My opinion of actor Farley Granger changed forever last year when our film noir class watched 1948’s They Live by Night(aka Thieves Like Us). It was only Granger’s third film, his first with top billing, and he is revelatory here. I wrote previously about that film, about his heartbreaking performance and the disappointing trajectory his career would take in only a few years. Nicholas Ray, the director of They Live by Night, would go on to make the consummate 1950’s film about disaffected youth, Rebel Without a Cause, with another sensitive young pup named James Dean, whose own tragically brief filmography would overshadow that of Granger.
Whatever it was during his own long career on film and TV that kept him a middling star is beyond this discussion; after all, lots and lots of actors have come to Hollywood, launched a ton of performances, and passed into oblivion. We’re here to look at the apex of Farley Granger’s career, his two films with Alfred Hitchcock and the remarkable (if brief) time when the director’s work, as Cary Grant might put it, “went gay all of a sudden.” Who knows why this is so? Whether it was Granger’s bisexuality, the source material of both films (authored wholly or in part by gay writers) or simply Hitchcock’s prurient fascination with sexual otherness, both Rope and Strangers on a Train must be looked at through their homoerotic context, or something is lost.
Granger had played a couple of small roles under contract with Samuel Goldwyn when he joined the Navy, an experience that in some ways resembled a certain song by the Village People. Due to a bout of intense seasickness, he served his stint on land, mostly working with the entertainment division of Special Services and discovering his love for sex with women and men. When he returned, he filmed They Live by Night, but then Howard Hughes bought the studio and shelved the film. While Granger hung out in New York with the Broadway glitterati, the film received several private screenings, one of which Hitchcock attended.
Suddenly, Granger found himself summoned to Hollywood to meet with the Master of Suspense about his new project Rope, based on a successful play by Patrick Hamilton. The adaptation was by a young playwright/screenwriter named Arthur Laurents, who would have a legendary career, penning scripts for Gypsy, West Side Story and many more hit shows. After being signed to the film, Granger became Laurents lover. His co-star, John Dall, was another gay actor who had also played sensitive young men in film and who would go on to star in the noir classic, Gun Crazy.
Rope is based in part on the true crimes of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who murdered a 14-year-old boy essentially to prove their superior intellect by carrying out a perfect crime. There is no evidence that these two were gay, but Patrick Hamilton’s play certainly contained that subtext, and Laurents plays fast and loose with the idea in his screenplay. Brandon (Dall) and Philip (Granger) live together in domestic bliss, presided over by the former housekeeper of their beloved former prep school housemaster, Rupert Cadell, a cynical fellow who had engaged both young men in spirited discussions of Nietzsche and de Quincy, arguing that there is no real crime to intellectually superior men doing away with their inferiors. Led by Brandon, who seems a true sociopath, Philip strangles a fellow student named David Kentley in order to prove to themselves (and possibly at some point to Rupert) that they are not just theorists, but true actors.
For the role of Rupert, Hitchcock wanted his favorite, Cary Grant, but the actor was not interested in associating himself with this material. History seems to bear out that Grant himself was bisexual, and it’s tempting to imagine what the film might have looked like had he joined forces with Laurents, Granger, and Dall, who from the start enjoyed discussing the subtext and hidden lives of these characters. Hitchcock must have known what was going on with these three, and he probably enjoyed it. In the early 1930’s, he had supposedly told a gay screenwriter who worked for him that if he had not met and married Alma Reville, he might have “become a poof.”
No one seriously contends that Hitchcock had a gay bone in his body, but “deviant sexuality” had always fascinated him. Sadly, when one looks at Rope, and later at Strangers on a Train, homosexuality is portrayed, according to the beliefs of the time, as both a mental and moral aberration. One can understand why Cary Grant wanted nothing to do with Rope. He had just begun what would be the longest of his five marriages, to Betsy Drake. The days of “batching it up” with Randolph Scott were over. Instead, Hitchcock cast James Stewart, a successful film star who had returned from heroic action in World War II eager to smear a little creative dirt on his image as the consummate onscreen good fellow.
