Thursday, March 31, 2011

One of the Last Matinee Idols

I was truly sorry to learn, somewhat belatedly, that Farley Granger died Sunday at the age of 85.

These days, most people probably don't know who Granger was — and the truth is that he really was before my time as well. He was a "matinee idol," as the New York Times wrote. One of the last of the breed.

He began his career in the movies, but he did a lot of TV and stage work in his later years, and he had mostly made that transition before I was born.

But that didn't prevent me from enjoying his film work — and, since his most noteworthy films were directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it was only natural that I would see them.

My parents, as I have mentioned here before, were Hitchcock fans, and they passed along their fondness for his work to me. I watched several Hitchcock movies with them over the years, but we never watched his collaborations with Granger. Those I saw by myself.

When people speak of the work Granger and Hitchcock did together, the conversation inevitably seems to turn to "Strangers on a Train," their 1951 classic (which will observe its 60th anniversary on June 30). And there is no doubt, as far as I am concerned, that "Strangers on a Train" was a great movie.
  • The American Film Institute named it #32 on its list of the top 100 thrillers in movie history — a list that included eight other Hitchcock movies, three of which were in the Top 10.
  • It was the inspiration for Billy Crystal's 1987 black comedy, "Throw Momma From the Train." It was a hit with the moviegoing audience even though it got mixed reviews from critics.
But I also feel that "Rope," the first film Hitchcock and Granger made together in 1948, was great. In fact, in some ways, I prefer it to "Strangers on a Train." It was inspired by a real crime, the murder of a 14–year–old boy by two University of Chicago students, the infamous Leopold and Loeb, in 1924. In the movie, two young men murder a colleague, then have a select group of guests over to dinner with the body concealed in their apartment. In this way, they can prove, if only to themselves, their superiority over the others, but one of the murderers seems to want one of the guests, a former teacher who once spoke to them of committing the perfect murder, to know what they have done. Granger played the other murderer, the one who suffers the most from his feelings of guilt and doesn't do a very good job of concealing it, although most of the guests are as unaware of his behavior as of the fact that the body is hidden in a chest in the room where they have gathered. One guest, played by Jimmy Stewart, does pick up the scent, though, and returns after the others have gone to confront the killers. It's a very cerebral tale, with all of the action taking place in real time and appearing to be made in one long, continuous shot. It was as groundbreaking in its way as "Citizen Kane" had been about seven years earlier. As film critic Roger Ebert observed more than 25 years ago, "Alfred Hitchcock called 'Rope' an 'experiment that didn't work out.' ... He was correct that it didn't work out, but 'Rope' remains one of the most interesting experiments ever attempted by a major director."