Wednesday, September 7, 2016
(August 1948, U.S.)
Alfred Hitchcock's ROPE is one of those shining cinematic examples of how a filmmaker can pack so much into so little; the psychological drama that plays out in this story based on the 1929 British play which was, in turn, based on the real-life 1924 murder of Bobby Franks by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, is done in just eighty minutes of film time. The film is also brilliantly edited to appear as a single continuous camera shot through the use of extended takes. It's also impossible to ignore that the film is implying very strong homosexual overtones at a time when such a topic in film was considered forbidden, but we'll get into that a little later.
Hitchcock doesn't waste a single moment of time before we're witnessing the fatal strangulation of young college man David Kentley behind closed doors in the apartment of Brandon Shaw (played by John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (played by Farley Granger) in the middle of the day in front of a large window with a panoramic view of Manhattan. Believing themselves to be a couple of brilliant intellectuals, they have murdered their fellow student as an intellectual exercise to prove their superiority above the ordinary citizen of the world by committing the "perfect murder". After deciding to hide the body in a large antique wooden chest in the living room, Brandon and Phillip brazenly host a dinner party for various guests who are unaware of what has happened, include the victim's father Mr. Kentley (played by Cedric Hardwicke), his fiancée, Janet Walker (played by Joan Chandler) and even her former lover Kenneth, who was also the victim's close friend. The most important party guest, however, is their former college headmaster Rupert Cadell (played by James Stewart). While at school, in an apparently approving manner, Rupert had previously discussed the intellectual concepts with them, of Nietzsche's Übermensch, and De Quincey's art of murder, as a means of showing one's superiority over others. As a result of this influential discussion, Brandon feels strongly that Rupert would approve of what he and Phillip have done as a "work of art" rather than a crime. As we listen to Rupert give his own philosophical views on mankind and one's ability, if not potential, to commit murder, we're almost tempted to agree that his approval is possible in a world that's meant to be rational.
The tension that builds throughout the dinner party is the ever-growing concern among the guests that David has still not shown up. It's subtle enough, but strong enough in our minds due to the psychological imprint on us as witnesses to what really happened to him and where his body is hidden. We can't help but cringe at the thought of the dinner food being served off of the very wooden chest where he now lies. Like the guests, we feel somewhat cramped in a small living room as day turns into night (again, keeping our eyes on the panoramic Manhattan skyline outside the window) and we seemingly count down the cat-and-mouse moments of drama and tension before Brandon and Phillip will inevitably crack under the mounting pressure and finally be discovered for who they are and what they've done by Rupert, who despite his own feelings of intellectual superiority, is still a simple man who condemns the act of murder and is more than willing to see the guilty get punished, friends or not. I would also call your attention to really pay attention to Stewart's face when, in a climactic act of impatience and frustration, lifts the lid of the wooden chest and finds the body of David inside. He's naturally horrified but more importantly, he's so deeply ashamed because he realizes that his own superior rhetoric was used against him by his former students to rationalize the horror of murder.
Okay, so getting back to the film's homosexual overtone that I previously mentioned; bearing in mind that the year was 1948 and the act of homosexuality simply did not exist in celluloid (yet), one cannot help but wonder just how Hitchcock was going to pull this one off. One can clearly ascertain immediately into the film that Brandon and Phillip are lovers, but the film's dialogue makes modest suggestions to try and hide this possibility, including a quick mention that Brandon and Janet had previously been a couple. I find it almost impossible that Hitchcock would insult his audience by attempting to conceal the obvious with such a cheap and casual line of dialogue. What did the audience of 1948 truly believe when they watched these two men who not only shared an apartment together, but were also due to take a trip up to the Connecticut countryside? Were they that naive or did they understand that they were being conned by the filmmaker because standards of motion picture decency would not allow the truth to be told? I don't pretend to know the answer. I'm no psychologist, nor do I pretend to be (I gave up on that subject after Psych 101 in my freshman year of college!), but the implications are there on screen in front of our face. Perhaps, if nothing else, ROPE is an effective example of the "celluloid closet" as it was in our cinematic history...and of course, it's great fucking Hitchcock!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Rupert Cadell: "Now, mind you, I don't hold with the extremists who feel that there should be open season for murder all year round. No, personally, I would prefer to have..."Cut a Throat Week"...or, uh, "Strangulation Day"