The theory offered by Laurents is that Rupert Cadell is as gay as his former students, and he has wondered aloud if Stewart ever understood that. To look at Rupert through this lens, one might be critical of the choice in casting. Both he and Grant represented for Hitchcock the male ideal, but their form of representation was highly dissimilar. In Rope, Stewart says all of Rupert’s catty, cynical lines about humankind, but after seeing Grant play Devlin in Notorious, it’s easy to imagine that coming out of his lips, the words would be more believable.
So why cast Stewart? In his recently published book about the director called The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock, author Edward White pinpoints the actor’s appeal:
“If Cary Grant was Hitchcock’s favorite man of action, some heroic, imaginary version of himself, Stewart was surely his favorite man of reaction, expressing through his silent gaze unsettling things about being an ordinary man that Hitchcock felt but rarely articulated.”
These words describe to a tee both characters Stewart would go on to play in Rear Window and Vertigo, but the same quality is in evidence throughout Rope. Coincidentally – but is it a coincidence? – all three of these characters are bachelors, and all three suffer from a physical problem in the leg, along with whatever experiences have caused them to separate themselves from the society of people in general and women in particular. Stewart may have been the biggest star onscreen here, but he does not get top billing. He appears last in the credits and last to the party that Brandon and Philip give in order to bask in the glow of their crime by serving a buffet lunch on top of a trunk that contains David’s corpse. Throughout the film, Stewart is at his most interesting when he is watching others, his brain starting to compute the awfulness of the situation.
Hitchcock chose to adapt Rope not out of any particular love of the subject matter but because he believed it was a good vehicle with which he could experiment with film editing. He loved the fact that the play takes place in real time, and he wanted to experiment with minimal editing in order to create that experience onscreen. Thus, the film is composed of a number of reels of film that are cleverly edited to make the whole action seem continuous. The set was made of walls that broke apart and scenery that moved out of the way on wheels as the camera followed the actors from one room to another. Each sequence took forever to film correctly, trying the patience of everyone involved.
The results of the experiment are mixed: sometimes real time is a real drag! This is especially true in the middle of the film, as people move around and talk and talk and talk. However, the beginning and the end of Rope are gripping. The film opens with the final moment of David’s murder by strangulation (with a piece of . . . guess what?) and it more closely approximates an act of sordid sex than most scenes from 1940’s movies I’ll bet you’ve seen. After they’ve killed David, Brandon and Philip lean into each other and breathe heavily; Brandon lights a cigarette. Then they pull themselves together and get ready for their guests.
Except Philip never pulls himself together, and Brandon is so mischievously proud of what they’ve done that he keeps dropping hints. The other actors onscreen are all wonderful, especially Sir Cedric Hardwicke who is heartbreaking as David’s father, slowly realizing that something is terribly wrong about his son’s long absence from the party. Ultimately, though, this is a three-man show, with Rupert wandering around picking up on Brandon’s verbal clues and Philip’s startled, guilty looks, his own hardened cynicism gradually battered away as he begins to take in his own moral culpability for what happened.
In the final scene, Rupert – who has left the party after accidentally being handed David’s hat! – returns to face down his devoted psychopaths. It’s a tense scene and it refuses to end neatly as all three are devastated about what they’ve done. In retrospect, this is the best ending, but perhaps it didn’t sit well with 1948 audiences, who also didn’t much like the editing techniques. The film bombed, like The Paradine Case before it and like Under Capricorn and Stage Fright to follow. Therefore, the 50’s dawned with Hitchcock at a crossroads: either he had to change course and come up with a hit, or he could kiss his American career goodbye.
* * * * *
Enter Patricia Highsmith. I’m tempted to go off on a tangent here and rant about the self-destructive nature of American crime writers. I mean, my beloved British authors were mostly middle-class ladies and lords writing under an alias who penned their elegant thrillers and then met at the Detection Club to celebrate with food, conversation and a human skull named Eric. In contrast, the Americans were born of parents who didn’t want them (and either told the kid so repeatedly or outright abandoned them), spent their lives pickled in alcohol and/or suffering from physical and/or mental diseases, married frequently or not at all, and were generally miserable people through and through. But boy! could they write . . .
