Grounds For Justifiable Homicide

I just listened to a 2015 episode of The Incomparable Old Movie Club where the good fellows discussed two of Alfred Hitchcock’s less appreciated films, 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt and 1948’s Rope.

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You have to be looking pretty closely to see Hitch’s cameo right after the opening creditsYou have to be looking pretty closely to see Hitch’s cameo right after the opening credits

You have to be looking pretty closely to see Hitch’s cameo right after the opening credits

I needed no convincing on the first movie, as I’ve long considered Shadow of a Doubt to be a masterpiece, but my two viewings of Rope had left me feeling much as Hitch himself felt about it: an interesting experiment but ultimately a failed one. After listening to the podcast and hearing all their enthusiasm for the film, I decided to give it another viewing.

The movie is based on a British play by Patrick Hamilton which was inspired by the Leopold/Loeb case of 1924 (or rather the Loeb/Leopold case as it was referred to in those days). Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were wealthy, over-privileged gay lovers in Chicago who fancied themselves intellectually superior persons, and they thought that gave them the right to kill whomever they wanted. And of course, being so superior, they would commit the perfect murder. Of course, they were caught immediately, and during the course of the first “trial of the century” Orson Welles, I mean uh, Clarence Darrow managed to keep them from receiving the death penalty.

A fictionalized version of the case was eventually published in 1957 as Compulsion by Meyer Levin and made into a movie of the same name starring the aforementioned Welles.

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The color cameras used for filming Rope were hugeThe color cameras used for filming Rope were huge

The color cameras used for filming Rope were huge

Anyway, long before Compulsion, which was a realistic portrayal of the case, although it changed all the names, Hamilton’s stage play took the main premise of two gay lovers who commit a “perfect murder” because they are “intellectually superior” to create a suspense drama where the central characters commit the murder at the start of the show and then stuff the body into a trunk in the center of the stage. That trunk remains visible to the audience throughout the rest of the play as the two gay lovers host a party, seemingly daring their guests to discover the body in the trunk.

Jessica Tandy’s husband Hume Cronyn worked with Hitch to develop a motion picture treatment from the play, and that was eventually turned into a screenplay by Arthur Laurents, whom you may know better as the author of the libretto for the musical Gypsy.

Hitch wanted to keep the feel of the stage play by giving the illusion of having the movie filmed in one long continuous take, thus keeping the trunk with the body in it foremost in the audience’s collective mind. He did this by carefully planning the movie (as he always did anyway; that was the part of movie-making that he most enjoyed), and breaking the 80 minute feature into ten shots, none longer than about ten minutes.

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The walls of the sets could break away to let the equipment through as the actors moved aroundThe walls of the sets could break away to let the equipment through as the actors moved around

The walls of the sets could break away to let the equipment through as the actors moved around

Mostly he disguised the cuts by having the camera move in for a closeup of someone’s back or some inanimate object, but there are a few actual standard cuts as well.

Since Hitch was famous for his technique of montage (basically that means cutting from one clip to another), this new style of working seemed to go against everything he had learned from a lifetime in cinema. For example, one of his standard techniques would be to show a person walk into a room with the camera facing the actor who is clearly seeing something. Then cut to the object that the actor is looking at, followed by another cut back to the actor to get her reaction.

Another challenge with this new style of filming was the huge color cameras then in use (this would be Hitch’s first Technicolor film), and the network of thick cables lining the floor that the actors would have to seamlessly navigate around. He had his set constructed with walls that could be moved out of the way to make room for the cameras to follow the actors as they moved from room to room. This was long before the days of the Steadicam.

I had long read about the film, but it was out of circulation for years, so when it was re-released to theaters in 1984, I was eager to see it. And I was disappointed. It just didn’t seem very suspenseful.

Cut to the mid 2000’s when I got it on DVD, and my opinion didn’t change.

So yesterday, after listening to that podcast, I gave it another view, and while I’m still not as enthusiastic as the fellows on that podcast were, I think I know what my problem is.

It’s Jimmy Stewart.

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I think Jimmy Stewart was miscast in RopeI think Jimmy Stewart was miscast in Rope

I think Jimmy Stewart was miscast in Rope

He’s just wrong for the part of the former teacher of the gay lovers of John Dall and Farley Granger, and whose philosophy has inspired them to commit the murder. There’s supposed to be a sub-text that Stewart’s character is possibly gay himself and may have had an affair with one of the lovers in the past. Also, it becomes clear that Stewart’s “philosophy” which inspired the lovers was really meant more as tongue in cheek repartee, not genuine moral guidance. Stewart doesn’t have the light touch to bring this off.

But Cary Grant would have. And Hitch originally wanted Grant for the role, but Grant, who actually was gay, didn’t want to have anything to do with a role or a film with a gay subtext. Given the standards of the time, of course, there is no mention of the word “homosexual”, only the most indirect implications of it.

So there it is. My problem with the film, I think, is the casting. Other people do seem to really enjoy it just as it is. And there is much to like. It’s certainly worth seeing at least once, even for none Hitchcock lovers.

I suspect that the average film-goer might not even notice the experimental way that it’s filmed unless it’s pointed out. And there are excellent performances by the entire cast, really, even Stewart, once he gets past the former teacher part and morphs into a Columbo-like detective role. And when the camera comes to rest on the trunk as the maid gradually removes the objects that have been sitting on it, in preparation for opening the trunk to place some books inside it, some of the old Hitchcockian suspense comes to the fore.

While I tend to give Hitch’s films at least eight stars out of ten, I only gave this one seven. Still pretty good.

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