Review: Rope (1948)

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Rope’s title sequence is composed of your prototypically serene establishing shot. But really, you could not have a more unique and in some sense unnerving picture. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into Technicolor and it’s quite the looker as are the beautifully constructed backdrops that spice up the mise-en-scene for this glorified stage play.  He also busied himself with camera set-ups in an effort to shoot the picture as near to a single take as was possible with the technology of the time. He actually “cheated” a bit by splicing segments of film together at intentional breaks to give the effect of continuous motion. Still, it’s an impressive endeavor all the same.

But the experiment is twofold both behind and in front of the camera. It’s all a reworking of the murderers Leopold and Loeb, two affluent students who succumbed to Nietzsche’s superman complex. The project was an early script by playwright Arthur Laurents penned from an adaptation by Hume Cronyn, a Hitchcock regular in several earlier pictures (Shadow of a Doubt and Lifeboat).

In this case, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) are looking for the perfect victim in the perfect murder. Where murder is a crime for most men but a privilege for a few — like themselves.  It all begins with a shockingly graphic opening for the 40s that rips away any shred of upper-middle-class sensibilities put upon us by that establishing shot. It’s all a ruse.

The assertive, far more charismatic Brandon also happens to be the main architect pulling along the flighty Phillip into his little experiment.

The act of throwing a small get-together against this exhilarating backdrop proves tenuous because of the insidiously dark deed that Hitchcock has made his audience privy to. Otherwise, this would be a run-of-the-mill picture of cocktails and hor ‘d oeuvres. But underline it with a murder and it’s a completely different proposition altogether.

Their exhibition comes as little surprise from two men who are snobbish, entitled jerks. Their lives are so dull that they stoop to murder to see if they can be brilliant enough and brazen enough to pull it off, going so far as inviting their most astute mentor played by none other than James Stewart.

Though I enjoy him as much as the next fellow, Stewart does feel oddly out of place in this film and within this role of Rupert. He seems to know it too. Nevertheless, Hitchcock would find far superior uses for him in due time.

There are also a couple knowing winks to the sinisterly attractive James Mason (a future Hitchcock collaborator) who is conjured up to do battle against the dreamboats Erroll Flynn and Cary Grant by a few admiring partygoers. Of course, no one seems to take into account that they have Jimmy Stewart right in their stead.

We begin to feel for Janet and Kenneth two schoolmates who have been used in the game. She is soon to be engaged to the formerly eligible David. Kenneth was the beau she was with before he broke it off. Now their lives are manipulated just like the late boy’s father who is also invited to the gathering.

Rupert proves that he knows something’s afoot not that it’s all that difficult to see Granger’s character slowly coming apart at the seams. Alcohol hardly helps his unstable demeanor. It becomes a showdown with his two pupils but he could have never expected this. It’s on this level that Rope is thoroughly troubling. It’s in this way that we begin to understand why Nietzsche might have been troubled by his own conclusions. There is little hope in this conception of the world.

Simply put, the film is dour to its core. It has no heart and in that sense, Jimmy Stewart does not feel at home within its heartless frames. The charade falls short for these very reasons. Though it’s technically ambitious, it doesn’t quite manage that perfect Hitchcock balancing act of crime mixed with wit. There’s no way it can with such a worldview.

Still, Rope shows, if anything, that Hitchcock is never complacent, always looking for the next great challenge. That is one of the many reasons that we still hold him in high regard as one of the foremost directors of any age. Because even a callous film such as Rope is worth seeing.

3.5/5 Stars

Side Street (1950)

 

SideStreetposterThough director Anthony Mann later made a name for himself with a string of Westerns pairing him with James Stewart, it’s just as easy to enjoy him for some of the diverting crime pictures he helped craft. Everything from Raw Deal (1948) to T-Men (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), and of course this little number.

