Tuesday, January 29, 2008


In 1924 Nathan Leopold and Robert Loeb, two outrageously gifted and socially privileged ivy-league students, lured 14-year-old Bobby Franks into their car, struck him with a chisel and congratulated themselves on committing the perfect murder. Out of pure show-offishness, as if playing a macabre parlour game designed to accentuate their intellectual superiority, they contacted the victim's family and instigated a ransom scenario.

Unfortunately for them, Bobby Franks' body was discovered. A pair of Leopold's glasses were found nearby, their design incorporating a unique hinge mechanism which investigators narrowed down to only three purchasers. Hauled in for questioning, they pinned their defence on a hastily concocted alibi regarding a night-time drive with a couple of fictitious girlfriends (Leopold and Loeb were gay lovers). When the police established that their car was garaged on the night in question, the game was up.

Leopold was 19, Loeb a year younger.

In 1948, Alfred Hitchcock adapted Patrick Hamilton's play (the adaptation is credited to Hume Cronyn, the actual screenplay to Arthur Laurents) as his first technicolour film. 'Rope' is also his stagiest production. Deliberately so. Hitch wanted to recreate for the cinema audience the feel of a stage play. Whether this is a good thing or not is open to debate. (To throw in my tuppence-ha'penny-worth, theatre = stage = stagy; cinema = moving picture = movement. See where I'm coming from?) Still, it was an experiment and a tip of the hat is due to Sir Alfred for giving it a shot. But does an experiment make for good cinema?
In trying to create the impression of the whole thing playing out in one take, Hitchcock's major obstacle was the 10-minute shooting time per take, this being the maximum amount of footage that could be captured on a roll of film. Which is why 'Rope' relies on occasional awkward moments when the camera moves behind a character, the back of their shirt or jacket filling the screen, then pulls back out again (having been loaded with a fresh reel) and continues floating merrily around the elaborate but stultifyingly artificial set.

There's this to say for 'Rope': the camera certainly isn't static. A parlour piece it might be, but the film at least has some movement.

Narratively, Hitch departs from the facts of the Leopold/Loeb case, retaining the only the motive (murder as an intellectual exercise). Had he focused on the extraneous ransom element of the crime, or shaky alibis and the crucial bit of business with the spectacles, he might have made a far more interesting film. It's interesting to note (several interviewees on the special features documentary attest to the fact) that no mention was made during filming of the Leopold/Loeb case, nor of the murderers' homosexuality, even though the lead actors clearly play the roles in a prissy, effeminate manner (ie. conforming to the stereotype that still crops up in today's cinema).

The egg-head sociopaths in 'Rope' are named Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Grainger). Their victim, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), is in his twenties, making for a much different dialectic to the murder of a 14-year-old. Having strangled this poor unfortunate, they cram his body into a large chest, use it as a table and invite a bunch of people over for a dinner party. The guests are: David's father (Cedric Hardwicke), his sister-in-law Mrs Atwater (Constance Collier), David's girlfriend Janet (Joan Chandler), her ex-boyfriend Ken (Douglas Dick), and Brandon and Phillip's former tutor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) who introduced them to the Nietzschean concepts their crime is patterned on. Waited on by long-suffering housekeeper Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanson), a tense evening ensues.

Part of the problem with 'Rope' is that none of these are characters you'd want to spend much time with. Brandon's a pompous smartarse (Dall's performance varies between inspired moments comparable to Richard E Grant's Withnail characterisation at one end of the scale and, at the other, scenery-chewing so pronounced you fear for the wallpaper), Phillip spends the film in a perpetual sulk (the Farley Granger masterclass: pout, scowl, pout, get all shouty, pout some more), Janet's a spoiled young thing, Ken's a chinless wonder of the highest order, Mrs Atwater is yer actual bit of comic relief who seems to have wandered in from eccentric aunt duties in an Oscar Wilde play, and Mr Kentley's essential decency is hamstrung by the fact that he's given nothing to do by the script other than fret about his son's non-appearance. A potentially dynamic stand-off between Brandon and Mr Kentley, the latter railing against Brandon's espousal of the Nietzschean concept of the uber-mensch, is curtailed before it develops into anything too interesting.

Which only leaves Rupert. And for most of the film you're fooled into believing him the hero of the piece (he's the one who senses something is up, who discovers the overlooked clue, who goes back after the dinner party to confront Brandon and Phillip) simply because it's Jimmy Stewart playing him. Prefiguring 'Vertigo', Hitchcock sneakily punctures Stewart's all-American Mr Nice Guy persona by giving him a role which, on the surface is sympathetic, but who is actually complicit in the dark machinations onscreen.

Cadell was the boys' tutor: his beliefs, entertained as purely cerebral concepts and never acted on, are made actual by his former students. He's the catalyst. Listen to his incensed rant at the end of the film. The old gag about how it's not just a river in Egypt springs to mind.

Still, at 77 minutes 'Rope' never outstays its welcome; and it offers some memorable moments: Brandon handing Mr Kentley a stack of books tied together with a piece of rope last seen tightening around David's throat; Mrs Wilson clearing the plates, candlesticks and tablecloth from the chest and almost giving the game away as she goes to open it (watch how slyly Hitch segues from a discussion about David's disappearance, the speakers eventually relegated offscreen as the chest and Mrs Wilson's interminable treks to and from it occupying complete centrality onscreen); Rupert distracting Phillip with a metronome and an endless reel of questions as Phillip tries to pick out a classical piece on the piano.

An overriding theme in 'Rope' is class and social tension. The story - and its real-life inspiration - might have been American through-and-through but Hitch, as a Brit, understood it better than most.

No comments: