Sunday, October 6, 2013

Movie Review: Rope

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 1948.

It is the fate of too many masterworks that they get shoehorned into the taxonomy of their creator's oeuvre. Rope is thus Hitchcock's experimental film, his first color film, the film with the long takes, the one that takes place in real time, and the film with the homosexual subtext. If we resist the urge to dig and categorize, though, we'll find a fine film, foremost not because of its color or long takes or such, but because of one ingenious detail: the film is a slow reveal not of murder but of the murderer.

The opening homicide is simply a preface to a chamber play about one man's haute depravity, for after collegiate roomies Brandon and Phillip murder their chum David, Phillip collapses into a panic which through tortuous inquisition nearly outs as redemption. Brandon, however, rises to his egoism. Slowly we learn that Brandon murdered not for any sin or indulgence save the thrill. Slowly too, we grow more and more uneasy as his pleasure at the crime seems more and more sincere. The party for which they prepare turns out to be a celebration for the two superior intellects to toast their murderous, ingenious superiority. It's a toast worthy of Poe, though, for the men not only drink over the corpse of their throttled friend, but have invited the friends and father of the deceased to share in their splendor.

As the party unfold and Phillip begins to cringe under the pressure, Brandon is full flamboyance and charm. He delights in dropping hints at the crime and in his most perverse pleasure delights to wrap a gift for David's father with the very cord of rope used to cut off his life.

The leisurely pacing and long takes are not just a gimmick but a source of tension because it denies any relief for Phillip's mounting anxiety and gives no limit or break from Brandon's sick exuberance. While a few of the disguised splices are more distracting than a bald edit would have been, overall the effect is that of amplification and not cleverness. Likewise, the backdrop of the dimming NY skyline is not simply a technical masterpiece but a source of energy in its slow fade to black. As the daylight fades, the energy slowly concentrates onto the apartment until in the film's climax neon lights splash the fraying criminals with green and red.

James Stewart's turn as their former professor is a little gem of restraint and subtlety.  It's one part professorial wit, one part Columbo, and one part high society snob. Their old psychology professor , though, proves the undoing of the caper. Picking up on Brandon's hints and Philip's nerves in the film's best scene, Professor Cadell makes for the chest in which he expects to find the body. The scene is a brilliant misdirection of both the criminals and the audience. Offscreen but in earshot, Cadell peppers the two men with faux concern about David as he allows the maid to clear off the chest. In and out she moves from the foreground to the back clearing the material as Cadell blathers on. As soon as she's about to open it, of course, both we and Cadell are denied the reveal.

The professor isn't a perfect third spoke to the drama, though, for while we believe Brandon's joy and Phillip's nerves, Cadell falls short in both character and tone. You see, the party's witty banter turns to elitist pontification and Cadell espouses his little philosophy about how one ought to be able to kill inferiors. It's clear that Brandon agrees not just from his swift assent but from his own earlier monologue about his moral superiority. We're not sure, though, if Cadell is really their intellectual progenitor, if he's just playing histrionics, or whether he's fishing for information. That Brandon expects Cadell to approve of the murder suggests the former, which raises the question of why. Cadell's no murderer, after all, yet he's not characterized to be beyond reproach or as fully serious about his ideas, so what's the deal?

It would have been better had Cadell either made a more persuasive case which would have plausibly converted Brandon, or articulated an idea which Brandon might have perverted. As it happens, it's not as if Brandon has misapplied the idea so much as applied it. Then again, when Cadell finds out about the murder, he claims it was something innate in Brandon that drove him to murder and not any ideology. Maybe, but how would Cadell know and why do we trust his verdict which conveniently extricates him? It's here that Rope gets in over its head because it tries and can't explain the difference between Cadell and Brandon, who share ideas but not the crime.

This confused scene is unfortunately the movie's climax and Jimmy Stewart's final finger-wagging speech robs Rope of the dark tone which actor John Dall lent throughout as Brandon. Too, Farley Granger is left with little while his Phillip sputters into the sidelines.

Still, Rope is a slick and compact film, tense but fluid. John Dall's energy in Brandon's exhilaration is nearly ferocious and you can practically feel Phillip's palpitations. Too the techniques prove complementary and not extraneous to the plot. There are some ideas here too, ably explored, if a little tongue-tied in resolution.

Since it's the the experimental film, I hope it won't be presumptuous to suggest Rope would play well without the final speech, and reversed.

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