Another simple pleasure gleaned from Side Street is the second teaming of the two young starlets Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell who made such an impression together in Nicholas Ray’s sensitive drama They Drive By Night (1948)

We begin this particular picture with a flyover of New York City and the “Voice of God” narration comes off as another installment of The Naked City (1947) because it too takes to the streets, shot on location in the city of a thousand stories with thousands more waiting to happen.

There’s something engrossing in this style of storytelling which takes interest in several seemingly unextraordinary, unconnected individuals and then over the course of less than an hour and a half slowly ties together all the threads of their lives into one cohesive narrative.

There are some calling cards of crime pictures including sleazy extortion, a body fished out of the East River, and the police who are working the beats of the case and trying to keep the frenzy of journalists at bay. Paul Kelly and Charles McGraw head up the police procedural angle.

But the man we come to know the best is unassuming postman Joe Norson (Granger), who becomes extra jumpy after unwittingly stealing thousands of dollars when he thought he only swiped a few bucks to buy his wife a mink coat. He’s just a poor, small, unimportant little man in the scheme of things. An “Average Joe” if you pardon the expression. He’s not supposed to be embroiled in such a story. It’s a bigger can of worms than he could ever imagine and there are consequences.

Other people of interest are wealthy businessmen, crooked lawyers, cabbies, bar owners, bank tellers,  journalists, cops on the verge of retirement, nightclub singers, and at least a few ex-cons, all the usual standard bearers.

Joe’s wife is in the latest stages of her pregnancy and shortly her baby is on the way but her husband has made up a fanciful story about a new out-of-town job that’s loaded him with cash. Of course, she has no idea what’s going on and nor does he. He asks a near stranger, the man who runs the local bar to hold the cash for him. He says it’s a nightgown for his wife.

But Joe’s not a criminal. His guilty conscience is too much for him so he goes back to the office to plead with them to let him return the money. Of course, they have as much right to it as he does. What follows is a cat and mouse chase across the city. First, some thugs tail Joe looking for the $30,000. Then, Joe and ex-convict George Garsell look for the bar owner who has all but disappeared and conveniently the money’s gone too.

As the police are also involved, they want both men, believing they are complicit in different murders that have been committed. Joe has just enough time with his wife to explain his predicament. Still, he got himself into this mess and he holds the belief that he is the only one who can make it right.

What follows is a culmination of all the events thus far as all the character arcs begin to bump up against each other. Namely, Joe, a local nightclub singer (Jean Hagen), and the last man that Joe wanted to see, Garsell himself.

Side Street closes out with a lively car chase near The Third Avenue El that predates many of the revered classics from Bullitt (1968) to The French Connection (1971) years later. The full weight of the title’s meaning, subsequently makes itself increasingly clear as squads of police cars look to close in on the criminal’s getaway taxi. Of course, what makes it compelling is the fact that Joe is right in the thick of it all to the very last avenue…with a loaded gun pointed at his head. Thankfully there are no speed bumps in this one.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Review: Strangers on the Train (1951)

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Strangers on the Train is conceived in its first few minutes of dialogue when the charismatic bon vivant Bruno (Robert Walker) ingratiates himself on tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Bruno is a big idea-man, constantly talking and thinking and wheedling his way into other people’s lives because he does have a way about him. He makes it easy for others to like him and then they let their guard down after a row of trivial jokes and he’s got them. That is until they begin to see something else entirely in him.

In this particular instance, he schmoozes Guy’s ego. He’s a big tennis star. Bruno has read up on him and knows all about him. At first, it’s mere flattery but as the conversation continues it gets more and more unnerving. Bruno seems to know a little too much almost to the point of obsession.

Still, he manages to keep the other man’s attention just long enough to share his greatest idea — imagine for a second that two men who meet quite by chance (on a train for instance) were to trade murders — leaving no motives or connections for the authorities to trace back to the culprit. Of course, the whole idea soon falls apart if not everyone is equally invested. It doesn’t work if only one individual takes such a ludicrous idea seriously.  That’s where uneasiness begins to set in.