Patricia Highsmith fit the bill perfectly. Otto Penzler was her American publisher and called her “a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being . . . I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly . . . But her books? Brilliant!” Her parents divorced ten days before her birth. Her relationship with her mother is fictionalized in a short story called “The Terrapin,” where a little boy stabs his mother to death. This might give you a starting point to understanding Highsmith’s world view by the time she published her first novel, Strangers on a Train, in 1950. The idea that two men could resolve their familial issues by killing each other’s parent or spouse might have seemed highly civilized to dear Patricia!
It certainly intrigued Hitchcock, who bought the rights anonymously for a song and began to plot how to incorporate all his increasingly trademark directorial touches into the screenplay. Finding a screenwriter proved difficult, as Hitchcock wanted a big name to lend excitement to what he hoped would be his first hit in a while, but the novel’s creepy plot and its author’s first-time status led to one rejection after another – first John Steinbeck, then Thornton Wilder, and finally Dashiell Hammett.
Hitchcock managed to hire Raymond Chandler, another great American crime novelist with a miserable personality. Certainly, his clashed with Hitchcock’s over and over again until finally, after writing two drafts, Chandler was fired. Seeking safer ground, Hitchcock asked Ben Hecht, with whom he had enjoyed a great working relationship throughout the 40’s (in addition to writing Spellbound and Notorious, Hecht had worked uncredited on The Paradine Case and Rope.) Hecht was unavailable but recommended his assistant Czenzi Ormond, who had written short stories and recently published her first novel. Perhaps it was her beauty that got her this first screenwriting credit, but Hitchcock turned her over to Alma Reville and, along with Barbara Keon, Hitchcock’s associate producer, they crafted the final screenplay. It was based on a treatment by writer Whitfield Cook, who had collaborated with the director on his previous film, Stage Fright, and who injected a high dose of homoeroticism into the story that had only been hinted at in the novel.
In Highsmith’s novel, an architect named Guy Haines meets an alcoholic playboy named Charles Anthony Bruno on, yes, a train. Guy is unhappily married and wants a divorce from his unfaithful wife Miriam in order to marry Anne Faulkner. Bruno wants his hated father dead so that he can inherit a fortune, and he proposes what he sees as a perfect crime: since each man has no motive to kill the other’s obstacle to happiness, Bruno will kill Miriam and Guy, in return, will kill Bruno’s dad.
Guy, of course, thinks Bruno is nuts and graciously excuses himself and travels to Mexico. Bruno is nuts, and taking Guy’s light dismissal as assent, murders Miriam and then spends a great portion of the novel stalking Guy, urging him to hold up his end of their “bargain.” In the book, Guy does exactly that – he kills Bruno’s father and then is eaten up with guilt, despite the fact that Miriam’s own boyfriend basically absolves him of the crime after hearing Guy’s confession. (Hey! Bros before . . . well, you know.) Guy still gets arrested, Bruno falls off a yacht and drowns, and nobody has a happy ending.
Hitchcock cast Robert Walker as the crazy half of this pair, here renamed Bruno Antony. Walker was a fine actor, known for his earnest roles in films like Since You Went Away and The Clock, so Bruno was a stretch for him. Like Hitchcock, Walker had his share of woes due to none other than David O. Selznick, who had hired Walker and his then wife, Jennifer Jones, for Since You Went Away and then openly stole Jones from Walker. The actor was treated for severe psychiatric problems, and Strangers would be the last film he completed before his tragic death at the age of 32. He never saw the final film.
To round out the cast, Hitchcock wanted William Holden to play Guy Haines, whom he had reimagined as a tennis player, and a young Grace Kelly to play Ann. Holden, who had just come off a tremendous turn as a morally compromised screenwriter in Sunset Boulevard, might have captured the dark side of Guy as it was depicted in Highsmith’s version, but it’s hard to imagine him playing the softer side to this dark duo; fortunately, Holden turned the role down. Reluctantly, Hitchcock gave the role to Farley Granger. More disappointment was in store, as Warner Brothers who were producing the film, wanted Hitchcock to use their own actors and foisted Ruth Roman on him in the role of Ann, now a senator’s daughter.
