SYTYCR Round 1.8: Fox Mulder VS. Remo Williams (ROPE)

by Nick Jobe · July 17, 2012 · So You Think You Can Review · 15 Comments

Despite the gutsy move to give The Little Mermaid a negative review, it just wasn’t enough for Deems Taylor. So Botch Casually will move on to the next round. For this next battle, we’re looking at the second Hitchcock of the tournament, Rope. And I can say this with honesty: This is one of the battles I’ve been waiting for. I believe this will probably be one of the toughest ones to vote on (depending on what you look for in a review). So read, vote, comment, enjoy! You have until Thursday. Below is the updated bracket. Click to make it bigger.

Review #1
By Fox Mulder

Alfred Hitchcock crossed the pond to Hollywood in 1940 and consistently stretched the boundaries of genre filmmaking during that decade. Shadow of a Doubt brought a shocking personal element to a small-town mystery, and Notorious took the spy caper to greater heights. While those pictures took chances, he went a step further with Rope in 1948. Comprised of a series of long takes and set in a single location, it boils down the story to its barest essentials. A dinner party has seven attendees, but there’s an eighth participant that’s only known to two of them. While his dead body rests inside a wooden chest in the center of the room, the unsuspecting guests don’t realize they’re celebrating a murder. They’re even being served food from the coffin itself — a cruel joke from a devious killer.

The murderous duo is Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger), who share the apartment where the party takes place. Earlier that day, David Kentley (Dick Hogan) arrived at their home with no idea he was the subject of a horrid experiment. Could they perform the perfect murder? We learn the specifics of the killing from the start, so there’s no mystery about that feat. Instead, the suspense comes from wondering if anyone will discover their secret. Brandon is the mastermind and believes he’s left nothing to chance, but he can’t resist taking risks. It wouldn’t be any fun if there wasn’t some danger. Phillip is the reluctant accomplice who loses his nerve after the murder. When their sharp former headmaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) starts asking questions, even Brandon’s clever plans might not be enough to hide their dastardly deeds.

While Rope’s unconventional style earns the headlines, it’s also a landmark in its depiction of homosexuality. Brandon and Phillip’s relationship is never clarified during the story, but they’re obviously a couple. Arthur Laurents’ screenplay deftly sidesteps an issue that wouldn’t have passed the censors. The writer and both actors were homosexuals, and their characters’ interactions feel like the squabbles of an involved couple. Their relationship is treated like it’s no big deal, an impressive feat for a movie that’s more than 60 years old. When comedies like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry represent our modern culture’s look at homosexuality, we might not be any further along. Brandon and Phillip are murderers, but their sexual preference doesn’t play a role in their evil deeds.

Adapted from the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton (Gaslight), this film resembles a one-act stage play in style and content. The source material was inspired by the infamous Leopold and Loeb case, and some towns banned the movie because of that connection. An intriguing discussion during the party outlines Brandon’s feelings about the superior man having the right to commit murder. While Rupert considers this issue from a philosophical perspective, it’s clear that Brandon takes it very seriously. These concepts spring from Nietzsche and Rupert’s teachings as their headmaster. He doesn’t realize that his pupils have taken the intellectual discussions to the next extreme. Brandon exudes confidence and acts sinister all the time, so his behavior doesn’t immediately signify a change. Phillip seems angry and frightened, however, so it’s clear that something’s afoot beyond the typical dinner-party shenanigans.

The shooting technique might seem rudimentary today, but it was monumental for the time period. The technical precision required to maneuver the camera through the cramped apartment is remarkable. Late ‘40s technology prevented shots from lasting much longer than 10 minutes, so Hitchcock uses interesting ways to hide the cuts. He zooms into suit jackets or furniture to disguise the switch to a new take. There are a few examples of direct cuts, but they’re barely noticeable because we’re engaged in the plot. It’s an intriguing experiment, but does it enhance the story? That is the pivotal question. I believe this style works and increases the suspense as Rupert starts discovering the truth. The final showdown between the headmaster and his pupils is considerably more powerful because of the lack of cuts. Hitchcock’s approach might feel simple when compared to innovative recent attempts like Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark or Mike Figgis’ Timecode, but it remains effective.

There are some problems that arise with this approach, however. The 80-minute running time feels strangely long for such a brief film. The story functions like a play and works in that framework, yet it also leads to some tedious moments. The middle segment drags and gets sidetracked by an uninteresting romantic subplot with David’s buddy Kenneth (Douglas Dick) and girlfriend Janet (Joan Chandler). When viewed today, we’re also focusing more on Hitchcock’s tactics than the actual plot. This isn’t his fault, but it makes for a much different experience than audiences had during the original screenings. The film’s experimental reputation makes it difficult to view it from any other perspective.

There’s still plenty to like about Rope, which gets unfairly labeled as a failed experiment. Several performances are excellent, particularly John Dall (Gun Crazy) as the arrogant Brandon. He leaps into the over-the-top role and makes him a believably deranged guy. It’s a theatrical performance that may turn off some viewers, but it works for the material. Stewart is also excellent as the shrewd guy who quickly recognizes something is amiss. Rupert doesn’t fathom the depths of their devilish act but has a curious hunch. Stewart feels he was miscast for the part, and the studio pushed for Cary Grant. I disagree and think he’s the right choice because he conveys smarts with just a glance. You can see the gears churning in his head during each successive misstep from Brandon and Philip. Less successful is Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train), who has the thankless role of playing the weaker part of the duo. He tries his best with the limited role, but we never care about his moral quandaries. The rest of the supporting cast is capable but mostly exist to set up the conflict between Rupert and the killers.

