DVD Review Of Rope
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/31/06
Alfred 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 existential queries.
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.
Reputedly, 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.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
Return to Bylines Cinemension