Hitchcock did not like Ruth Roman, and it shows in the finished product. She is perhaps the most unsatisfactory love interest to appear in his films, although one can’t totally blame Roman if the true electricity onscreen lies between Granger and Walker. For one thing, the role of Ann is poorly written: she pretty much pouts and frets and stands by her man with long-suffering looks. And Granger, who had a tendency to be judgmental of his fellow cast members, became very fond of Walker while they were filming and mourned his early death.
Fortunately, the rest of the cast is marvelous, including Hitchcock stalwart Leo G. Carroll as Senator Morton, Ann’s father, always nervous about how things will look; Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, as Ann’s hilarious kid sister Barbara, the biggest role she would play for her dad; veteran stage actress Marion Lorne (famous as Aunt Clara in the TV series Bewitched) as Bruno’s daffy mother; and Kasey Rogers (here billed as Laura Elliot), who would coincidentally end up playing Mrs. Larry Tate on Bewitched, as Miriam. Even the minor roles – the cops, the carnival workers, and most especially, Norma Varden as one of the Senator’s party guests, are delightful, indicative of the happiness Hitchcock was experiencing throughout the making of this film.
And why not? Hitchcock is on fire here, all the mopiness of Under Capricorn and Stage Fright completely vanished. From the opening shots to the final comic punchline, Strangers on a Train shows the director’s total control over his material, with glorious results. I would show this movie every year to my film class as an exercise in the brilliance of editing (by William Ziegler). It’s also a beautifully shot film, the first in what would be a long, happy collaboration between Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks. Of course, every image, every splice had been conceived in the mind of the director. The always pervading motif of doubles is conveyed through many beautiful sequences of crosscutting, beginning with the opening that chronicles the fateful first meeting of Guy and Bruno through a series of shots of their feet as they enter the train station and converge onto the same carriage.
Whitfield Cook’s treatment had changed the brutish Bruno into an elegantly dressed mama’s boy, and Walker perfectly embodies the character’s mix of charm and psychosis. (I imagine a nerdy younger brother named Norman roaming the halls of the Anthony mansion, admiring his brother, fearing his mother, and reading up on motel management!) Guy is three parts appalled/one part charmed by Bruno, the way most Hitchcock heroes react to their villainous counterpart. And, like Cary Grant and James Mason in North by Northwest, Guy and Bruno here look somewhat alike and seem in some unfathomable way to fit together. After Bruno kills Miriam and approaches Guy near his apartment, the shots of Guy being drawn toward the shadowy Bruno seem as hypnotic as a moth to a flame.
Hitchcock does much to merge these two characters together. In the first scene, Bruno is filmed with the shadows of the train’s Venetian blinds thrown upon him, like bars in a jail cell, while the innocent Guy has no such shadows. The image is repeated when Guy meets Bruno after the murder: Bruno waits in the shadows behind a gate, whose bars again resemble a cell. Suddenly, a police car drives up and stops in front of Guy’s apartment, prompting Guy to step behind the gate next to Bruno. Now he, too, is “behind bars,” unwillingly complicit in Bruno’s crime.
We can chat all we want to about the tricky long takes in Rope – the ten-minute sequence in Train where Bruno stalks and murders Miriam is one of the best and most purely cinematic in the canon. Miriam could be a troubling character for modern audiences. In the scene just before this where Guy confronts his wife in a music store in front of witnesses that include Patricia Highsmith herself, Miriam shows herself to be unfaithful, promiscuous, shrewish and opportunistic. We have learned that 1) she is pregnant, 2) the baby is not Guy’s, and 3) she refuses to give him his asked-for divorce because his political career is heating up and that makes her see dollar signs. Despite her insistence that they stay together, Miriam is on a date – with two guys, both younger, horny college boys – when Bruno stalks her. As they ride the bus toward a local county fair, he catches her eye, and from then on Miriam juggles a simultaneous flirtation with three males. The whole sequence is both harrowing and funny, with sly jokes (on the boat ride over to the fair’s Magic Isle, Bruno is riding the one named Pluto) and nice false scares (the sudden reappearance of Bruno at the Test of Strength, Miriam’s scream in the Tunnel of Love).
