Sunday, September 07, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Rope (1948)

Filmed on a single, multi-room set representing a high-rise apartment penthouse in Manhattan and utilizing long, masterfully-constructed takes (sometimes nearly ten minutes in duration), Alfred Hitchcock's Rope is one of the Master of Suspense's most compelling, unique, and cleverly-executed films.

Because this tale of a "perfect murder" and its aftermath unfolds in nerve-wracking real time, and because the film's limited environs generate a kind of claustrophobic, hothouse atmosphere, the tension builds and builds in Rope until a welcome catharsis occurs at the film's climax. A window is swung open and the ensuing - intoxicating - breath of fresh air beautifully (and simply) releases the pent-up anxiety and suspense.

Rope is based on a 1929 play (Rope's End) by Patrick Hamilton, which in turn is based on the strange real-life murder case of Leopold and Loeb. As you may recall, these two University of Chicago students murdered a teenage boy, Bobby Franks, in 1929 for the simple reason that they wanted to commit "the perfect crime."

Infamously, these killers fancied themselves authentic "Nietzschean Supermen" (or Ubermensch) and therefore were not only above the law; but actually the creators and arbiters of a new, better law. One in which God was dead, and the "superior" class had the right to murder the inferior.

Attorney Clarence Darrow defended these notorious, well-educated killers, and his well-remembered defense was - essentially - that it was foolish to blame Leopold and Loeb for putting into practice a philosophy they had been taught in school. In other words, Nietzsche's writings were to blame! And the University that taught them those philosophies was at fault too! Nice huh? To some extent, this unique gambit paid off: Leopold and Loeb escaped capital punishment and were sentenced to life in prison instead.

In Hitchcock's film, we are introduced to two highly-intelligent university graduates, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger). And they are not very different from Leopold and Loeb because they too debate Nietzsche's Superman, they too believe they are superior to other men, and they also desire to "artistically" commit the perfect murder. In fact, we first meet Brandon and Phillip in the brutal act of homicide itself.

The opening shot (after the credits) is a quick pullback from a close-up on the victim's face as he expires. As the camera withdraws, we watch Phillip strangling unlucky David (the victim) with a rope; and Brandon holding his body up (his hands over the dead man's breasts). They quickly stuff the corpse into a prominently-placed chest, which now serves as an ad-hoc coffin. Then, evidencing no shame whatsoever in their behavior, these boys continue to plan a party in the apartment for that very afternoon; one in which David's kindly father, Mr. Kentley (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), aunt (Constance Collier), and fiancee, Janet (Joan Chandler) are all slated to attend.

Also attending the party is one Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), Brandon and Phillip's former house master at prep school, and the man responsible for indoctrinating them not only in the philosophies of Nietzsche, but also -- perhaps -- the world of homosexuality. In fact, there's some distinct cattiness from Phillip over Rupert's presence at the party, since it is clear that the older man and Brandon once had an intimate relationship. Or as the script puts it, "Brandon would sit for hours at the master's feet..." I think, given the circumstances, we can understand what that really means, especially given screenwriter Arthur Laurents' assertion in the making-of featurette that Rope is really about "It" (It being homosexuality). In fact, it's so much about "It" that Cary Grant turned down the opportunity to play Rupert Cadell, for fear of being associated openly with homosexuality. But Cadell is an interesting character here because he is that one person in Brandon's life who can see through him; who recognizes what his stutter means; who sees Brandon's flaws and strengths.

Over the course of the afternoon party -- as we watch the sun set beyond the New York skyline -- Brandon wickedly manipulates Janet and another guest, her ex-boyfriend, Kenneth (Douglas Dick), and Phillip attempts to evade Rupert's increasingly-troublesome prying. Rupert comes to suspect the boys of David's murder. Eventually, he finds evidence (David's hat...) and in the film's final scene, confronts Brandon and Phillip after the other guests have left.

Rope's final scene is one of the finest, most elegant Hitchcock ever shot. Night has fallen outside the apartment, and garish neon lights (flashing red and green) flood in as Rupert makes the discovery of David's corpse. The lurid illumination, reflecting on the characters' faces, clearly represents the gruesome, sensational nature of the murder. It is also here that the boys (like Leopold and Loeb) shift the blame for their heinous act to Rupert himself; to his teachings and philosophizing. Defensively at first, and then more assertively, Rupert counters with an explicit rejection of Nietzsche's superman theory:

"By what right do you dare to say that there's a superior few to which you belong? By what right did you decide that that boy in there was inferior and could be killed? Did you think you were God, Brandon? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him? Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave?...You choked the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as you never could, and never will again!"

Then -- utterly disgusted -- Rupert swings open the penthouse window that we have seen tightly shut for eighty harrowing minutes, creating the breath of fresh air and symbolic catharsis I mentioned at the commencement of this review. He fires a pistol into the air...essentially summoning the police, and the scene turns to haunting, lasting silence as Brandon and Phillip are left to contemplate their crime...and impending punishment.

