Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Rope (1948)

NOTE: This review of Alfred Hitchcock's ROPE is posted as part of the For the Love of Film Blogathon. This year's blogathon is in support of the National Film Preservation Foundation's project to score and offer online streaming of the early Hitchcock film THE WHITE SHADOW (1924). Please donate at the NFPF site HERE. Then visit all the great Hitchcock-related posts linked at Ferdy on Films, the Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod. Thank you!

ROPE was one of a steadily dwindling number of Alfred Hitchcock titles I needed to see for the first time, and what better motivation to pull it off the shelf than the For the Love of Film Blogathon?

For some reason I'd read relatively little about this movie over the years, and the extent of my knowledge beforehand was the cast list and that it was filmed in very long takes. I approached the movie with pretty much a blank slate, so needless to say the first few minutes of the film were rather...surprising. My first thoughts were "Who are these weirdos, and what on earth is going on?!" Hitchcock certainly grabs the viewer's attention at the outset.

The weirdos in question are Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger), and it's not giving much away to say that in the opening seconds of the film they commit a murder. Given that the entire film is about the crime and the attempted cover-up, it's a bit difficult to discuss while not giving away too many plot points, but I'll try to be somewhat vague in that regard. The murder, incidentally, was apparently inspired by a real case.

Before the body is even cold, Brandon and Phillip, being deranged types, invite an assortment of people for a small dinner buffet; it appears that having guests over just after the killing ups the thrill factor for the two men. Their guests include Janet (Joan Chandler), who had been dating the deceased; Janet's ex-boyfriend (Douglas Dick); the dead man's father (Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt (Constance Collier); and Brandon and Phillip's former schoolmaster, Rupert (James Stewart).

Over the course of the evening, Brandon and Phillip's odd behavior sets off alarm bells for Rupert, who knows the young men well and becomes convinced something very bad has happened.

ROPE is a really interesting little movie on several levels -- not least because star James Stewart doesn't even enter the picture until roughly a half hour into the movie! He's worth the wait, however, playing the rather ornery Rupert, who is entertainingly unconventional and has the housekeeper (Edith Evanson) as a devoted admirer. Stewart's Rupert is interesting because he's the ostensible "good guy," yet there is also a dark edge to his character which perhaps foreshadows his '50s work with both Hitchcock and Anthony Mann.

ROPE is basically a filmed 80-minute play, shot in uninterrupted 10- to 15-minute segments; when it's time for a reel change, the camera zooms in on someone's back, then pulls back out again. It's fascinating watching the camera travel the apartment while the actors sustain performances and accomplish bits of business which could be tricky, such as opening champagne bottles and lighting candles. My favorite shot in this regard is when Brandon is glimpsed in the distance dropping the title "rope" into a drawer just as the kitchen door swings open. It's brilliantly timed. There's also a fascinating sequence where the camera is focused on a piece of furniture, and the actors, at the edge of the picture, are mostly just heard.

The surreal plot, theatrical line delivery, and single set all give the film a somewhat artificial atmosphere, and the showy photographic technique adds to that. At the same time, the film's oddness is part of what makes it fascinating from start to finish, along with the thrill of seeing a bunch of excellent actors in the same room going at it hammer and tongs.

Setting aside the technical details, I thought the movie strongly called to mind Hitchcock's later DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954), in that the action is set in an apartment and ends as a battle of wits between the murderer and an investigator. Though set in New York, ROPE was adapted from a British play, which also gives it a bit of a similar feel to the London-set DIAL M FOR MURDER.

John Dall didn't make many films, and I've managed to see two of his most famous roles in a matter of weeks, the other being the famed film noir GUN CRAZY (1950). He was certainly adept at playing very odd ducks. The other film I've seen him in was Deanna Durbin's SOMETHING IN THE WIND (1947), which seems a bit incongruous listed alongside ROPE and GUN CRAZY!

I caught Farley Granger's other Hitchcock film, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), last fall. In STRANGERS ON A TRAIN he's the hero, yet his characters in both that film and ROPE seem to be two sides of the same coin -- both are rather weak men who are caught up in the plans of someone more cunning and demented.

Despite being made in the late '40s, the viewer doesn't need a road map to understand that there's more to the relationship of Brandon and Phillip than simply being old friends and co-conspirators. It's a great example of filmmakers' ability to skirt around the Production Code, simultaneously making a film in which such an aspect sails over the heads of younger viewers yet is quite obvious to adults.

I was unfamiliar with Joan Chandler, who made relatively few films, and enjoyed her as Janet. (Her beautiful dress was created by Adrian.) The lightest scene in the film is a chat between Chandler, Collier, and Stewart about recent films they've seen; they sing the praises of Cary Grant and James Mason, so it's amusing to note the two men would star in Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) over a decade later!

I thought Hardwicke was particularly good as a man who is trying to maintain the social niceties despite forebodings of something bad having happened to his son, and Evanson was excellent as the motherly housekeeper.

Actor Hume Cronyn adapted a play by Patrick Hamilton into a story treatment for the film, which was then turned into a screenplay by playwright Arthur Laurents (WEST SIDE STORY). Cronyn, incidentally, also adapted Hitchcock's UNDER CAPRICORN (1949), another film I haven't seen which I just recorded from TCM this past week.

The challenging color cinematography was accomplished by Joseph Valentine and William V. Skall.

ROPE was released on VHS. It's available on DVD as a single title and as part of the Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection; the DVD can be rented from Netflix. The DVD includes an interesting featurette which runs just over 30 minutes; Hume Cronyn, Arthur Laurents, Farley Granger, and Pat Hitchcock all contributed interviews.

This title can also be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

Finally, ROPE can be seen on Turner Classic Movies; the trailer is here.


Blogger Jacqueline T Lynch said...

A fascinating movie, one that I gather was quite difficult for everyone involved because of the demanding technical aspects of the long takes. I love the staginess, actually. It lets the actors act, and not just "react".

4:41 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jacqueline! I agree, this was really interesting. I'm looking forward to going back and taking a closer look as there was so much to observe from both dramatic and technical perspectives. The staginess gave it an exciting edge as one almost feels it's an opportunity to watch these actors in a sort-of play "as it happened" -- of course, who knows how many retakes were needed, but the long takes in and of themselves were wonderful.

Best wishes,

10:44 AM  
Blogger grandoldmovies said...

I understand that this film and Lifeboat were the 2 most challenging films for Hitchcock to make his famous cameo appearances, because of the limits of the sets (Lifeboat entirely on the title character; Rope in one apartment). In Lifeboat he appears in a photograph on a newspaper someone is reading; in Rope, if I recall, his famous profile line drawing is seen flashing on a neon sign outside the apartment window.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Not a great Hitchcock, but certainly an interesting one. The Leopold and Loeb case was a much more direct inspiration for COMPULSION.

John Dall is pretty good in GUN CRAZY, he' ROPE, and he's just bloody awful in SPARTACUS. When I showed that film to my kids, they loved it in general, but whenever Dall opened his mouth and spoke, they'd groan. My younger son even asked, "how did he get that job?"

I used to see Farley Granger on the street in New York City quite often. Even forty years and more after ROPE he was lean and handsome.

Thanks for the great piece. Always nice to catch someone's first reaction to a film I've known for years.

11:29 AM  

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