Friday, June 26, 2009

Film Friday: Rope (1948)

Alfred Hitchcock's most twisted film, Rope, is the story of two men who kill their friend and then host a dinner party over the chest in which they’ve hidden the body. And that’s just the beginning. If you haven’t heard of Rope, there is a reason. Calling Rope “an experiment that didn’t work out,” Hitchcock bought back the rights, along with four other “lost Hitchcocks” (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry and Vertigo), and he kept them from being shown in public for 30 years, until his daughter released them after his death.

** spoiler alert **

Rope: Hitchcock's Big Experiment
Based on the 1929 play Rope’s End by Patrick Hamilton, Rope was Hitchcock’s most experimental film. Indeed, not only was this Hitchcock’s first color film (ditto for Jimmy Stewart), but the film was shot in ten segments, ranging in length from four minutes to ten minutes, with each segment being filmed as a continuous take. Thus, as the camera and sound gear moved around the set (the film takes place in an apartment), the film crew rolled away walls and returned them, the prop men moved furniture out of the way and returned it, and the actors followed an elaborate choreography to keep out of the way of the film crew. Amazingly, you never notice.
The Story
Inspired by the real-life murder of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924 by two University of Chicago students, Rope opens with Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) murdering their friend David by strangling him with a rope in their apartment. The scene opens as David gasps his last breath and goes limp. Brandon and Phillip then stuff David’s body into a large chest in the middle of the apartment. They killed him because they wanted to prove they could commit the perfect crime. They chose David as the victim because they viewed him as "inferior."

To satisfy his twisted ego, Brandon complicates matters by inviting David’s father, aunt, and fiancee to a small dinner party that will be held in the apartment. Unbeknownst to Phillip, Brandon upped the ante by also inviting David’s former best friend, who used to date David’s fiancee, and their former teacher, Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart). At the last moment, Brandon further ups the stakes, by moving the dinner party from the dining room to the living room and choosing to serve food off the chest in which David's body is hidden. As the guests begin arriving, Brandon tells us, “Now the fun begins.” And so it does.

As the story unfolds, Hitchcock gives the audience a steady dose of black humor, allowing us in on the joke as the characters deliver dozens of lines like “these hands will bring you great fame,” and as Brandon makes repeated subtle references to David’s being dead and steers the conversation to the topic of murder. But with each passing joke, Brandon pushes further, becoming more and more careless and maniacal, while Phillip begins to crack.

Yet, Hitchcock tricks us into cheering for Brandon and Phillip. He does this by using their bickering to force the audience to empathize with them. Like Quentin Tarantino does in Pulp Fiction, Hitchcock uses their interaction to pull the audience into their relationship. You become invested in them. Combined with the sense of belonging one gets with being “in” on a joke, as we are with Brandon's repeated jokes at the expense of his guests, the audience slowly begins to pull for these two villains to get away with their crime. Indeed you find yourself increasingly tense as it gets more and more likely they will be caught. We even find ourselves becoming annoyed with David’s father, who is preoccupied with his missing son, and who repeatedly ruins the party for us with his sour concerns. We no longer see him as a caring father. Instead, we see him as the guest we wish hadn't been invited.

We also begin to distrust and then even dislike Jimmy Stewart, who becomes suspicious and begins to investigate. The more he pushes, the more unhappy we become. In a brilliant bit of manipulation, we watch Stewart use a metronome to force Phillip to play the piano faster and faster, as Stewart crossexamines him about the holes in their story until Phillip nearly breaks. But rather than celebrate Stewart's victory, this only increases our feelings of unease and disgust with the weakening Phillip, who is falling apart before our eyes. We begin to wonder, will we make it to the end of the party before he breaks.

And then, to prove to us that we now emotionally support the murderers, Hitchcock presents us with a tremendous scene where we watch the maid clearing the plates and candles from the chest. As the other actors continue their dialog off camera, we watch her slowly, but surely clear the chest and finally reach to open it. By that point, we are on the edge of our seats, wanting to scream to Brandon: "look what she's doing! Stop her!" We are rooting for the bad guys.
The Message
But just as we succumb to Hitchcock’s manipulation, Jimmy Stewart snaps us back to morality. In a moment reminiscent of the speech given by Jose Ferrer in The Caine Mutiny (1954), which changes the entire emotional complexion of that film, Stewart makes us realize that Brandon and Phillip are indeed monsters and we should be ashamed of having hoped for them to pull off their crime. For Stewart realizes that he is the reason Brandon and Phillip killed David, and it makes him sick. He recalls how he discussed with them the intellectual concepts of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch while they were students and how he advocated to them (as he does earlier in the film during a conversation which upsets David’s father) the idea that superior men not only have a right, but a duty, to murder inferior men. And even though he never meant his comments to be taken literally, he now realizes how dangerous his words were when spoken to impressionable young men. . . men like Brandon, who may honestly believe Stewart would approve of their “work of art.” Therein lies the message: words have power and we must take care in choosing what we say or we will rue the consequences.