Robert Walker’s performance might rightly be one of the greatest performances in a Hitchcock film in terms of the sheer chill factor. He’s a psychopath, somehow misguided and tortured by issues that never truly get resolved. A great talent with so much promise was lost far too young when he died tragically the same year this film was released.

But equally important is Farley Granger’s more subdued performance, that quiet sensibility that makes him an easy target for someone as magnetic as Bruno. With another actor such as William Holden (initially considered for the part), the dynamic falls apart for sheer implausibility and as a result, the film would not function so effectively. We soon believe that a relationship such as Guy’s and Bruno’s could actually exist and that shred of reality makes the tension all the more unnerving.

Due to its foreboding cinematography courtesy of longtime Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks and Bruno hanging over Guy constantly like an expectant specter, it`s easy to trace the line of film noir sensibilities here as the darkness seeps into Guy’s picture-perfect life.

But what’s fascinating is that Bruno initially aids his newfound friend — he assists him in getting the life that he’s wanted for a long time, an existence that is respectable, complete with a beautiful woman. Anne Morton (Ruth Roman) is the daughter of a respected Senator (Leo G. Carroll) and her upbringing and general concern reflects a stark improvement in Guy’s social standing.

Is it safe to say that it’s fairly easy to harbor a crush for Roman who exudes a refined decency, even if she’s not quite Hitchcock’s icy blonde? Place her up against Guy’s opportunistic and cavorting wife and Bruno’s action could almost be considered a service. Almost… Still, Bruno spins his charisma into a deadly threat, ultimately evolving into Guy’s worst nightmare.

Meanwhile, Patricia Hitchcock sometimes feels like she is used as a plot device but nevertheless even in that aspect alone she is crucial to this story. She also doesn’t quite fit into the Morton family but her very characterization reinforces many of the themes her father is playing with often using visual language.

The most acclaimed shot for its sheer stylized perspective is the scene of Bruno’s act of murder. It’s done in only a moment, silently, and without much fanfare. The woman’s glasses fall to the ground cracked and we see the reflection of the events at hand. It’s pure Hitchcock but the entire sequence is a masterstroke in buildup.

Bruno is tracking his unsuspecting prey. He follows her into a carnival. Past the booths and the rides, by popcorn vendors, into the tunnel love and finally to a darkly lit meadow where the deed is done. But without the buildup, this continuous cutting between the man and the woman, the scene has little impact. Hitchcock gave it increased stakes bolstered by true suspense.

But what he does equally well is cross-cutting not only his two main characters but their very actions. The opening introduction showcases this contrast of personalities with Bruno and Guy. It never ceases. They’re constantly placed opposite each other intersecting and crossing each other. Yet Hitch emphasizes these conflicts visually on multiple occasions which completely justifies why his main hero was written as a tennis player.

The fact that Guy is in the thick of a match during one of the tensest segments is magnified in how the camera cuts between Guy and his opponent back and forth with the audience, line judges, and everyone else spliced in for good measure. It mirrors the very same conflict he’s still tied up in with Bruno just as the gradation of black and white reflects the good and evil that separates and at the same time connects the two men.

You can always count on Hitch to bring the goods and yet again Strangers on the Train ends with a whirling, whizzing, shrieking bit of pandemonium — a real slam-bang finish courtesy of the Master of Suspense. Over 65 years later it hasn’t lost much of its impact blending a sense of real-life spectacle with genuine thrills. And like Hitchcock’s greatest films this one works on multiple planes visually, psychologically, metaphorically, narratively, and that frees us up to enjoy it in whatever way we please. That’s the sign of a quality movie from the foremost of creators.

5/5 Stars

They Live by Night (1948)

theyliveby4Regrettably, I have seen very little of Nicholas Ray, however from his debut in They Live by Night, I saw the same care spent on his youthful characters, which is also noticeable in Rebel Without a Cause. He does not treat “Keechie” and “Bowie” as cardboard cutouts or kids who are dumb and in love. They have value and feelings that are worth examining more closely.

