International Writers Magazine: Film Space
Dir Alfred Hitchock
Starring James Stewart
Hitchcock is always considered a fine technical craftsman of film,
but he has always been perceived as something less of an artistic
filmmaker in comparison to other world greats, such as Akira Kurosawa,
Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Orson
Welles, Stanley Kubrick, or even his fellow countryman David Lean.
This is because as well plotted, acted, and directed as his films
manifestly are, they appear to most critics as mere shiny baubles-
all style and little substance.
After all, Hitchcock
took great pride in mass appeal; even going so far as being one of the
few film directors to 'stoop' to active involvement in the 'lesser medium'
of television. He also joyed in being termed the filmic 'master of suspense',
implying that his films were geared toward the revelation of a plot
point- usually the capture of a criminal, or not, and not some deeper
In the main, when one thinks of the top film names in the Hitchcock
canon, this is true: Suspicion, Rear Window, North By Northwest,
or Psycho. Yet, even in that list of immortal films, there are cracks
in the theory. After all, Psycho's greatness is not merely dependent
upon the revelation of Mother as Norman Bates, but the tale of the Janet
Leigh character, her death and aftermath, how it effects ancillary characters,
and what would become of Norman Bates; and let's pretend the sequels
never happened. And what of The Birds? Pure chaos. Is the world
doomed? We do not know. The film wisely ends on an ellipsis. The fact
is that while Hitchcock's name and reputation were made on mass appeal
and a Lowest Common Denominator style- albeit in the highest vein, there
was a part of the technical master that wanted to be a true auteur,
someone who would alternate between art films and pop cultural iconography.
Unfortunately, the demands for financial success made the appearance
of the 'artsy Hitch' all the more rare as his career went on.
There were comedies like Mr. And Mrs. Smith, and Neo-Realist
wannabe fare like The Wrong Man, which had measures of artistic
success, but perhaps the best example of Hitchcock in full auteur mode
comes from his first color film, 1948's Rope. It is a film based
on the infamous 1920s Leopold and Loeb case, where two dilettante homosexual
lovers in Chicago decided their superiority to the world entitled them
to kill just for the fun of it. They murdered a fourteen year old boy,
were caught, and sent to jail. While such overt things as homosexuality
were verboten in mid-Twentieth Century Hollywood, due to production
codes, it is there in full, on the screen in this film, and what amazes
is how much more realistic the portrayal of homosexuals (albeit killers)
and their relationship's power plays are in this nearly six decade old
film than in the recent atrocious Brokeback Mountain, which indulged
all the worst clichés of homosexuality. Yet, by not mentioning
'it' overtly, its ellipsis creates suspense, and forces the viewer to
interpolate things into the gaps.
the film's two lead actors, and its screenwriter, were gay, which
only adds to the depth of watching and rewatching this film. Not
only that, but Hitchcock makes a brilliant move early on in the
film, right after the opening cameo of himself on the street (the
other cameo is about 55 minutes into the film, as a red neon sign
of Hitchcock's profile flashes in the background as the guests leave
the party), and the credits. He shows us the two main characters
strangling their friend David Kentley (Dick Hogan) to death.
Thus, we know the
film will not be a tired whodunit? And, as the film progresses, we know
it will not even be a will they get caught? film, for the writing is
so great, and the dialogue so precise, that it reads like a play of
the sort that an Oscar Wilde may have penned had he done straight dramas.
While film is a visual medium, it is one almost wholly dependent, in
the sound era, upon words. Only Hitchcock's earlier Lifeboat
was almost as dependent upon dialogue, although that film was not as
needful of sharp repartee- Tallulah Bankhead aside. Of course, there
are Wildean puns and ironies galore, such as the dead man's aunt looking
at Phillip's hands, which just strangled her nephew, and saying, 'these
hands will bring you great fame.' She means as a pianist, not strangler,
but the viewer gets the joke. There are also other nods to murder, such
as 'knock 'em dead,' 'I could strangle you,' and 'killing two birds
with one stone,' which rise above cliché since we know that there
is real foul play beneath their utterance.
Thus the film rises above mere genre and into that rarified air where
great art exists. It was adapted from a play, Rope's End, by a Briton-
Patrick Hamilton, but had to be changed quite a bit for American tastes,
as the play was laced with all sorts of none too subtle homoerotic subtexts
and barbs. The film treatment and adaptation was done by actor and writer
Hume Cronyn, and the final screenplay penned by Arthur Laurents- the
first of many he would write, with some of the dialogue provided by
an uncredited Ben Hecht, who penned Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945)
and Notorious (1946). It is a sterling example of elegant simplicity.
It works as a stage play and was shot in a succession of almost ten
minute takes, with some poor attempts to hide that fact as most of the
breaks come by someone's back covering the camera for a reel change.
There are a few overt cuts, such as a cut from Phillip to Rupert, and
a later one from Rupert to Mrs. Wilson. But, other than those flaws,
the eighty minute film plays out in real time, and it is one of the
few films that may have been even greater had it been a bit longer,
to let the party, banter, and Rupert's suspicion flow a bit more naturally.