Looking beyond the basic style, Hitchcock finds clever ways to arrange the characters within the frame. He sets up groups in a triangle to convey their thematic relationships. The most prominent example is Rupert standing between Brandon and Phillip while he tries to discover the truth. During the final scene, they hover closely around him and enhance the claustrophobic feeling. While it might seem like Brandon and Phillip are in control, Rupert knows what he’s doing. Hitchcock also uses the triangle set-up to show the ways Brandon tries to manipulate the party guests. He’s like a conductor managing an orchestra, but there’s one player who keeps deviating from the sheet music. When you combine the inventive set-ups of the frame with the capable technical expertise, it makes for a compelling movie. Rope falls short of Hitchcock’s best work but remains must-see viewing for movie fans delving into the master’s deeper cuts.

Review #2
By Remo Williams

I realize for the sake of this little endeavor that we are all maintaining our anonymity. Yet I hardly think it’s a deal breaker to say that I am not well versed when it comes to classic films. I should also state that I have never delved deep into Hitchcock’s filmography. However, I should state that these two things are not mutually exclusive. Should I ever feel the desire to delve into the classics, Hitchcock would most likely be my jumping off point. Though, to this point, I haven’t got much further past having seen Psycho.

I’ve tried several times. Every now and then, I get a hair up my ass to familiarize myself with the man’s work. I’ve walked into Best Buy several times and picked up one of those Hitchcock Collection DVD bundles that include ten or so of his films on one disc. However, they are usually one recognizable film (like Vertigo or The Birds) with nine of his lesser known (maybe even never heard of them style) films. This usually, quickly, turns me off to the idea and I start looking for an action film, foreign import or sale of the week to bide my time. It can be a bit disheartening because, much like Woody Allen, Hitchcock churned out a lot of films in his day… not all of them very good.

Naturally, when I pulled Rope out of the collective hat, I was less than enthused. It’s hardly one of his better known films, although I had heard of it. Thankfully, the premise alone was enough to peak my interest. Now, everyone writes reviews differently. Some people like to give you a blow by blow account of the film sprinkling in their thoughts and feelings along the way. I tend to work at the other end of the spectrum. I tell my readers about a film the same way a screenwriter should pitch it in a room. After all, if you can’t sum it up in a sentence or two, then it probably shouldn’t be told. This plot for this one is as follows:

Two young men strangle their “inferior” classmate, hide his body in their apartment, and invite his friends and family to a dinner party as a means to challenge the “perfection” of their crime.

After the murder that kicks this film off happens, we’re left in a room with the two culprits, Brandon and Phillip. The first is clearly on high from the events that have taken place, and the latter is your typical Nervous Nelly. I mention this scene as this is where Hitchcock’s brilliance as a director can first be seen. This scene goes on, without cutting, for eleven and a half minutes. The scene that follows, another eight minutes. It peaked my interest so I kept count through the entire film. Hitchcock shoots this film in just eight shots that run anywhere from seven and fifteen minutes each.

Now, these shots are hardly as impressive as some of the more famous long shots in film history like Paul Thomas Anderson’s club scene from Boogie Nights or Scorcese’s famous club scene — what’s with all the club scenes? — in Goodfellas, but I could argue it’s just as technical. Though, I’ll get back to that. The cuts he does make are basic to a modern filmgoer. Moving in on an object until it fills the screen and pulling away as the next scene begins. Although, I could argue that was a cutting edge filmmaking technique in 1948.

The reason I mention this and think it’s brilliant is that it services the story well. Not a lot happens in this film. It’s very dialogue driven. The entire thing also takes place in one location: an apartment. Primarily, in one room. The entire thing feels like a play and Hitchcock allows it to unwind as such. However, Hitchcock is working the entire time. Getting back to the film’s technical achievements, Hitchcock moves fluently throughout the party in the film. From conversation to conversation, sometimes moving just to frame on a reaction or a look.

In doing so, you also begin to see why Hitchcock is considered the master of suspense. He knows exactly where the camera needs to be so that the audience is drinking in every necessary emotion thrown up on the screen. There is absolutely no waste. Admittedly, this is probably not one of his most suspenseful films. In fact, it unrolls at more of a slow burn. Yet the fact that it does so in a deliberate and well paced manner makes him no less the master.

Aside from Alfred, I can’t talk about this film without mentioning Jimmy Stewart, who happens to be the only recognizable actor in this film (to me at least). Now, I’m almost ashamed to admit that this is the first film of his that I have ever seen. It took only minutes of watching him, however, to realize why he is an icon of acting. See, one thing I despise about older films is the melodramatic nature of it all. The over-politeness, the wild gesturing, the over-acting. Stewart presents none of this in his performance. While the others merely act, Stewart inhabits. He moves from scene to scene with a cool that shows no one else in this film is in his league. No doubt, Clooney models himself on Stewart and actors of his stature.

In the end, this film was a great introduction to Hitchcock and I highly recommend it for the plain and simple face that it made me want to seek out more of his work. This time, I actually intend to follow through on it. Don’t get me wrong… you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Films like Prometheus and The Avengers will always get my attention first. However, this film is better than half the standard fair being pumped into cinemas these days. If you have the time, I suggest you use it to check this little gem out.

Finally, I just wanted to mention that this film’s screenplay was adapted by Hume Cronyn. Most people probably know him best for being Jessica Tandy’s husband and “go to” old guy for 80s movies like Cocoon and *batteries not included. He only wrote four things in long career. Only two were for film and this was one. What can I say? I love little Easter eggs like that.

Now Vote!