The film opens with three thugs breaking out of the local prison. Two of the men Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) are weathered criminals. The third, Bowie is a baby-faced kid looking hardly a day over 20, but he went into the clink for a reason.

They find shelter at a nearby filling station where Chicamaw’s mangy older brother (Wil Wright) makes a living with his timid, no-nonsense daughter Katherine. They get a car and have enough money to get their feet off the ground before a big bank job in Kelton.

theyliveby2It goes off without a major hitch, but soon after Bowie gets in a car accident and Chicamaw takes him back to his brother’s to be cared for. Katharine is there and the two of them find companionship in each other because neither one has anyone else to turn to. They are young, naive, and in love. They’ve never had these types of feelings before.

Since Bowie needs to lay low, he takes “Keechie” with him and they make an adventure out of it. Ultimately, it results in a cheap $20 marriage and a lot of nice intimate nights spent together driving and cuddling. They’re living the lives of carefree newlyweds who need no one but each other. They find a simple cottage out in the backcountry owned by a homely proprietor (Byron Foulger), and it acts as a new home. A perfect oasis from the newspapers, the cops, and Bowie’s accomplices.

However, they do catch up with him eventually, and he and Katherine split fast after a tiff. They want a normal life, but Chicamaw and T-Dub won’t allow it because they need more money from another bank job. He won’t and in the subsequent attempt, his former partners eat it. The lookout is still hot for the boy as well.

theyliveby1He seems so undeserving of hard justice, but it is bound to come after him anyways. For such relative newcomers, Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell (The Best Years of Our Lives) have such genuine chemistry opposite each other. Granger is more often than not gentle and kind. O’Donnell is pretty in a simple, unadorned type of way. They elicit so much more sympathy than Bonnie and Clyde or even the fugitives in Gun Crazy. Perhaps because they aren’t even outlaws, only young kids who are victims of their circumstances.

4/5 Stars

Strangers on a Train (1951) – Alfred Hitchcock

a7d8f-strangers_on_a_train_28film29In one of Hitchcock’s most intriguing thrillers, we watch events unfold as two distinctly different men meet each other. One is an unassuming tennis player and the other a wild-living rich kid. They both have the same desire though, to have someone out of their lives. With this in mind, Bruno proposes swapping murders. He will kill the tennis player’s unfaithful wife and Guy in turn will murder Bruno’s domineering father. Bruno goes ahead with the plan while Guy brushes it off and soon forgets it. Only too late does Guy find out what has happened and he is suddenly faced with a great dilemma . He does not want to commit murder but Bruno relentlessly shadows him expecting it to be done. In the final showdown the two men face off and Bruno is still adamant that he and Guy were always in it together. This film is great for many reasons, including the often unconventional cinematography, the intriguing characters who blur the line between good and evil, and of course the carousel scene at the end is always memorable. Farley Granger and Robert Walker both deliver very good performances that are probably the best of their careers.

5/5 Stars

Rope (1948) – Alfred Hitchcock

eeca4-rope2What is the perfect murder? Hitchcock seemingly toys with this question in Rope . Starring Jimmy Stewart, Farley Granger, and John Dall, the latter two are students who murder their peer from university. Their only reason for doing it however is to see if they can get away with the crime. To complete their little experiment, they invite the boy’s family, his girlfriend, and other guests over to dinner, right in the room where they committed the murder. As an after though they invite their former professor (Stewart) who is the only one who would be able to catch them. At first Stewart does not suspect anything but eventually he becomes suspicious without letting on. Finally, the students lose their cool and Stewart catches them red-handed. This quickly puts an end to the perfect crime. This film is interesting because it was made to look like it was shot on one reel. Hitchcock’s movies are often known for the editing and yet this film was shot almost like a play in very long takes.

4/5 Stars