In movies great and only fair to follow, Hitchcock will prove again and again that he knows exactly how to stage a murder and what precisely to show and not to show. Here we have the best incorporation of one of Hitchcock’s favorite iconic images – eyeglasses. He fits a pair of spectacles with Coke-bottle lenses on the very pretty actress (Kasey Rogers said the glasses made her blind on set, and other actors and crew had to help her around.) When Bruno finally confronts Miriam and begins to strangle her, the glasses drop to the ground, and Hitchcock/Burks show us the murder on the distorted lenses. It’s a horribly slow killing, made all the more chilling by the relative silence that accompanies it.
Patricia Hitchcock wanted to be an actress a lot more than her parents wanted to be, but here her father gives her a special focus, since she shares a similar coloring to Miriam and also wears glasses. Hers will prove a trigger to Bruno when he crashes the senator’s party in honor of Guy and Anne and nearly kills poor Mrs. Cunningham (Varden). It’s another bravura sequence which Hitchcock heightens this time with humor. Barbara is an endearing and funny character, prone to say the things others are feeling but know better when to keep to themselves. She also has a strong sensitivity to the wrongness about Bruno, and in the moment they connect at the party, she – and the audience – relive Miriam’s murder through the same distorted spectacle lens.
The Hollywood censors were never going to let Farley Granger’s Guy kill Bruno’s father as he does in the book – unless the whole point of Hitchcock’s version of Guy finding true love were to be thrown out the window. (This was the intent, however, of Raymond Chandler’s second draft screenplay, which Hitchcock made a great show of holding his nose and tossing into the garbage in front of Czenzi Ormond. Instead, Guy pretends to honor his side of the bargain and sneaks into the Antony home – not to kill Bruno’s father but to warn him. This allows for the inclusion of the requisite staircase scene, which is brief but includes a nice red herring in the form of a massive Great Dane. This is the point where the homoerotic link between the two men breaks down . . . rather ironically, as Guy finds Bruno in bed.
Now we switch to the more typical cat and mouse game one finds in Hitchcock. The final twenty minutes are a tour de force of crosscutting as Guy and Bruno race to beat each other to the fair where Bruno plans to exact revenge using the lighter he stole from Guy. The suspense builds as we move back and forth between Guy trying to complete a tennis match and Bruno racing (by train, of course) to Guy’s home town. Both men have obstacles thrown at them; the difference is that Guy’s overcoming of these problems turns him into a more confident man and, incidentally, a better tennis player, while the problems facing Bruno further shatter his fragile mask of sanity.
It all leads to a powerful climax on board a carnival carousel. Some of my fellow classic detective fiction lovers probably know that this ending was lifted wholesale from the final sequence of Edmund Crispin’s 1946 mystery The Moving Toyshop. Crispin received no credit for this, and I only wish I knew how Hitchcock got away with that piece of
thieverymagic!!! It’s such a breathtaking sequence that my high school students didn’t even mind that the movie was filmed in black and white! Even as the men duel to the death aboard a merry-go-round gone out of control, Hitchcock continues to showcase the increasing divide between them, separating these doubles and burning away through suffering any small amount of culpability Guy might possess regarding Miriam’s death. In one telling moment, a happy little boy stuck on the carousel chooses his sides and attempts to strike Bruno. The madman’s response is to toss the kid off the ride, but Guy pauses in his own act of self-defense to rescue the boy (and nearly dies for his troubles.) Some of the fight is filmed through switching POV shots, and it’s chilling to watch Bruno through Guy’s eyes as he smilingly kicks at Guy’s hand, attempting to force him off the whirling ride.
Like all the best Hitchcock movies, Strangers on a Train benefits from multiple viewings, where something new and fascinating can always be found. I’m sorry Guy gets saddled with Miriam in the end; I almost wish he would throw her off for Barbara, or maybe for the good-natured detective Hennessey who has to tail him. (Maybe he’ll marry Barbara!) Despite his long career on film and television, Farley Granger never made another movie as good as this one. But what a pinnacle to have in one’s career.
Next week? Well, it’s my favorite movie of all time, what I see as the quintessential Hitchcock film. Elliot has given us two bonuses, one . . . sorta meh, but the other a program unknown to me!!! Join me next week when much excitement and fanboy love will be had. I’ll be watching for you . . . . . . .