It’s kind of Farley Granger’s fault, this life of mine. Well, his and a handful of others hand selected by my mother at a chance trip to The Wherehouse, our local videostore in Pasadena, California. My mother had a cunning plan for my future, and it worked… damn it. There I was, a tender child at the age of 8 or 9, in the Children’s Section wanting nothing more than to rent a video of Spider-Man cartoons. My mother, perhaps a little sick of my childish taste in cinema (understandable though perhaps it was), concocted a compromise. I could rent my stupid Spider-Man cartoons if I sat through some movies that she selected as well. I believe some crying was involved before the deal was struck, but finally I relented. I just wanted to watch Spider-Man spin a web, you know? Any size would do. Besides, any time your mother forces you to sit on your butt and watch TV has to be viewed as some kind of coup.
The films my mother selected were Citizen Kane, Mrs. Miniver and Strangers on a Train. When the Spider-Man cartoons were eventually returned to The Wherehouse, I don’t think they had ever made it as far as the VCR. I was a little too young to fully grasp Citizen Kane but was captivated by its broad entertainment value and almost scientific complexities that fell just outside the grasp of my inexperienced mind. I cried like a baby at the tragic end of Mrs. Miniver, its propagand-ish intentions hitting exactly the right mark: to make someone who didn’t give a crap about its subject matter care about nothing else by the end of the story.
But then there was Strangers on a Train, starring Farley Granger and Robert Walker. Hitchcock’s crafty film starred Granger as tennis pro Guy Haines, just another man on a train, with just another man’s problems. Sitting next to him, by nothing more than happenstance, is just that other man: Bruno Antony, played by The Clock‘s Robert Walker. Antony chit-chats with Haines, of whom he is a fan. They casually explain the difficulties of their life to each other. Haines’ wife refuses to divorce him so he can marry the girl he loves. Antony is cursed with an overbearing father. Antony idly suggests a notion he once had… that two men, each with people of whom they need disposed, simply swap murders. Criss-cross, if you will. The actual murderers would have no motive or connection to their victims, and both men get off scott free as a result, reaping the benefit. Haines’ is disturbed by the notion but dismisses it as idle conversation, and gets off the train to go on with his day, comfortable to dismiss his chance encounter with Antony as one of life’s little footnotes.
Of course, Antony is not an idle man. Soon Haines’ wife is dead, and the poor guy now has a stalker on his hands who keeps asking when Haines is going to fulfill his end of the bargain. Walker got the flashier roll in Hitchcock’s exceptional little potboiler, but Farley Granger was the heart of the film and carried it deftly on his handsome shoulders. Not the thankless role many would have made it out to be. In fact, I’m thanking him now. He anchored one of the finest suspense stories in the history of cinema, and there can be no finer testament to his abilities than this: the film works just as well today as it did two decades ago, and two decades before that, and indeed two decades prior to even that, upon its initial release.
Walker passed away not long after Strangers on a Train premiered, having not quite completed production on his final film, My Son John. Farley Granger lived a long, productive life. He passed away on Sunday at the age of 85 from natural causes. I will never get to tell him the impact his participation in Strangers on a Train had on my life. I am here, writing for you fine people, because of one film in particular. I suppose with the benefit of hindsight that it could have been any number of other movies that spurred me to dedicate my life to the study of movies, but by sheer happenstance – like Haines’ fateful encounter with Mr. Antony – it was Strangers on a Train. A perfect marriage of suspense, unforgettable imagery and exceptional performances from folks like Mr. Granger that came along at exactly the right moment to change my life forever.
Of course, Strangers on a Train was not the only film graced by the presence of Farley Granger, who starred in such other classics as Hitchcock’s nifty trifle Rope and the Nicholas Ray’s well-regarded noir They Live By Night before spending the bulk of his career bouncing about the television set with appearances on such hit series as Playhouse 90, The Six Million Dollar Man and As The World Turns. His final performance was in a small romantic comedy called The Next Big Thing, an inauspicious finale to an auspicious career that – at the very least – had a powerful impact on one young boy. An impact that can be felt to this day.
He will be missed.