A few films, such as Josh Becker's 1998 Running Time and Aleksandr
Sokurov's 2002 Russian Ark, have done similar things with real
time shooting and continuous takes.
The affluent killers, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley
Granger), are throwing a party in their penthouse for people associated
with the dead man, as Phillip and Brandon are off to the country to
prepare for a piano recital. David's father (Sir Cedric Hardwicke),
aunt Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier- in a very Margaret Dumont type
role), fiancée Janet Walker (Joan Chandler), ex-best friend Kenneth
(Douglas Dick)- who dated Janet previously (as did Brandon, meaning
he is bisexual), David's and his killers' college professor, Rupert
Cadell (James Stewart- in his first Hitchcock role), as well as the
maid, Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson), are all in attendance. In a typically
macabre Hitchcockian touch, the more dominant of the killers, Brandon,
decides to serve the party's buffet on the unlocked chest where the
boys have shoved the corpse. Eating off a coffin can only be described
as sick, but it reinforces the disrespect and contempt the killers feel
for their victim, which we already know. As the party progresses, Rupert,
a devotee of the remorseless Nietzschean philosophy of Supermen, comes
to suspect that the boys have actually taken his credo's faux bravado
to heart, and begins to break down the weaker of the two killers, Phillip.
Part of this is due to his superior position as a figure of power to
Phillip, and part of it is a touch of Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale
Heart, as Phillip is weighted down by his own evil. Even the stronger
Brandon is not immune to Rupert's probing, and nervously stutters, at
times. There is a scene where the maid hands Rupert his hat, as the
party breaks up, and we switch to POV shot of Rupert seeing the D.K
(David Kently) monogram in the hat he holds. After all the others have
left, in worry over the whereabouts of the victim, Rupert returns to
the penthouse and plays a cat and mouse game with the boys. He wrests
a gun Brandon had away from Phillip, then holds the boys at bay, and
wisely shoots off the gun out their penthouse apartment window, so that
people outside are alerted, the cops will come, and all three men just
have to wait for the inevitable.
Typical Hollywood directors, now and then, would have had Rupert try
to handle things himself, and create false suspense that way, over whether
or not the killers would overpower Rupert. Not Hitchcock; he's too good
for that. Yet, oddly, despite the film's excellence, as the years went
by, even Hitchcock tended to dismiss Rope as a failed experiment in
film, especially in a famed interview with Francois Truffaut. But, it's
not a mere stunt nor gimmick, for the mostly objective point of view
of the camera becomes a de facto character, and the fact that the years
of the film's making demanded the set have sliding walls and furniture
on casters, to accommodate the huge color cameras, does not detract
from its great artistic achievement. Perhaps it was viewed as a failure,
even by Hitchcock, because it failed at the box office? Or perhaps it
was because the film's cyclorama background exteriors out the window
look too much like a painted set, even as we see lighting effects of
the sun setting. Part of this failure comes from the 'smoke' we see
from smokestacks. Like water ripples, smoke does not scale, so what
we should see in the distance looks too close up and small to be convincing.
But, these are minor quibbles. 'The play is the thing,' goes the old
saying, and this film is a great play, in the real sense of the term.
Rope also has dated quite well, in comparison to the more successful
fare that Hitchcock offered, like To Catch A Thief, which is
very mid-Twentieth Century. Only the fact that almost all the characters
are smokers seems odd today, for even their colloquial conversation
is not that dated, as these are all New York dilettantes who would be
at home in more modern Woody Allen films. Such people live in a timeless
realm where gossip about films stars and astrology is still the mainstay
of fare, not video games nor DVDs and I-Pods.
The film is also laced with many wonderful touches, such as when Rupert
is questioning Phillip as he plays the piano, turns on a light, which
Phillip loathes, and we see the idea click in Rupert's mind that he
has just put his ex-student under the glare of a light, as they do in
cheesy films where a suspect is grilled at a police station. He then
proceeds to force Phillip to play more conventionally by having a metronome
going on the piano. This only increases the boy's nervousness and guilt.
There is also the great scene of the main characters talking of David's
late arrival, as the maid, Mrs. Wilson, clears the candles and food
off the buffet chest and wants to put the books back inside of them.
Will she reveal the body or not? And, even more so in the comic touches
that Hitchcock inserts, such as having Brandon give Mr. Kentley some
books tied in the rope they used to strangle his son. Even the film's
title means more than the murder weapon, for, like a rope, the continuous
shots tie things together in a linear sequence that most films do not.
The DVD of Rope is part of a fifteen disk, fourteen film collection
called The Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection. The transfer
of the film, in Technicolor, is stunning, and looks like it was recently
filmed- despite Technicolor's notorious fading and washout flaws. It
was shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and has no real musical soundtrack-
another daring move by Hitchcock, even as the sound is in Dolby Digital
2.0 mono. Sadly, there is no audio commentary track for the film. The
extras are the film's trailer, which has a longer appearance by David
Kentley (Dick Hogan) than in the actual film. There are also photos
and credits, and a 32 minute documentary called Rope Unleashed. Hume
Cronyn, Arthur Laurents, Farley Granger, and Patricia O'Connell Hitchcock
expound on the film.
