August 23, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: Rope

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Rope (1948)
Written by Hume Cronyn (treatment) and Arthur Laurents (screenplay), from the stage play by Patrick Hamilton
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

So once again it's time for me to do something in this essay series I don't do that often, which is to review a film I've already seen several times; and just like with many of the previous cases, this one came about from randomly stumbling across it at my neighborhood library this week, and deciding on a whim to check it out. And in this particular case, this also happen to be one of those movies that had a profound impact on me as a young teen, and was in fact one of the first complex "grown-up" projects I ever embraced; which of course seems weird to me now, near the age of 40, that way back at twelve or thirteen I would become as fascinated by this movie as I did, given not only how adult its themes are but simply how old (and old-fashioned) the film itself is, even back at that time.

Hitchcock's Rope

Because the film I'm talking about is Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant 1948 experimental mid-career classic Rope, which was already 35 years old when I first fell in love with it, and now of course about to celebrate its 60th anniversary. It was an unpopular movie when first released, a movie that even Hitchcock himself admitted was a far cry from his usual affairs -- an attempt to film a stage play in the style of a play itself, in giant long takes throughout a claustrophobic set, editing it together afterwards to feel like a 80-minute continuous shot, while using a cutting-edge camera that was literally the size of a refrigerator, and that needed to be wheeled around the set as the shots took place. Oh, and did I mention, by the way, that it happens to be a drama about gay lovers who kill an acquaintance of theirs just for kicks, in a time when homosexuality wasn't even allowed to be officially acknowledged in public? Yeah, it's for all these reasons that I find it so hard now to believe that I reacted so intensely to this movie at such a young age; but I did, to be sure, and found myself loving it even more this week as a middle-ager, now that I can finally for the first time catch all the unspoken insinuations being carefully whispered here.

Hitchcock's Rope

Because that's an important thing to know about Rope -- that it's based on the infamous real case of Leopold and Loeb, two gay college students in Chicago in the early 20th century, who got caught killing an acquaintance of theirs merely for the thrill of doing it, merely for the smug satisfaction of knowing they were the superior humans for getting away with it. And as the documentary included on the anniversary-edition DVD makes abundantly clear, everyone involved with Rope was well aware of the gay aspect of the entire story, and that indeed was a crucial element that they wanted to address, even while living in an age where they couldn't explicitly address it. (In fact, according to screenwriter Arthur Laurents, the words "homosexual lover-murderers" were never even said out loud during production itself; that it simply became known around Hollywood as "that movie Hitch is doing about IT.")

Hitchcock's Rope

That in turn creates a very interesting situation here, a situation filmmakers don't have to deal with any more in our modern times, of how to create a relationship between two males that conveys the uneasily intimate push and pull of lovers, without explicitly stating that they're lovers; and the way that Laurents pulls it off (in this case while adapting the original British play by Patrick Hamilton) is brilliant, and that's by making the two men foppish New England prep-school brats, who are always doing semi-gay things anyway like popping by Mummy's summer cottage in Connecticut for a weekend together, or throwing elaborate dinner parties in their swinging Manhattan pad that they share as "roommates." And in fact this is why Rope is perhaps even more brilliant than simply admitting that these two are gay lovers, because under this scenario we end up concentrating more on the twisted psychological relationship the two actually have -- the way that one of them, Brandon (John Dall), is the complete emotional master over the other, Phillip (Farley Granger), using a sly combination of intellectual browbeating and tender manipulation to get the latter to do anything the former wants. (Or as Laurents humorously puts it in the documentary: "Hitch was never interested in just homosexuals, and he was never interested in just murderers. Now, homosexual murderers, on the other hand...")

Hitchcock's Rope

Because that's ultimately the biggest pleasure of Rope, and why it still holds up so strongly over half a century after it was originally made, because ultimately it's a character study instead of a lurid gay murder mystery; a "Portrait of the Sociopath as a Young Man," if you will, an examination of a gifted but disturbed genius as he first hits adulthood, convinced that his intelligence really does make him morally superior to most others, convinced that he really does have the ethical right to simply kill off the various mouth-breathers of the world for whatever reason he wants, even if that's no reason at all. And all this would be bad enough, of course, but young Brandon can't stop there; he then has to get his jollies by throwing a party while the corpse is still in the apartment, serving food right off the box the body is hidden in, to various people like the victim's parents and girlfriend. It's...disgusting, but in a delicious film-noir kind of way, a chilling look at one of the all-time great movie villains.