And when Stewart understands how he shares the guilt for the murder he believes has taken place, Stewart shows the audience a level of horror in his face and in his shaking hands that Stewart has never shown in any other film. And when we see this, we too feel sick for how we laughed and condoned and enjoyed being on the inside earlier.

If there is a flaw in the film, it is that while Hitchcock can force us to root for the two murderers by engaging us in their relationship, he never does manage to make us believe their views about superior humans. Thus, while we do eventually feel shame for hoping they get away with the murder, it is not as deep as if we had come to accept their philosophy before Stewart exposes it. It is the difference between being ashamed of having laughed at an inappropriate joke, versus being ashamed at having told it. Indeed, I believe this is why The Caine Mutiny speech ultimately has greater effect -- because we never consider that we could be wrong until Ferrer speaks, whereas here we always knew Brandon and Phillip were wrong, we just didn’t mind.

As an aside, there is another message hidden in here, which is Hitchcock's statement against anti-Semitism. It is implied that David's family is Jewish and that this may have been part of their motivation in choosing him, something that is reinforced with the discussion of Nietzsche's theories, which became a core of Nazism.
Implied Homosexuality
Finally, it's worth noting Rope was notorious because of the implied homosexuality of the main characters. Indeed, the film was banned in several cities because of it. Yet, while it is clear the characters are meant to be gay (as indeed were the real University of Chicago students upon whom they are based and as were actors John Dall and Farley Granger and the writer), the implication is not obvious to the casual observer, who could easily see their relationship as being explained merely in Brandon bullying the weaker Phillip.

In any event, I highly recommend this film.

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13 comments:

ScottDS said...

I watched this film for the first time in its entirety last December when I picked up the Universal Hitchcock boxset. I like the movie a lot and I can certainly admire it on a technical level. You don't even notice the "sun" setting throughout the course of the film.

Honestly, if this film came out today, I can imagine two things:

1. some of the Big Hollywood folks saying things like "Leave it to Hollyweird to expect us to sympathize with a couple of gay murderers!"... :-)

and 2. just like they did with Basic Instinct, I could imagine gay rights groups protesting too, complaining about how the gay characters are always the bad guys or something like that.

On the other hand, if the film came out today, I doubt it would be as nuanced. As a Jew (albeit secular), I can't say I ever noticed the anti-Semitism subtext. That just adds a whole new layer of meaning to the film, doesn't it?

CrispyRice said...

I've seen this movie, too, and found it gripping, but I can honestly say that I never found myself rooting for the bad guys. I spent most of my time just waiting waiting waiting for the trunk to be opened. It was more of a psychological thriller for me - will they get found out or will they get away with it?

And as much as we, a modern audience with modern sensibilities, may not buy into the superior human theory, I have to wonder if the audience of when the play was written in the late '20s was the same. There may have been a much bigger point being made in its historical context. The idea of superior and inferior people abounded back then, and I wonder how audiences of that time would have responded. They may have had much deeper sympathies with our murderers and wonder why the Stewart character changed his stripes.

Scott, I have to think if the movie came out today, the undertone of it would be different. It would likely be an insane, over-the-top madman who was just killing to see if he could get away with it. And he might find a way to outsmart the stodgy old professor in the end. Besides, I'm sure the young hottie playing the character would have all the teens rooting for him just because he's SOOOOOO CUTE. ;)

ScottDS said...

CrispyRice - I totally agree. :-)

It's funny Andrew decided to write about a Hitchcock film. I just watched Dial M for Murder for the first time and I thought it was great. It's based on a play and it's constructed like a Swiss watch. And you don't even notice 98% of the film takes place, like Rope, in one place.

Writer X said...

