Tuesday, January 5

Good 40s Films: Rope

1948 Drama
From Warner Bros
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

James Stewart
John Dall
Farley Granger
Cedric Hardwicke
Edith Evanson
Joan Chandler
Constance Collier
Douglas Dick
Dick Hogan

I hope you're not one who got a case of the vapors when you read that I have included Rope as a good film of the 1940s.  I know there are many of you out there.  Years ago I was at party in Hollywood and the group I was part of was talking about movies (duh).  Soon a dozen or so of us were embroiled in a discussion of Rope.  Most of that crowd ripped it apart.  I said then and I say now... wait just a bloody moment.  I agree that it's not perfect (and how many are?) but it absolutely does not deserve to be slashed and stabbed and buried alive.  I would go so far to say it deserves inclusion in something called good 40s films

The film is based on the infamous 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder case and the two rich, intelligent, gay college chums who murder a 14-year old boy for the thrill of it.  It is possible that many people disliked the film because they didn't feel a need to be reminded of the sordid case that 20+ years earlier had occupied so much time in the public consciousness. 

I think others may have felt as an older couple in the film did, which was to be repulsed by the gall, righteousness and cold-bloodedness of the murderers at their explanation for murder in general.  The partners in crime and a lot more regarded themselves as intellectually and culturally superior to most people and concluded that anyone not like them was inferior and therefore a candidate for murder.  One says... good and evil, right and wrong are for the ordinary/inferior man because he needs them.  Most chilling is that they see murder as an art form.  It's not about the victim at all.  There is no grudge or anything personal.  It's more about the planning than the execution and certainly more about pulling it off without getting caught and going on with one's life as if it's just another day.  To tell you the truth, I am truly surprised this speech got by the censors in 1948. 

The film opens with a scream and then the murder, a strangulation.  Brandon (Dall) is the mastermind and he holds the victim still while Philip (Granger), clearly the weaker of the two, tightens the rope around their ex-college chum David's neck.  They put his body in a large chest that is in the living room of their spacious New York apartment. 

As part of the art form of the murder, Brandon pushes the envelope, thus continuing his adrenaline flow, by having a small party immediately after the murder in that very living room.  Furthermore, the invitees are people in David's orbit... his father (Hardwicke), aunt (Collier) and fiancĂ©e (Chandler) and her former boyfriend (Dick).  They all expect David to be there and the constant talk of where is he and do you think something has happened to him further excites Brandon while Philip nervously hides in the bottle.

Also in attendance is the maid, Mrs. Wilson (Evanson).  She returns from shopping (which is when David is dispatched) to find the books that were in the chest are now on the dining room table and the table setting from there is now on the chest which has a covering on it and will now be used to serve the food.  What is up with that, she says to Rupert, and why are the boys acting so strangely? 

Oh yes, there's Rupert (Stewart).  He is a publisher and by nature a very savvy specimen with a probing mind.  He was once a prep school housemaster and espoused Nietzsche philosophies to Brandon, Philip and even David way back when in carefree college days.  But wait... why invite an old friend like Rupert to a party like this... when the hors d'ouvres are being served on top of the grave? Well, yes, that's exactly what Philip says to Brandon.  But Brandon finds it all part of the pact he's made with himself to be audacious.  It is important that they get away with the crime but there's no reason not to challenge it here and there.  Brandon says that at first he thought of inviting Rupert to participate in the killing but realized that in the end Rupert wouldn't have the nerve.  Then Brandon tells Philip that he's decided to invite Rupert to the party because as the guests' paranoia over David's absence increases, Rupert would be the first one to suspect Philip and Brandon.  Philip tells Brandon you frighten me

Like the later plot devices on TVs Columbo, here is another example of knowing who the killers are but the fun is discovering how they get caught.  Of course this is where Rope takes the audience on a fun ride.  It's a kick to watch such a film unfold where everything looks normal and ordinary until you are later hit over the head with how many things you missed.  There are too many of those to mention here but suffice it to say that they come bubbling up from the brains and mouths of several of the party guests.  But Rupert is the lynchpin and it's a hoot to watch him figure it all out, ending, of course, with opening that chest.  Stewart, who could do some of the best silent acting of his contemporaries, served up some facial expressions when he was on to something that gave me chills.

Rope has three distinctions worth noting.  The first is the set... as in one.  It all takes place in the living room except for a little in the dining room and kitchen.  But it was still just one big set with movable parts on tracks.  Hitchcock was fond of the one set motif... it was comforting for the roly-poly director to just plop in his director's chair and not move.  He mainly employed it in Dial M for Murder and Rear Window but for Rope, it was but one set.