In many ways, Rope is filmed like a stage play, and to fully understand the movie, one must ask the question: why? Why would a master filmmaker, a formalist such as Hitchcock, commit himself so fully to such a limiting, rigid mode? After all, film is an infinitely more flexible, elastic format than the theatrical play. In movies, for instance, you can travel anywhere, choose any perspective, telescope time and accomplish other important tasks. You can slow moments down or speed them up. You can feature optical effects. In the theater, you are forever chained to the stage, to a limited number of settings, and to the view from the seats, before the proscenium arch.

Recognizing the talent of the filmmaker here, I don't believe that Hitchcock made Rope in this peculiar fashion simply to honor the original format of Hamilton's play, but rather because he detected how all the elements of the stage (limited space, limited views, so forth), enhanced the suspenseful atmosphere of this particular morality tale.

For one thing, Hitchcock's approach offers the advantage of depicting the story (mostly without cuts) in something approximating "real time." There are no commercials. No scene breaks to another location (like 24, for example). Instead, we follow Brandon and Phillip from the instant of the murder to the discovery of the selfsame body some eighty-one minutes later. There isn't a moment, nay a second, to relax....David's corpse could be unearthed at any moment. As audience members, we share that tension with these two men.

By remaining in one place; by limiting the story to a relatively short span (an afternoon/evening party), Hitchcock squeezes as much suspense as possible out of the scenario, making it a real pressure cooker. Because of this, the catharsis at the end (the open window) means something. Had the audience (and Hitchcock's camera) followed Rupert home, or taken Brandon outside for a cigarette break, the suspense would have bled out of Rope rather quickly. Why go somewhere else when you can create the exact effect you want by staying put? It's economical and effective filmmaking.

Okay, but then why so few cuts during the length of the film? A good director could still cut into lengthy scenes with close-ups, medium shots, and high angles, but still not leave the premises, right? Well, yes, of course. But consider what a filmmaker gains by not (frequently...) breaking up the natural rhythms of the actors. Without distracting cuts, their interaction plays as more real. Because it is sustained. Rope plays almost like a very interesting visit to a most unique zoo: See Brandon and Phillip in their natural environs! And, they have a secret...

Something important is also gained by not chopping up the coherent visual space of the apartment. Frequent cutting would dissect the terrain into little pieces, and again, abruptly negate some essential quality of suspense. Consider the important placement of the chest/coffin containing David's corpse. It's in the middle of the apartment -- you can't miss it. Going back to my zoo analogy, it's the elephant in the room. All the time. By breaking into shots like close-ups, or by cutting away to the kitchen, for example, you negate the power and pull of this prop.

There's one marvelous and tense sequence in the film in which Brandon's dutiful maid clears dishes off the coffin, and almost opens it -- right before our eyes. Again, if you cut away -- if you aren't keeping track of the terrain -- any character could have been fiddling with the chest all along, and we - the audience - wouldn't necessarily see it or know it. This way, Hitchcock's way, every character seems to orbit that coffin, but the sanctity of it is never violated. Not until the end of the picture.

The title Rope expresses much important information too. A rope is not just the murder weapon of choice. In some sense it describes the symbiotic relationship between Brandon and Phillip. A rope, by definition, is a "length of fibers twisted together to improve strength," yet not flexible enough to offer compressive strength. In other words, you can pull a rope...but you can't push it. Similarly, Brandon and Phillip are symbolically intertwined. Together, they are strong enough to commit the crime -- goading each other on -- but, like a rope, they are not strong enough to evade capture. When pushed...they collapse. Especially Phillip. Also, the manner of the film's shooting is much like a rope, with each cut a "knot" along the way of a larger, linear length, right?

Finally, the movie is a literalization of the idea of giving people enough rope to hang themselves. Brandon and Phillip boast every opportunity. They are well. educated. They are rich. They live in a free society...but they ultimately use their freedom to commit a murder; in essence...hanging themselves. Which, will likely be their outcome, though it will be society doing the actual hanging, I guess.

The writing in Rope is exceptionally clever and frequently droll. The screenplay is layered with double meaning, without feeling labored. By that, I mean that much of the dialogue seems to boast some ghoulish alternate readings without really pushing it. "I hope you knock 'em dead," one character tells Phillip about an upcoming recital. "I bet you're going to play a foul trick on all of us," suspects Janet of Brandon. "I could really strangle you, Brandon," says another character. On and on it goes.

My favorites: "I'm sure the boy [meaning murder victim, David] will turn up some place." And the film's classic line: "these hands will bring you great fortune." That last one is spoken by the ditsy Aunt to pianist Phillip, but it could plainly refer to his act of strangulation, not his musical acumen. For it was murder, not conventional artistic talent, that made Leopold and Loeb household names. We assume the same will be true for Phillip and Brandon.

