who ruins Alida Valli’s life, in Luchino Visconti’s great operatic Italian period drama from 1954 “Senso” – a role that Marlon Brando had wanted and read for.
(“Senso” has just been released in a splendid Criterion edition, complete with a documentary, interviews and a bonus disc of the English-language version, “The Wanton Contessa,” with Granger’s voice.)
Sensitive or troubled in most of his famous parts, Granger may have suffered in ’50s Hollywood, a time and place where his bisexuality – hinted at in his “Rope” and “Strangers” roles – could be something of a career killer. (Among his lovers: “Rope’s” screenwriter Arthur Laurents, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, Shelley Winters and Ava Gardner.)
He also may have suffered from the fact that he unhesitatingly accepted the part with Visconti, an Italian aristocrat/Communist known as the “Red Count,” during the late Red Scare era.
But Granger didn’t seem to let the ups and downs of an actor’s life bother him. Film Noir Blonde and I interviewed him several years ago, along with his longtime companion/collaborator Robert Calhoun (co-author of Granger’s 2007 autobiography “Include Me Out”).
He was a gracious, witty and congenial tale-spinner, taller than you’d think (6’1”), and full of stories. And, in his 80s, Farley Granger still had perfect features for black-and-white photography, a face born for film noir.