In a rare moment that departs from the usual sort of fellatio featurettes
and commentaries provide, Rope Unleashed finds Laurents' comments
on the film to be particularly harsh, and wrong. Laurents feels that
by showing the murder in the first scene Hitchcock undermines the film's
tension over whether or not a murder was committed. But, tension still
exists over whether or not they'll be caught. Also, the act of murder
adds far more to the real life conversations that follow. What is lost
for in lowest common denominator manipulative tension is far more than
made up for in the depth and meaning of every single word thereafter
uttered. It also raises the film above the pulpy comic book feel it
would have had if we were not aware of the crime's 'reality'. In a sense,
the film lives the credo its killers espouse, because the particular
murder of David Kentley, fey dilettante himself- as we learn, truly
is not as important as the concepts behind why his killers kill him.
Hitchcock foregrounds intent over action, in a break from the way that
reality usually plays out. That Laurents does not get this shows the
schism that sometimes occurs when an artist's work surpasses even the
artist's ability to comprehend it. Hitchcock did not suffer from this
in this film, thankfully.
Other critics have found the ending to be weak, thinking that Rupert
is a hypocrite, and his sudden turn from the ideas he espoused, of übermensch
beyond good and evil, is phony. Well, THAT'S THE VERY POINT! Rupert
is a phony and a poseur, but it's still the lesser flaw to have than
being thrill seeking psychopathic murderers. He actually does have a
conscience, and we can see this in his playful teasing of Mrs. Atwater
and her forgetfulness of the names of films and stars. Some critics
have suggested that Rupert is culpable in the murder, but this is palpable
nonsense, the equating thoughts and words with real actions- one of
the serious flaws in today's 'hate crime' laws. Intent is of no consequence
for the law, only action. A murder is a murder- regardless of how it
achieved or why it is done. What is brilliant is how Hitchcock flips
that reality on its ear in this film, and to great effect. Some have
even suggested that a flaw in the film is how Rupert sniffs out the
crime so easily, whereas the others are oblivious to the killers' signs
of guilt. But this is explained rather easily by the fact that there
is an implication that Rupert was possibly emotionally, if not sexually,
involved with one or both of his students- therefore his very detailed
and personal probings of them with an intimate nature make more sense,
and also that, as the espouser of such ideas, he would have to have
seen hints of his own ideas at play. It's better that this implied relationship
of Rupert to the boys is not overt, as the film holds up better because
of it- both dramatically and socially. We get implications of Rupert's
homosexuality when the boys talk of vacationing together, and their
times at a Connecticut family farm where, apparently, Rupert has also
'spent time.' There is also, perhaps, a subtle 1940s era implication
that the killers are killers because of their 'deviant orientation,'
but since the whole idea of 'it' is tacit, so is such a charge rather
overdone, if not spurious.
Some bad critics have even suggested alternate endings to the film,
such as David's not really having died, and rising from the coffin-
something that might work only in an experimental 1960s Bergman film;
or the two killers leaving Rupert alone in the penthouse after he fires
all his bullets, thus framing him for the murder. But, this would not
logically work since the boys' recalled reactions at the party, the
body in the coffin in their apartment, etc., would all manifestly point
to their culpability, not Rupert's. No, the ending is a perfect way
for the film to go, with Stewart sitting in a chair, despairing over
his life's ideas being evil, Phillip playing the same tune on the piano
he's played throughout the film, and Brandon calmly fixing himself a
drink. Rupert has not only gotten to the truth about the murder and
himself, but done so in a way that forces the boys to surrender themselves
to the very society they despise. But, they still do respect Rupert,
which explains why neither Brandon nor Phillip can kill him.
Oddly lost in all the speculation about homosexuality in the film is
the overt critique of Nazism and racism that the film presents, which
is almost never commented upon by critics, even as Brandon condemns
Hitler and the Nazis as moronic brutes. Brandon has such a large ego
that he considers himself superior to even the Master Race, and has
an outright contempt not just for normality, but especially for 'ordinary'
people. This aversion to the Lowest Common Denominator, by characters,
runs through a number of Hitchcock films, but never is it more well
expressed than when Brandon turns to Phillip, just after the murder,
and says, 'Good and evil, right and wrong, were invented for the ordinary
average man, the inferior man, because he needs them.' Then, of the
dead David, he says, jokingly, 'Of course, he was a Harvard graduate.
That might be grounds for justifiable homicide.'
All in all, Rope is Hitchcock at his very best, without MacGuffins
but with depth, clarity and, most of all, a vision, although, oddly
a vision that is not primarily visual, even as Hitchcock knows exactly
where and what should on screen at any given moment, for it is the screenplay
which does all the heavy lifting of this film, and the weight it lifts
is still nonpareil.
© Dan Schneider December 2006
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