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David Thomson on Films: Remembering Farley Granger

How repressed desire turned toward murder in ‘Strangers on a Train.’

They are the two of the oddest men in an American movie of the early 1950s, and, somehow, their oddity is excused by the fact that they meet. Neither one on his own could have sustained a picture. I’m talking about Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). The title suggests an accidental meeting, but, once the bump has happened, we don’t credit chance. Bruno is in charge from the start. You can’t look back on the movie and think he wasn’t tracking Guy. And there’s another oddity: Guy is the well-known fellow, active and successful, the man with a life and a future. Bruno is a talkative zero. But this is Bruno’s plot. Still, they need each other.

Guy is Farley Granger, and he’s a top tennis player, with a following. You can see why—he’s so darned good-looking with a movie-star smile. Now, in those days tennis was still “amateur,” even if it was country club, too. You had to have some money if you were going to play, or you relied on behind-the-scenes pay-offs (the “shamateur” side of the game). But Guy doesn’t feel country club. As a matter of fact, you can believe he was a poor boy who learned to play on scruffy municipal courts. He has a wife, Miriam, not a very nice woman, in a provincial town (“Metcalf”) where she works in a music and records store. They’re separated. It’s over. Guy already has a kind of unofficial engagement with a senator’s daughter, Ann Morton (played by Ruth Roman in a way that reflects the director’s lack of interest in her). So he’s moving up, but he’s not divorced yet, and getting rid of Miriam isn’t going to be as easy as he likes to think.

Bruno feels a few years older—in fact, the actor, Robert Walker, was seven years older than Granger. He’s pleasant-looking, too, with a most beguiling voice, but he’s overweight and covering up sadness or an emptiness. He looks at Guy with awe—he feels such respect for people who “do” things. It’s clear that Bruno has not much life, except for riding on trains and bumping into people. He seems comfortably off. He’s a great talker and dreamer. But he’s so inventive it can be unsettling. For example, in the lengthy on-train chat he develops with Guy he suggests the idea of “criss-cross”—swapped murders. The difficulty with murder, he points out, is that if you have an obvious motive you’re the first person the police are going to want to talk to. “What were you doing on the night of …?” But suppose two people meet who both need a murder done? Criss-cross? You do mine, and I’ll do yours, says Bruno. I’ll kill your inconvenient wife, and you can remove my awful father. We’ll both have air-tight alibis. Simple! Brilliant! And Guy, in his foolishness, writes Bruno off mockingly as a very clever fellow. He assumes Bruno is unbalanced, but he hasn’t figured it out yet that he himself is so weak and being outplayed by this zero.

We do see Guy playing tennis later (in a daft race-against-time match), and the tennis has Granger thrashing around in trapped close-ups with a real player doing the full-court stuff in long shot (it was Davis Cup footage). So Granger never has any authority in the film as athlete or person—he’s a stooge. But Bruno, or Walker, handles his scenes like a master at his game. Walker is mesmerizing in a kind of role seldom attempted before.

The film was adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel, where Guy is an architect. It was turned into a screenplay (with difficulty) by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde (and help from Whitfield Cook, Ben Hecht, Barbara Keon, and Hitch’s invaluable wife, Alma). A lot of people in 1951 regarded it as just an offbeat, suspenseful murder story, with Guy the hero and Bruno the villain. Sixty years later, that interpretation is so restricting it’s hard to believe it ever had traction.

More expert Hitchcock commentary has always seen the film as a parable about complicity or the transfer of guilt: for Guy really does want Miriam dead, and Hitchcock shoots her killing as a strange gift. 1951 was quite a year for that ambivalence at the movies: In A Place in the Sun, Montgomery Clift wants to kill his pregnant girlfriend, played by Shelley Winters (so that he can be with Elizabeth Taylor, instead), and he takes her out in a boat on the lake with drowning in mind—but then she dies accidentally!

All of that tells us a lot about how close movies had come to tempting our forbidden desires and fantasies. But the film version of Strangers on a Train has other, less furtive designs. Even as I’ve described it—even without seeing the film—I think you can feel the latent homosexuality in the set-up. This was another emerging dream in American film, so long as it was indirect.

Highsmith was gay, and her novel leaves no doubt about the way Bruno yearns for Guy. Farley Granger was bisexual, and Hitchcock was very interested in all forms of sexual expression (especially those edged in guilt). That had been observed a few years earlier by the playwright and screenwriter Arthur Laurents, who had written Rope for Hitchcock, taken from the Patrick Hamilton play, and loosely modeled on the Leopold-Loeb case in Chicago from 1924—and with Farley Granger as one of the two killers:

We never discussed the homosexual element of the script, but Hitchcock knew what he wanted to be able to get away with. … He might have been indirect in dealing with sexual things in his films, but he had a strong instinct for them. He thought everyone was doing something physical and nasty behind every closed door—except himself: he withdrew; he wouldn’t be part of it.

That’s shrewd about Hitchcock, but equally discerning on the audience in the 1950s. The real-life dreams on screen had attained rich, layered meanings by then. So many films of that era mean so much more than the plots are prepared to admit. Sixty years later, Granger and Walker seem not just modern but flowering with candor in a remarkable movie about repressed desire turned toward murder.

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But that’s not enough on Farley Granger. His portrait of the handsome but weak Guy is all the more notable if you recall that, just a few years previously, for Nicholas Ray, he had been a haunting and doomed hero in They Live by Night. If I say he’s as interesting in that rural noir with Cathy O’Donnell as he is with Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, you may begin to realize what an actor this was (or might have been). He is also impressive as a flat-out cad, opposite Alida Valli, in Luchino Visconti’s Senso. Three films, so very different—but nothing else was anywhere near as good in Granger’s movie career. It’s a mystery, but, with those three, it’s going to be a long time before he’s forgotten.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.

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