Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The master of suspense

TCM aired Alfred Hitchcock's Rope yesterday afternoon. Despite not normally receiving the acclaim of movies like Rear Window, Psycho, or Vertigo, Rope is on of the movies that best shows just how good Hitchcock was at creating suspense.

We know right away at the beginning of the movie that there's been a murder: Hitchcock shows us how the roommates Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) strangle their friend David (Dick Hogan), and hide his body in a chest. They then proceed to throw a dinner party ostensibly in his honor, and serve the buffet off of the chest in which David's body is stored! Into all this walks their housemaster from prep school, Rupert Cadell (played by James Stewart in the first of four movies he made with Hitchcock). We know there's been a murder, but he, and the other guests, don't. And so, the question becomes, are Brandon and Philip going to get away with murder? And if not, how are they going to be caught? That was Hitchcock's thesis about the difference between suspense, murder, and horror: that we in the audience know something the characters don't.

Hitchcock gives us some excellent characterizations here, as Brandon is confident to the point of hubris, as well as being domineering toward Philip and manipulative. Philip, on the other hand, is much less comfortable with the idea of murder, to the point of becoming unhinged and pitiable. Brandon and Philip are clearly supposed to be a gay couple, although thanks to constraints of the Production Code, this couldn't be mentioned -- but it actually works to film's benefit that the homosexual relationship is only (obviously) implied. A modern-day remake would probably try to make the relationship much more explicit (and graphic), if not campy. (It must also be pointed out that the movie, and the play on which it was based, were drawn from the real-life case of Chicago thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb, who were in fact gay.) And James Stewart is excellent as Rupert Cadell, the philosopher whose ideas inspired Brandon and Philip to commit murder; Rupert becomes rightly horrified when he not only realizes that his two former charges have committed murder, but learns why they've committed murder. Stewart displays an emotional register that's deeper than anything he had before World War II (even though Stewart was great in movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Philadelphia Story), suggesting that he was drawing on whatever dark experiences he had during the war to play Rupert.

Much has been made of the technical aspects of Rope: Hitchcock wanted to make Rope evocative of a stage play, and made the movie a series of very long takes. The film canisters could only hold about nine or ten minutes of film at any one time, so there are a number of shots in which Hitchcock hides the camera behind a dark item such as a jacket or the chest, and has a discreet dissolve there to where the new canister of film begins. However, the commonly stated claim that these are the only cuts is untrue: Hitchcock eventually realized that he would be limited by the amount of film that could be shown on one projection reel, which was about 20 minutes; so every 18 minutes or so there is a "hard" cut as opposed to the dissolves.

Rope is available on DVD, so if you missed TCM's showing, you're not out of luck.

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