Hitchcock (r) and his cast on the film's only set

The second distinction is how the movie was filmed.  Initially, Hitchcock was as thrilled about this aspect of Rope as any other single factor.  And it had to do with the camerawork.  I don't know whether it had been used before but it was new for him.  The 80-minute film was shot in eight continuous 10-minute segments.  Essentially that means there were only seven breaks in filming.  Each segment went straight through, there were no breaks.  If something messed up at the end of the scene, the entire 10-minute scene would have to be redone.  This is the chief but not the only reason the actors hated how it was filmed.  If two were speaking in the living room, for example, and one of them had to answer the front door which was in the entry hall, instead of cutting to the hall, we just followed the camera.  There were not the usual long and medium shots or closeups because they couldn't be accommodated in filming of this sort.

From Hitchcock:  Even the floor was marked with numbered circles for the 25-30 camera moves in each 10-minute reel.  Whole walls of the apartment had to slide away to allow the cameras to follow the actors through narrow doors, then swing back noiselessly to show a solid room.  Tables and chairs had to be pulled away by prop men, then set in place again by the time the camera returned to its original position since the camera was on a special crane, not on tracks, and designed to roll through everything like a juggernaut

In one of the best scenes we see just a sliver of the right of  Rupert's torso as he is speaking to the guests and unravelling a great chunk of his suspicions.  On the rest of the screen we are fascinated with the maid quietly clear the plates and bowls off the top of the chest and taking them to the dining room.  She makes a couple of trips and then carries in the books that she will be putting back in the chest.  This type of filming led to great tension-building.

Rope was also filmed in real time meaning that the 80-minute length coincided with the 80 minutes the killing and party took.  As a result, it was also filmed sequentially, a rarity in filmmaking. It's a helluva lot easier on the actors.

That third distinction deals with the gay subtext... that is if you believe there was a gay subtext.  Some apparently don't see it.  Some of the actors wondered if Stewart saw it.  Hitchcock saw it, of course, and was likely amused since he delighted in stories that were sexual in nature and might provide some shock for others.  There would be another hint of gay two years later when he made Strangers on a Train (again with Granger and with Robert Walker definitely playing a gay or bi character). 

Not only was gay not mentioned on the set (I mean, it was 1948) but it wasn't mentioned in the story either.  And yet one could not help but notice these are two 20-somethings living in a fashionable Manhattan apartment, all finely turned out for their afternoon gala.  They are immediately planning to spend the weekend together at the country estate of one of their mothers.  They are also trying to work in a longer holiday together.  When Philip says something that annoys Brandon, the latter slaps him.  Gay men would never consider these two were anything other than gay.

It was said Hitchcock wanted his old pal, the bisexual Cary Grant, to play Rupert but Grant turned him down because of how the men were portrayed and gay Montgomery Clift, wanted for one of the other roles, turned him down for the same reason.   

Farley Granger (l) and John Dall

Fairly interesting, too, is the fact that lead actors, Granger and Dall, were, in fact, gay, lending a touch of know-how to the roles.  The screenplay was by Arthur Laurents who shortly after filming completed became the boyfriend of Farley Granger

They were really the stars of the film.  John Dall is not well-known  to most of today's filmgoers, and I am not so sure that he was ever popular in his brief time on the Hollywood turf.  He only made eight films.  I thought he was good actor but his effete manner certainly limited him a bit in roles.  Rope was definitely the best part he ever had.

Farley Granger's role wasn't as showy or as well-written.  I thought it was brave of him, closeted as he was and touted as a loverboy for the ladies by his boss, Sam Goldwyn, to accept such a role.  Dall was more obvious.  Granger, never real busy with movie roles either, didn't come out until late in life.

In the first of four movies he made for Hitchcock, Stewart was quite good in the role of Rupert and yet I couldn't help but think over the years that James Mason could have done it better.  Funny, too, that they mention Mason in the film.  Rupert needed to be sly and shadowy and audiences rather needed to think he was somehow involved, culpable in some manner.  Stewart certainly acted the part but one feels that Mason may actually be that way.  The way Rupert uncovers the final truths reminded me of how years later Mason would do the same needling of Richard Benjamin in The Last of Sheila.

The film was banned in several cities because of the gay issue and was taken out of circulation for decades over some legal issues.  When one is aware of how it is filmed, I think it makes a well-done crime drama even better.

Have a quick peek at the trailer.  Oddly, the park scene the previews opens with wasn't in the film I've seen.

Next posting:
Movie review

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for defending this wonderful and innovative Hitchcock film...different than anything else he ever directed but full of Hitchcock's lifelong obsession with the motives and means of murder...
    This is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. Amazing cast, brilliant script, and keeps you on the edge of your seat every time!