Actor Appreciation: Farley Granger

I have always been a fan of Farley Granger (1925-2011), who was an unusual sort of Hollywood star. As a popular young actor who was never quite a superstar in the leagues of contemporaries like Robert Mitchum and Montgomery Clift, Granger worked with a plethora of well-regarded directors, including Lewis Milestone (twice), Nicholas Ray, Alfred Hitchcock (twice), Anthony Mann, Mark Robson (twice), Henry King, Charles Vidor, Vincente Minnelli, Luchino Visconti and Richard Fleischer. Granger is usually remembered best for the two Hitchcock films, Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951), and the Nicholas Ray film They Live by Night (1948). Those three films are considered classics.

Watching Rope again, I am struck by how well Granger is able to hold his own alongside the venerable James Stewart, who had been a movie star for over a decade at that point and was also an Academy Award winner, and John Dall, who had earlier received an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in the Bette Davis vehicle The Corn Is Green (1945). Granger is able to display all the frustrations and other neurotic little touches that set his performance apart from Dall’s sociopath character, making Granger likeable when compared to heartless Dall. At the same time, we can’t completely warm to Granger because of the active role he took in the murder that he committed with Dall. Granger’s role is the more complex of the two young male leads, giving him a chance to shine in such a grim story.

They Live by Night, which was Nicholas Ray’s directorial debut, proves Granger had sex appeal but also that he was capable of carrying a movie as the one male lead actor. Granger and Cathy O’Donnell play this variant of the Bonnie and Clyde story with the right combination of toughness and tenderness, making it easy for the viewer to sympathize.

Most impressively, Granger starred as the hero of one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces of suspense, Strangers on a Train (1951). The film needed a main character whose performance would not overwhelm that of the antagonist, Bruno Anthony (the brilliant Robert Walker), yet which would still be a nuanced performance with high-caliber acting. Granger’s portrayal of tennis champion Guy Haines is subtly effective, making him a successful foil for Anthony, who is, like John Dall’s Brandon in Rope, another sociopath.

If you watch those three particular films, along with other titles like Anthony Mann’s Side Street (1950) and a Maxwell Shane crime drama called The Naked Street (1955), perhaps you will value Farley Granger’s contributions to cinema as much as I have.

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