Strangers in a Theater Lobby

Lost in all the brouhaha over Elizabeth Taylor’s passing was the death of Farley Granger at the age of 85. Taylor’s star outshone most others while she was alive so its no surprising that the same thing would happen in death. But for me Farley’s death hit closer to home.

You see Granger starred in one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films, Strangers on a Train. He played Guy, an earnest but naive young man desperately trying to rid himself of his unfaithful shrewish wife. Guy meets Bruno, a charming, mysterious stranger on, you guessed it, a train. Bruno yearns to be free of his father as much as Guy does with his wife. They “agree” to switch murders, Bruno killing Guy’s wife while Guy kills Bruno’s father. Guy assumes that he and Bruno were kidding around, but Bruno takes their conversation all too seriously.

Granger played the least interesting of the two leads. Robert Walker sunk his teeth into Bruno and gave a captivating performance. Walker had mischievous quality, only barely disguising Bruno’s real malice underneath. Granger performs capably and carries his part of the story. Of course, the real attraction is Hitchcock’s storytelling and flair. As always, he built the suspense by tightening the screws ever so slowly. In one of the quintessential Hitchcock scenes in any film, Guy plays in a tennis match, and the film cuts to all of the audience shifting their heads, following the path of the ball. Well, almost all the audience. There’s Bruno, focusing intently on Guy, despite everything around him. That brief shot conveyed so much about Bruno and the threat Guy faces.

I had seen Strangers on a Train several times, so I probably would have skipped the October 2008 screening at the AFI Silver Theater. But Granger was appearing in person. I had seen him not only in Train, but also Hitchcock’s Rope and Nicholas Ray’s They Drive By Night, an underrated noir film. Besides this would be a chance to see an actor who had actually worked with the legendary director. How could I pass that up?

After the screening, Granger came out with the AFI moderator. He looked frail, and his memory wasn’t 100 percent, but he gamely answered questions about himself, Hitchcock and Walker. Then the AFI staff set Granger up at a table in the lobby to sign autographs. Fully prepared, or so I thought, I brought my Strangers on a Train DVD for Granger to sign.

It turns out I was not the only Hitchcock fan in the area, as the line to Granger was long. I casually struck up a conversation with the man right behind me. At some point I mentioned that I lived in Falls Church, Virginia. The other man got excited, surprising me. Has anyone ever been excited to meet a man from Falls Church? I like the town, but it’s not exactly New Orleans.

The man explained that he was with The Falls Church News-Press, a paper that I didn’t know existed. He asked if he could take a picture of me with Granger. Taking a picture of Granger I could most certainly understand, but me? I resisted, joking that if I knew I was going to be photographed I would have shaved and worn something other than a sweatshirt. The man didn’t care, saying that he just wanted a picture of the actor with a Falls Church resident. So I agreed, and after Granger signed my DVD, I leaned next to him and smiled as the flash went off.

At the AFI Silver Theater: Adam Spector and Farley Granger in front of a poster for Strangers on a Train. (Photograph courtesy of Falls Church News-Press)

I didn’t give the incident much thought, until a couple of weeks later, when a friend at work happily said she saw my picture in the paper. I asked how, and then remembered the photo. She told me to try to find the paper, but I forgot. No matter, she brought in a copy for me.

So when I heard a few days ago that Granger had died I immediately thought of that night at the AFI. When I went home, I found the picture of the elderly actor and an unshaven man in a sweatshirt who looks an awful lot like me. Thanks to two strangers, Granger and the man from the News-Press, I will forever have my own little piece of movie history.

Adam Spector
April 1, 2011

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