The just-under-the-surface homosexuality angle is also played pretty well here, without being overtly ridiculous. Notice that the socially unacceptable act of murder (committed by two...) is followed immediately by Brandon's lighting up of of a cigarette. It's like afterglow, no?

And then listen as Brandon describes the act of killing. He utilizes loaded terms such as "satisfying" and notes that when "the body went limp, I knew it was over." Again, I submit (especially after watching the interview with Laurents...) that these are coded phrases and words, ones that equate the inappropriate act of murder with...something else some people might term inappropriate.

And don't even get me started on the champagne bottle, and how it functions as a blatant phallic symbol: handed back and forth fervently between Phillip and Brandon after the murder; twisted and man-handled and then...popped. Is the purpose of all this subtext merely to equate one deviant act (murder) with another one (homosexual sex?) Perhaps so, but before passing judgment, one should remember that Stewart's character is also coded as homosexual. By the film's conclusion, Rupert serves as the film's protagonist and moral compass, so Rope is hardly one-sided in its depiction of ..."It."

In terms of theme, Rope is more interesting (to me, anyway), in the manner that it systematically takes apart Nietzschean philosophy. The entire film serves as a sort of anti-elitism diatribe. Here are these two entitled, upper class American boys who spend too much time reading and discussing philosophy. They are highly educated, yet so detached from the day-to-day struggles of living that they come to believe that murder is an art form...and that they are, indeed, the artists. What this philosophy really represents, suggests the film, is "contempt" for one's fellow man.

When Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) created his theory of the "superman," he was responding to what he saw as the central problem of Christianity. Namely, that it makes people turn away from the problems and possibilities of this world for that of another, a presumably Utopian one (Heaven). Why focus on pressing problems here, in the now, if we can all count on gold-lined streets in the after-life for all eternity? In crafting the Superman, Nietzsche removed God and Heaven from the equation, and replaced those concepts with a morally superior but human creator, one who would see the average man as a sort of joke, an embarrassment...a lower form. There are aspects of this philosophy I find appealing, I admit. Nothing bothers me more than people who think it is better to do nothing in this life, and wait around for their "reward" in the next. But the problem with Nietzsche's idea is exactly what we see depicted in Rope: human arrogance and corruptibility.

Let me digress a second. My biggest disappointment with this summer's hit, The Dark Knight was that it danced around the very question Rope focuses so tightly on. In that film, as you'll call, Batman resorted to illegally wire-tapping everybody in Gotham City to catch one man, the Joker (a validation, make no mistake, of President Bush's similar national decision to wire-tap American citizens). But what man is infallible and incorruptible? What man would use that knowledge and power...and not be tempted to abuse it?

Remember, absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the Batman movie, Nolan made it easy for Bruce Wayne to make this choice: the character had Morgan Freeman at his side, a pillar of movie incorruptibility (at least pre-divorce.) In real life, who is the Morgan Freeman we're supposed to trust (blindly) to use that scarily powerful technology just once (and not be corrupted by it.) Rice? Cheney? Hadley? Addington? Libby? So, I truly felt that The Dark Knight overlooked the moral implications of Batman's decision to use illegal and invasive technology. We were left with the same superficial, Manichean-style thinking we detect in President Bush all the time: "Trust me, I'm the good guy. I'm fighting evil. Take my word." Personally, I think it's far more likely that people are like Rope's Brandon and Phillip. Believing they are above the law and the real arbiters (or "Deciders?") of what's right and moral.

I use the example of The Dark Knight because I think (by point of contrast) it helps illuminates the depth of the moral statement in Rope. As soon as you believe you are above God's law -- and man's law too -- a person who can rightly decide which "inferiors" should die, you've crossed a line. Even murder can be justified. And, as we see at the end of Rope, there's no going back.

I was going to end this review of Rope with some variation of the line that as a director and storyteller, Alfred Hitchcock really knows "the ropes," or "really ropes us in," but I don't want a silly, final turn of phrase to turn you away from what is a truly superior and unique thriller, one boasting many layers and a deep moral core. I know this isn't one of Hitchcock's more popular films (it was virtually ignored upon release because of the "It" factor), but it's surely one of the best in his canon.

2 comments:

  1. Hey John,

    Really loving the Hitchcock reviews. This is really one of Hitch's underrated numbers and I fully agree with everything you're laying down here.

    I may have to go back and rewatch to look for the subtle (or not-so-subtle) gay subtext. I caught a bit the first time I saw it (about a year ago) but I think I missed large swaths of it.

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  2. Hey Nate!

    Thanks for the comment. I'm having a lot of fun with the Hitchcock retrospective, and I'm glad you are as well.

    I have Dial M for Murder at home right now, so that will be next...

    JKM

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