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Hitchapalooza 7: Murder As Parlor Game – Rope (1948) August 14, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Rope, Hitchcock’s first technicolor film best known as a technical exercise with its quasi-one-shot format (it’s actually several ten minute takes edited together), and this one really improves with age & additional viewings. Perhaps it’s because I’ve begun rewatching some of his A-level classics, but my reaction to seeing Rope again was that it may be the most underrated Hitchcock film of all.

Though many dismiss the quasi-one-shot as an attention-hungry gimmick, it basically turns the camera into a real-time directed eye for the viewer in what Hitchcock arranges as a filmed stage play. It’s essentially like watching a one-act play, only instead of using lighting or music cues to direct the audiences’ attentions, we have the single unblinking eye of Hitch’s camera moving about – albeit clumsily in 1948 technology. (Want a one-shot movie more technically proficient? Check out Russian Ark, which might run a tad long and can be hard to appreciate when you’re not Russian, but it’s like getting a tour of the Hermitage! And since I hate to fly, it was nice to get this tour at my local theater some years back.) In Rope‘s one-sequence direction, we follow characters from one to the next as they interact, or focus on conversations amid other conversations during the party that makes up the bulk of the movie’s action inside the home of the killers Brandon & Phillip, played by John Dall and Farley Granger. Many times, but most notably in a brilliant segment where the maid slowly clears food and candelabras from the trunk containing their victim, the camera squarely focuses on something the audience understands all too well while the characters chattering around it do not – it’s these simple effects that create suspense and keep the audience thinking.

The two would-be elegant killers are in fact immature preppie twerps overly full of themselves, especially Brandon (an excellent performance by Dall, both when he is overconfident and also when he is subtly nervous), viewing himself as superior enough to commit the perfect murder, modeling his actions on the Nietzschean flights of fancy he learned at the foot of his former professor played by Jimmy Stewart. Stewart discovers to his horror how well his casual lessons in misanthropy have been absorbed (here’s hoping I’m rotting the brains of my own students) and much of the cat & mouse games between him and Dall once his suspicions have been aroused also become arguments over moral authority and the value of individual life. What’s interesting in these arguments is how the life taken is one we’ve never met, but only realize the value of through the other characters in the film, all people who knew the victim and some who loved him. He goes from being a blank slate object-victim at the outset to a tragic dead human, all through wisps of dialogue, of the sense of loss from others, and through our own thoughts of the implications of the crime committed at the beginning.

Obviously, murder fascinated Hitchcock since he devoted so many films to it, to the murderers and their motives, and to the methods by which those murderers would be captured. In his favorite Shadow Of A Doubt, he has two comic relief characters constantly discussing how one might pull off the perfect murder, in the parlor-game fashion that mystery writers bandy about. This film takes it a step further – what if they actually did it, just to see what it felt like, to experience it?

The film comes from a play whose source material was the real-life Leopold & Loeb case of thrill-killing, two pampered rich kids who wanted to experience murder. While the play “Rope’s End” stuck closer to the Leopold & Loeb angle and had stronger hints of the gay relationship between Brandon & Phillip, this was a no-no in 1948 Hollywood, so the closest we get is the conversation between them immediately following the murder, where they smoke cigarettes and discuss how they feel and how exhilarating it was. All it needs is some good ol’ ’70s porn funk to really drive it home, but there’s no music in this film at all, something else that adds to its stagy feel. They also drop in a brief exchange about Brandon’s former relationship with Janet, the fianceé of victim David.

As much as screenwriter Arthur Laurents goes on and on about the gay subtext in the mini-documentary DVD extra, including a claim that Stewart’s character in the play had also been in a relationship with Brandon (“Let me introduce you to my friend, Harvey – he’s big and invisible ….”) it’s best for the main theme of this film that the gay angle is basically dropped. For one, this allows us to concentrate on what the possible motive of a thrill-murder would actually be, instead of what would have been the easy 1948 Hollywood throwaway of “psycho gay!” as broken human being, a movie stereotype that would turn up in plenty of lesser films. It also allows for the development of Brandon and Phillip into more fully defined characters, where easy pigeon-holing as “psycho gay!” is taken off the table.

Why do I want to see a movie actually called Psycho Gay! right now, starring Rip Taylor and Paul Lynde going on a cross-country killing spree of rival game show panelists?

Cut to Charles Nelson Reilly: “Brett’s murder was the absolute worst match of all, Gene…

Speaking of Charles, this old ad I remember definitely falls under the category of “they must have known what they were doing… they MUST have!!!!”

But I digress.

Funny, Hitchcock’s original casting choice for Professor Cadell was Cary Grant, and his first choice for Brandon was Montgomery Clift. Both passed, thinking that the gay subtext might be too obvious. So, instead of Montgomery Clift we get Farley Granger, which is sort of like Mel Brooks passing on a role because it’s too obviously Jewish and then giving it to Jackie Mason instead.

It’s the casting of Stewart that’s the real coup here – never mind (again) what Laurents says in the mini-documentary. By taking on this darker and more sinister role of a Professor who callously inspired a pointless murder, Stewart began the later phase of his acting career where he was no longer type-cast as the likeable boy scout next door we saw in Mr. Smith or It’s A Wonderful Life. His world-weary graying cynicism on display here forms the transition between those earlier overgrown boy roles into the darker material he’d do with Anthony Mann or later with Hitchcock in Rear Window or Vertigo. The studio wasn’t crazy about Hitchcock’s choice of Stewart since he had been bad box office since coming back from the war, but I think Hitchcock saw a different side to Stewart and more potential in his ability to portray different kinds of characters and Stewart wisely took the risk. He’s very good here (as always) and manages to evoke constant thinking whenever he is onscreen, especially when it’s the others in the room doing the talking. Audiences may have been thrown in 1948 since they hadn’t seen Stewart do this before, but now that we have the ability to place this performance in context with his other darker roles, it blends in beautifully.

Without a complex motive and by confining everything to one room/one sequence, we focus on the simple act of murder & its consequences. Rope is Hitchcock distilled down to purity, masterfully done.

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