You can never go wrong with Hitchcock and Stewart. Andrew, you gave me a reason to watch ROPE again. I'd forgotten about this film. Because of THE BIRDS, I've never looked at birds the same again. Or Bodego Bay. Hitchcock was a true artist. I'm not sure anyone's come anywhere close to his talent.

freedom21 said...

Writer X, I am with you. The Birds haunts me to this day. In fact, it's the only Hitchcock movie I've seen because it's frightened me so much (keep in mind when I saw the movie I when I was 8 and lived a few blocks from Trafalgar square and feeding the birds was still legal and birds were everywhere).

I had always heard of this story but knew of the movie. I might just have to brave the Hitchcock front again...

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It was actually the technical aspect that got the film such heavily criticized when it came out. The reviewers were so focused on the "gimmicky" aspect, that they paid little attention to the story. Of course, the fact that the two main characters acted like many elitists of the period didn't help either.

And you're right, if this film came out today, it would have been instantly politicized because of the gay aspect -- not to mention that gays can't be bad guys anymore, right?

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, I see what you are saying, but I would argue that you are rooting for the bad guys at least in the sense that you find it exciting that they may get away with it. If these guys had been less "likeable", you would have just wanted them to be caught and you would have spent to the movie cheering for Stewart to solve it.

Although the original play was published in 1929 in England (and the author was a Marxist), Hitchcock changed the play significantly and he made it in 1948, after the world knew what Hitler had done in the name of “the superman”. Thus, while there was still significant aggressive racism in Europe and America at the time, some of it violent, few people would openly advocate the idea of the "superior" man at that point, and even fewer would extend that idea to saying that superior persons had the right to kill inferior ones. Thus, I think that even the most ardent racists in the audience would have had a hard time falling in line with Brandon’s thinking -- though you are right, prior to the 1930s, many people might have believed this, particularly given the popularity of eugenics at that time.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, The Birds was a great film with amazing effects!


Freedom21, contrary to what The Birds might tell you, few of Hitchcock's films were horror films. Most were suspense films or thrillers. The Trouble With Harry was even a sort-of comedy.

North By Northwest, Torn Curtain, and The Man Who Knew Too Much are all spy stories. Vertigo is a creepy movie about obssession.

If you like old films, I recommend all of his.

Writer X said...

Andrew, Hitchcock was such a genius with being able to mesh believable character development with horror/mystery. Having someone like Jimmy Stewart in your film didn't hurt either.

As an aside, there is another film that still impacts me to this day. It's called THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (1963). Another genius of a movie. Not like horror films today that simply throw up blood and dead bodies for pure shock value with absolutely no character development or even believable plot lines or dialogue.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: Odd coincidence, but last night on AMC, they showed Compulsion, the Orson Welles version of the book which was also about the Leopold-Loeb murders. Oddly enough, though the movie was made eleven years after Rope, there was even less hint of the sexual relationship of the two main characters. The emphasis was on the early development of psychology as a defense, and the influence of Nietzche (which was a theme in both movies as well as in the lives of the two real murderers).

WriterX: The Haunting is now a cult classic. Oddly, it didn't do that well originally because of a strange coincidence. As you know, the movie came from the book The Haunting of Hill House, a best-seller. But just before the movie was finally ready to go, Vincent Price starred in a B-movie called [The]House on Haunted Hill, and the book title had to be reduced to just The Haunting to avoid confusion when the movie came out.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I do like Haunted Hill, though I don't care for the remake all that much.

I love horror movies (heck, I love all movies), and I agree that horror movies seem to be getting worse and worse these days. They've dropped the idea of horror and have instead substituted shock.

I am planning to expand on my film discussions to talk more generally about things like what makes good horror, the problem with sequels, and the use of formulas. I just have to find a way to fit it in -- right now Obama is keeping us so busy that we are already having problems finding enough room to keep up with everything he's doing.

Writer X said...

Andrew, President Obama is enough of a horror as it is so you''ll be killing two birds with one stone.

By the way, the remake of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE was so bad and cheesey that words can't describe, really, how awful it was.

LawHawk, I did not know that trivia with regard to the movie. Thanks!

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: One more thought on Hitchcock and horror films. WriterX mentioned The Haunting which was a fine movie, with a title reduced from the book title because of a similar movie title made earlier starring Vincent Price. Hitchcock actually admitted that he was so impressed by the success of the B-movie The House on Haunted Hill, that he decided to do a B-budget horror movie with an A-budget plot and characters and ended up with the classic Psycho.

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