Monday, March 12, 2012

Rope (1948)

Alfred Hitchcock is easily my favorite director of all time. Hands down. Has been for a long time. I got into his films fairly early in my movie watching career and became a fanatic pretty much instantly. Nobody could captivate an audience like Hitchcock. When you watch a Hitchcock film, you become invested in every possible aspect of it. Not only was he a master storyteller, he was a technical innovator. His influence is everywhere, as numerous filmmakers have tried to copy his style, how many times have you read a review of a film and seen the word “Hitchcockian”? As the saying goes, there was only one Hitchcock. When I was first getting into his films, his 1948 experiment Rope quickly became a favorite of mine and it’s one I often return to. Even after countless viewings, it’s initial impact is never lost on me.

Putting their philosophy of superiority to use, and proving to themselves that they can get away with committing the “perfect murder”, college mates Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger) strangle their friend David Kentley to death in their apartment and store his body in a chest. The two are hosting a party later on with guests such as David’s father, his aunt, his girlfriend Janet, friend Kenneth, and Brandon and Phillip’s former school teacher Rupert Cadell. Adding insult to injury, the two use the chest David’s body is stuffed in as a makeshift buffet table for the party guest. The invitation of Cadell both angers and frightens Phillip, as he fears he is the one person to suspect something, while Brandon assures him that Rupert would be the only one to appreciate what they’ve done. Sure enough as the party goes on and David still doesn’t show up the guests get increasingly worried, and with Phillip’s behavior becoming more and more erratic, Rupert begins to have suspicions of his own.

I think at this point in time calling a Hitchcock movie intense is like saying it snows in the winter. Still, even by Hitchcock standards Rope is a nerve racking experience. It should come as no surprise to Hitchcock fanatics that he was able to create such tension in a limited setting as he did it a few years earlier with Lifeboat, but it’s still astounding he was able to achieve the mood that he did when you take into consideration that aside from the opening credits sequence, the film never leaves Brandon and Phillip’s apartment. There are no action scenes, no chase sequences or anything like that, nothing blows up. It’s obviously not a whodunit, as the culprits are clear as day, as is their motive so I’m not spoiling anything here. The suspense comes from the fact that there is always the constant reminder that just a few feet away from any one person in front of the camera there is a dead body lying in a chest, the dialogue and interactions between Brandon, Phillip and the party guests, especially Rupert. You’ll wince every time a character even glances towards that chest, and there’s one very brief moment involving the housekeeper that’s sure to make your heart skip a beat. Whenever the fact that David is late to the party is brought up, it’s quite gripping to see how Brandon, and especially Phillip react. As Phillip becomes more and more guilt ridden about what he’s done, the danger of him exposing the crime becomes more real. The suspense is heightened even more when Rupert begins to have suspicions of his own, and it just keeps on building.

The classic Hitchcock device of discussing murder during dinner is put to perfect use here. We learn that Brandon took the Nietzsche-esque philosophical musings of Rupert during his school days to heart, which is why he feels Rupert would approve of what he and Phillip did.  According to Rupert, murder is an art that only a few privileged and intellectually superior people, those who are above the average moral standings should be able to commit. The tension is heightened during this conversation as Brandon proudly boasts that he and Phillip are two of the “privileged” ones.  This allows for some of Hitchcock’s trademark black humor to make an appearance, as Stewart’s character opines about how many of the worlds problems murder could solve, such as having trouble getting theatre tickets or getting into a restaurant, and that although he approves of murder, it shouldn’t be a free for all, it should be reserved for special occasions, such as “cut a throat week”, or “strangulation day”. There are other traces of dark humor thrown in as well, such as Brandon giving David’s father a stack of books tied together with the same rope that killed his son, and admittedly, the whole idea of serving food on the chest that the body is stored in, while extremely depraved, is somewhat comical. I’m sure Hitchcock got a real kick out of it.