Hitchcock's Rope

But the real treat here, of course, is Jimmy Stewart, playing the old prep-school mentor of all the young men in question, a kind of character that is way outside the norm that Stewart usually took on in his career, but that he was so good at that you wonder why he didn't play such roles more. Because Stewart here is pretty much a snide, quietly confrontational, nihilistic little son of a b--ch, a snotty little self-satisfied egghead who is constantly quoting Nietzsche and pontificating about the exact moral superiority of the intelligent that has inspired the murder in the first place. In fact, this is one of the things I very specifically remember about why this movie appealed to me so much as an early teen; I was fascinated at the time by the idea of a mentor figure going around making outrageous statements in public, just for the sake of shocking the people around him, never realizing that one of these people would be a legitimate psychopath who would actually put his BS into action. Stewart is simply stunning here as a callous and clueless academe, one who has his pompous elitist crap called out in about the worst way possible, not to mention the one person who most threatens to blow the lid on his insane protege's "perfect murder" in the first place.

Hitchcock's Rope

There is always an inherent danger, of course, to revisiting significantly older artistic projects, and a fine balance to be struck especially in the case of movies -- between enjoying the project for both historical and entertainment reasons, while realizing that the project will to one extent or another feel out-of-step with our modern times, often to that project's detriment. And that's what's so great about a movie like Rope, along with any other movie that's primarily based on a smart script, is that they more easily stand the test of time; this is in fact a surprisingly thrilling movie for being 60 years old, even with the passe slang and Brill-Cremed haircuts and endless smoking and the like. I am not a fan in general of consuming certain artistic projects just because one "should;" I can happily state here, though, as is the case with many of Hitchcock's films, that the reason instead to watch is because you'll want to. It's what made Hitchcock so brilliant, after all, was his ability to perfectly straddle the line between trendy general popularity and timeless artistic credibility; it's what made him such a celebrated filmmaker while alive, and is what guarantees that his films keep getting revisited decades later.

Out of 10:
Writing: 9.9
Acting: 7.7
Directing: 8.8
Cinematography: 9.6
Overall: 9.2

Random notes:
--Both Dall and Granger, who played the gay lovers, were gay in real life, not to mention screenwriter Laurents. Ironically, two of the movie's roles were originally offered to closeted actors Montgomery Clift and Cary Grant, who turned the offers down because of not wanting to be associated with a "gay part," no matter how unspoken the actual homosexuality was.

Hitchcock's Rope

--The massive fake skyline seen through the fake window was at the time the largest such thing ever built; everything you see in it was created in three dimensions, including eight different sets of fiberglass clouds to simulate the passing of time. Also, the sunset shown gradually happening throughout the movie was actually speeded up just a little bit on purpose; it allows for about two hours' worth of story to happen in an hour and a half, even though the film is depicted as happening in "real time." (This was then helped by slightly shortening the amount of time needed for typical things to happen within the movie; a full dinner, for example, only takes 20 minutes in this case for the characters to eat and finish.)

--According to Laurents, Stewart's mentor character was supposed to be gay himself, and to also have had an affair with one of the boys back in their prep-school days, all of it dropped after Stewart eventually got the part. James Mason was supposedly Hitchcock's first choice for the role, in which case according to Laurents they would've left all the gay subtext in.

--And also according to Laurents, some of the pieces of the original British dialogue (such as phrases like "my dear boy") were removed by Hollywood censors, for accidentally being "too gay." Of course they were.

--And finally, although it seems otherwise at points, in actuality there is no uninterrupted scene in this movie longer than ten minutes in duration, because of the cutting-edge Technicolor camera they used not being able to hold more than ten minutes' worth of film.

Best viewed: As the midnight show of a Closeted-Era gay film festival. Or with a roomful of goth fag hags over popcorn and frothy drinks.

Next on my queue list: Since I technically got this from the library, the next film scheduled is still The Short Films of David Lynch, just like last time.

Read even more about Rope: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:42 PM, August 23, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |