Friday, August 25, 2017

2017 Blind Spot Series: Rope

I've often used the Blind Spot Challenge, as laid down by Ryan at The Matinee, to explore genre classics that may not necessarily be well known in the mainstream. This month I'm watching a more traditionally recognized classic.

Why did I pick it? It's a Hitchcock movie. There really needs to be no other reason, but I'll say a little bit more. Since becoming a cinephile, I haven't gone full bore into the legendary director's work, but I've seen a handful of his films. This particular movie has come up in the comments section several times over the last year or so. It was usually a suggestion by one of you wonderful readers as the next step in my Hitchcockian education. Since I'm not quite as hard-headed as Mrs. Dell would have you believe, I listened, and here we are.

The film starts with a scream we hear from outside. Soon enough we find ourselves in the swanky apartment of two rather well-to-do young gentlemen, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger). They are in the midst of strangling another man whom we soon find out is David (Dick Hogan). After they are sure the man is dead, they stuff him in a chest that sits in their living room. Phillip immediately gets nervous about what they've done while Brandon is just the opposite. Making Phillip even more nervous is the fact that they will soon be receiving guests for a dinner they are having that evening. Brandon is rather smug about all this. Turns out, the two killed David just to see if they could get away with it. While Phillip is quaking in his boots, Brandon is looking at the evening ahead as a game. Simultaneously upping the ante and ensuring no one will try to open the chest, he decides use it to serve from, putting the food and candles on top. People start arriving and away we go.

Before watching it, I was led to believe this was a murder mystery of the highest order. In other words, I came into it fairly blind. There is a mystery, just not the way I was expecting. I thought I was going to see a dead serious whodunit with a labyrinthine and constantly unfolding plot. Instead, I got a cat-and-mouse where the cat doesn't even know he's playing for much of the film. Or, as the movie itself asks, is he really the cat or the mouse? And it's far from dead serious. This is a dark comedy, something I've not seen from Hitchcock. This is not a complaint, just a note about how I had adjust my expectations within the first ten minutes of the film's runtime.

I know that Hitch is considered the master of suspense, and this film has it in spades because it follows his most famous explanation of the difference between suspense and surprise. He famously said:

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"*

This sums up the strength of Rope. Hitchcock gives us the surprise to start the film, but then fills the rest with suspense.We know that David is in the chest. We want to tell everyone at the party about it. The director had made us participants in the game, only we're muted by our position behind the fourth wall.

The suspense is maintained by nothing but dialogue. Here, is where the film earns its stripes as a dark comedy. The catalyst for this is Brandon, effortlessly played as an entitled jackass by John Dall. He makes tons of references to David, both veiled and overt, shares in-jokes with Brandon (that Brandon doesn't think are funny), and perhaps most dastardly, spends much of his time trying to get David's fiancee Janet (Joan Chandler) back together with her ex-boyfriend Kenneth (Douglas Dick). His having a ball doing it. His morbid sense of humor makes us have some rather uneasy chuckles with him. Indeed, he treats the entire situation like a game, or as he also calls it, a work of art.

Brandon's work of art would not be complete without the participation of Rupert (James Stewart), a publisher and former instructor of Brandon's and Phillip's. They admire him a great deal and value his intellectual musings. Those musings gave them the idea to commit this murder. Fooling him and having him leave their home none the wiser despite dropping hints about it all night would be defeating the greatest possible opponent. We instantly want to root for this opponent. Part of that is because Rupert is played by Jimmy Stewart, the ultimate aw shucks, golly gee guy. Interestingly enough, those same good guy qualities are what makes Vertigo so disturbing. The other part of why we root for him so easily goes back to the participation Hitchcock elicits from us. If we could, we would reach through the screen, grab him by the shoulders, and shake him while loudly imploring him to open the damn chest. We can't. We're stuck pulling for him to figure it out.

There was something else I noticed about the film, that I wasn't going to mention. It felt pretty obvious to me, but at the same time I thought I might be reading too much into it. Then, there it was on the film's Wikipedia page. While I'm writing reviews, I often use Wikipedia to double check the names of cast members and/or remind myself of plot points I want to discuss. No, I don't take notes while watching movies and it's an easy way to do so without having someone else's opinion influence mine. Anyhoo, one of the sections on the page is titled "Homosexual subtext." Yup, this film has it. Every Hitchcock movie that I've seen has something to do with some sexual deviancy. I'm not saying homosexuality is a deviancy, but it certainly was seen that way when the film was released in 1948. Of course, nothing direct is ever done or said to let us know what's going on, but Brandon and Phillip certainly feel like a couple. Hitchcock certainly has fun playing around with the notion of two men who could possibly be lovers. He doesn't appear to making any statement about one way or the other, simply floating the idea. I'm not alone in my perception. As it turns out, a number of American towns banned the film upon release for that reason, along with the plot's close resemblance to the real life murder committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

The tension in the film increases as it goes. It helps that we're never quite sure how things will play out. We get absorbed in the game Brandon and (reluctantly) Phillip are playing. As a result, we hang on their words, particularly Brandon's, and are wishing that someone picks up on them. The ending is perfect, though a bit muted by today's standards. Best of all, the movie only runs a scant 80 minutes. When it ends, we don't feel as if we've been rushed along, but taken on a journey at the perfect speed. By the way, on the technical side, the movie shot to appear as if it were a single take in real time and the scenery never shifts from the apartment. This, too, helps us involve ourselves in the proceedings. We feel as though we are in the room with them. Our sense of being there and sharp dialogue with a macabre sense of humor makes Rope a film I thoroughly enjoyed. I just enjoyed it for reasons different than I expected.

*Quote taken from

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  1. This is one Hitchcock film that has been in my grasp but still have not seen! I don't know why as I love Hitchcock and I love Jimmy Stewart. I know about the film and Hitchcock's love of film techniques. this is an excellent review and makes me want to see it all the more

    1. It is definitely worth the wait. I hope you get to it soon. Thanks for the high praise.

  2. I had this as a "possible candidate" on a previous Blind Spot list and I remember getting a few comments from people who absolutely hated it, so I haven't tried yet.

    1. I can see it being way too talky for some people. Truthfully speaking, nothing really "happens" except at the very beginning and the end.

  3. This is such a masterful film. It doesn't always get the sort of attention that it should because of Hitchcock's more celebrated later career of movies between 1954 (Rear Window) and 1962 (The Birds), a span that also includes Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho (and lesser films like The Trouble with Harry and the remake of The Man Who Knew too Much). Rope, though, shows that he knew exactly how to manipulate an audience even with giving the audience all of the information they need. There aren't surprises in Rope. There's just tension.

    The homosexual subtext is apparent here, too, and that's clearly intentional on Hitchcock's part. It's almost as if he wanted to give the audience something else to look at since he more or less spilled the entire plot for them at the start. We know who the killers are and we know where the body is. All that is left to the plot is whether or not they'll get caught. That subtext is just another reason to keep watching...are they or aren't they?

    Of course there is another level here. James Stewart, as you say, is almost immediately likable in anything he did. To have him show up as more or less an apologist for Nietzsche is surprising. He's far too nice to be someone who would subscribe to such a brutal philosophy. And that's another question the movie strives to answer--does he really subscribe to it, or is it just an intellectual game for him?

    By the way, I use Wikipedia for exactly the same reason you do. It helps with the order of events and with the spelling of character names. It's also nice for a little background on the film after I'm done watching.

    1. It is masterful because of that tension. The other films you mentioned, aside from The Trouble with Harry and The Man Who Knew Too Much which I haven't seen, are brilliant. Rope is in that same category.

      I agree, the homosexual subtext is clearly intentional. It indeed gives us another reason to watch.

      Great point about Stewart. It's amazing how his persona instantly affects the movies he's in as soon as he shows up.

      Exactly! Yay Wikipedia!

    2. The Man Who Knew too Much is okay. It's good but not great Hitchcock. The Trouble with Harry is a lot of fun. That trouble, incidentally, is that he's dead and everyone in town believes themselves to be guilty for one reason or another. It's the same sort of dark comedy as in Rope, albeit more overtly comedic.