Dall, Granger and Stewart put on clinics here, Granger especially. It’s obvious that Phillip regrets what he’s done mere seconds after the murder, and he spends a good majority the movie with a sickly, worried look on his face and when he speaks it’s incredibly uncomfortable, as most of the time as you get the feeling that at any moment he could crack and confess the whole thing. There’s a brilliant scene where Stewart’s character is basically interrogating Phillip while Phillip tries to play the piano. Steward is calm and collected, he knows something odd is happening yet won’t come right out and say what he thinks is going on. Phillip knows this, stammering over words and becoming more and more nervous by the second. When he tries to play it cool Stewart sees right through it. There is almost a sympathetic aspect to Phillip, yet we never forget what he did in the beginning of the film. Too little too late if you will. John Dall portrays Brandon as you would expect, a self satisfied, smug asshole. He’s instantly detestable, with his shit eating grin and smartass remarks. Moments after the murder he make a remark about how the glass David took his last drink out of should be preserved as a museum piece, but it’s such good crystal and he’d hate to break up the set of glasses from which it came. He’s obviously very proud of what he’s done, over joyous in fact. Yet all the while he’s almost commendable for all his audacity. It’s almost as if he wishes he were caught, just so he could brag about murdering someone just because. The films final moments with all three is truly  something for the history books, when all the build up reaches a boiling point, it goes way beyond edge of your seat intensity. I’ve seen this film more times than I can count and that final segment never fails to leave me in awe. The back and forth between Brandon and Rupert, Phillip’s rapidly declining composure and impending breakdown, the pacing of it all, pitch fucking perfect execution. If this scene isn’t studied in film schools, it should be.

Rope was one of Hitchcock’s most experimental films. Having the events of the film happen in real time, Hitchcock wanted to film to look as if it was shot in one long, continuous take. Of course this wasn’t possible in 1948, as he could only shoot for around 10 minutes per take, so he got around it by using numerous close up’s of various things and holding the shot while he reloaded the camera.  If you look for them, it’s not hard to figure out where the cuts are, but you’ll be so engrossed in the story you won’t think to look for such things,  but it’s just another example of how innovative and ahead of everybody else Hitchcock was when it came to filming techniques. The way he maneuvers the camera, going from one end of the room to the other, from one conversation to the other, or not having the camera move at all, observing people from a distance, there are numerous times while watching it feels as if your standing right there in the apartment. Like all his films, it’s damn near impossible to take your eyes off the screen for a mere second, and again I reiterate how he crafted a gripping story with such a limited setting with ease. I can count on my hand the number of directors who can pull off such a thing, and still nobody comes close to what Hitchcock achieved when he worked with such a setting.

Rope was adapted from a play which was loosely based on the real life case of Leopold and Loeb, two college students who murdered a 14 year old in 1924 just for the thrill of it. Leopold and Loeb were gay, and it’s been assumed that Brandon and Phillip were lovers in the film as well. It’s been said that Hitchcock intended for the two to be gay,  although this could never actually be said or shown on screen in 1948 with the production code and all. I believe Hitchcock even had to have the script supervised by some studio higher up‘s due to the rumors of there being two gay characters. The words “gay” or “homosexuality” were never uttered on the set, instead they were replaced with “it”.  There’s been a lot made of the so called homosexual undertones in the film, and there’s differences of opinion when it comes to that aspect. Whatever the nature of Brandon and Phillip’s relationship is, Brandon is obviously the dominant one, as it’s quite clear that Phillip acts as his footstool. I’ve always thought all of it was just like looking for the times when Hitchcock ended a take, these things might go right over your head on account of being too wrapped up in the story.
Rope was second “limited setting” film Hitchcock did, along with the aforementioned Lifeboat (1944), Dial M For Murder (1954), and of course Rear Window (1954), which also starred James Stewart, the second film he and Hitchcock would collaborate on (Rope was the first time the two worked together). They did two more films together, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958). All masterpieces, needless to say. Rope is an essential watch, not only for Hitchcock fans but also for fans of film in general. It’s an engrossing watch, not only for the experimental aspects of how Hitchcock went about making it, but also for the stunning performances of it’s three lead actors, great use of dialogue, and it’s unique way of holding the audience captive in suspense like only Hitchcock could do. If your new to Hitchcock, this definitely needs to be on your “to watch” list. The work of a true master of his craft.

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