Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Rope

Continuing with my not-forgotten James Stewart-Alfred Hitchcock collaboration, I returned to the film which brought them together for the first time. A story about two well-to-do college boys who, for kicks, decide to murder one of their classmates then stage a party around the corpse using his body inside a trunk as the serving table!

The two pals are Brandon and Philip, played by John Dall (Spartacus) and Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train) respectively. Dall had mainly been a stage actor and maybe that's why he was cast here as Hitchcock staged this 'film' really as a play, taken from the work of Patrick Hamilton in 1948. Reading the back-story it seems that the idea was to shoot the film in one take, one room, one location - just as it would be presented on the stage.

Sadly for Hitchcock, technical problems prevented that dream, but he did the next best thing with minimal cuts, the final edit being made up from eight continuous takes with smart panning/zooming employed to cover up the joins. The film works really well, regardless of his quashed opportunity as he applies his usual keen eye to detail, including lighting the exterior as night falls, sweeping between the rooms and often focusing on out-of-eyeline detail whilst conversation continues elsewhere. At least he got to present the whole story in real time.

Brandon is much more in control of himself at the outset than Philip, who gets more and more anxious about what he has been led to be a part of by his overt and confident classmate. As the story unfolds it becomes more obvious that Philip is getting more and more drunk in order to deal with his anxiety and this, Brandon sees, is a big risk to the plan/game going undetected.

Various people turn up to the drinks-and-nibbles party, including Brandon's ex-girlfriend who is also the current girlfriend of the guy in the trunk, and to make a tidy set, another ex-boyfriend who fulfilled the role between the others! Getting complicated now, another of the guests is the father of the chap who's been murdered, Cedric Hardwicke (Suspicion) and another, one of their old school teachers Rupert, James Stewart (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, Vertigo). Rupert is the smart cookie who seems to be seeing through Brandon's game and heads towards piecing things together, working out what's gone on. Philip, by this time isn't helping Brandon's cause as he continues to fall apart!

It's purposefully claustrophobic as the tension builds amongst the sharp script, snappy and direct. Suspense is what Hichcock does best of course and even though the audience knows at the outset all about the body, he does a grand job switching the unknown into the taut race to see if they get away with it or if Rupert snags them! The film/play is set in New York, but the original was supposed to based in London.

The rest of the cast support ably though Dick Hogan had one of the shortest roles in a film ever! Edith Evanson (Marnie) is very funny as the housemaid and Constance Collier (An Ideal Husband) almost as much, as the toffee-nosed guest! Douglas Dick is largely forgettable as Kenneth the ex-boyfriend of Janet, who was played with spunk by Joan Chandler. Yes, of course, it all looks a bit wooden, stuffy and frightfully upper-class, but somehow, as I've said before, Stewart rises above that and stands good in the test of time.

There's loads more depth to the film than I'm going to spell out here but for those interested to read the background, do visit the Wikipedia Page which delves into homosexual subtext and how the actors had to dance around the set to keep the takes as long as possible. An interesting read for those keen to understand more from the mind of the maestro director! It's a short film/play but well worth a look, if not for the storyline particularly, then certainly for the tension, the technical experimentation by Hitchcock and the performance of Stewart. Recommended - along with further reading.

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