    3. Interesting. I'll get around to them at some point, I'm sure.

  4. This is one of many films by Hitchcock I haven't seen but I plan on rectifying that in October for my Halloween marathon as I have another film of Hitchcock that I will see as a Blind Spot. There are so many of his films to see and yet, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface.

    1. We're pretty much in the same boat. I've seen a handful, but have so many to go.

  5. I’ve always seen this as more of an exercise in technique for Hitchcock than one of his classics. That’s not to say I don’t like or enjoy it, I can say that for all his films except the ghastly Topaz, just that it doesn’t engage me in the way Saboteur, North by Northwest or Lifeboat (though that one is a technical experiment as well though more multifaceted) do.

    It does make some excellent points. The power of words on impressionable minds. The importance of thinking about those words before saying them. The sad and disquieting fact that craven minds are nothing new.

    I’ve never felt that the relationship between Brandon and Phillip was ambiguous in any way. Though it wasn’t flatly stated it was clear that they lived together, that everyone there considered them a couple and all references to them were in the plural just as any couple would be. They also encroached (if that’s the proper word) on each other’s space in a way that was indicative of intimate knowledge. Since they were homicidal maniacs it’s hardly the most positive portrayal but even with that in mind the overtness is surprising in a 50’s film.

    That’s a good point about James Stewart bringing a particular aura with him to any film. Such is really the case with any great star but few carried the wholesome image that Jimmy did. That’s funny looking back at his career particularly in the 50’s when he played with it and tweaked it allowing directors like Hitch and Anthony Mann to look at the thorny underlying dark side to that gee willigers, golly gee identity. Obviously he’s not the one with the duskiest soul here but there is a seeming moral ambiguity to his professor up until almost the end of the film.

    The story as presented really does call for the set bound constraints placed on the picture but it does feel very much like a filmed stage play.

    A good film from the master though not one of his greats. Certainly the best from this somewhat rough patch that included the dull The Paradine Case and the messy Under Capricorn that came between the brilliant Notorious and the entertaining though flawed Stage Fright.

    1. It is an exercise in technique, but it really works for me.

      Though it was clear they lived together, I was still hesitant to say they were a couple. However, in hindsight, I think that's on me not the movie. Watching it for the first time so many years after its release, I didn't want to be presumptuous. My first thought was that they were, but since it wasn't explicitly stated, I thought I might be looking at it through 2017 eyes. Now that I see I was correct, subsequent viewings might take on a different flavor.

      For me, it always seemed like Stewart's character subscribed to the philosophies he spouted in the most hypothetical of ways. I never saw any real ambiguity within him. The reason stems from the moment we can tell that he senses something is amiss. He is, at no point, looking to pat the boys on the back for a job well done. He seems mortified at the possibility that they put his words (or more accruately, Nietzche's) into action.

  6. So, Rope is actually based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, and I was lucky enough to perform in the play in the Farley Granger role. In the play, the homosexual undertones are even more overt than in the movie (it's all but said outright that the former professor - Stewart's role - had an affair with Brandon). Arthur Laurents, who did the screenplay, was actually in a relationship with Granger at the time. Laurents thought Hitch took all the tension out of the film by showing the murder at the beginning, and I kind of understand where he's coming from. The play begins after the murder has already been committed, but it's pretty clear what they've done even though they talk around it a bit. It would be pretty difficult to have the kind of ambiguity Laurents wanted (did they or did they not kill someone and stuff the body into the buffet), and for me the film works as well as it does BECAUSE you know what they did, and you don't know if they're going to get away with it. Because of that, the film is able to get away with some extremely dark humor, which I love.

    It's an essential film for me mostly because of how it deals with homosexuality - no, it's never explicitly mentioned, but you'd have to be practically deaf and blind to not see it. The fact that they were able to get all that past the censors is pretty amazing, even if the characters fall pretty squarely into the "Evil Homos" stereotype.

    I'm so glad you liked this! It's not in my top tier of Hitchcock films (I find the edits to be somewhat distracting), but it's very close to it.

  7. I didn't know what Rope was about (just knew it as part of Hitchcock's filmography) but this sounds really good. I haven't seen a lot of Hitchcock's films, but this is now one I am eager to watch.