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

Review: Gun Crazy (1950)

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Bart has an intense obsession with guns. It’s what his life revolves around. It’s the only thing he wants to do as a boy and the only things he seems to think about. It becomes a problem when he breaks a store window, but during the following hearing, his sister and friends vouch for his character. He would never take a human life or kill. That’s not in his nature.

No matter, it is decided Bart should be sent off to a special preparatory school, and he only returns years later as a grown man recently off a stint in the army.  He’s back in his hometown not quite sure what his future plans will be, but his buddies are glad to see him. They shoot some, drink a few beers, and decide to take a jaunt to the carnival for a night of fun.

Their Bart meets the girls of his dreams. There’s a quality to John Dall that makes Bart into a pure victim of his circumstances. He’s quickly infatuated with the gun slinging and sensuous Peggy, who seems to share his one love. A goofy smile is plastered on his face as he faces off against her in an act of skill. He makes her uneasy and ultimately beats her. 

He gets a job with the carnival and spends as much time as he can with her when he’s not shooting guns. They are fed up with their boss and leave the migrant life behind. Marriage is on their radar, and they live it up with the money they have. But Peggy wants more and she wants to keep living the high life. 

She wants to rob a gas station. It’s one little idea that soon blows way out of proportion. They are holding up banks, gas stations, and any place with money that they can lay their hands on. The pair is fugitives with exploits plastered all over the front pages and roadblocks waiting to stop them up. All the while Bart makes Peggy promise not to shoot anything because he still is totally opposed to killing people. 

It seems like things might end peaceably, except once again the gun-toting lovers are nearly flat broke so Peggy coaxes Bart into one last job to end all jobs. For the first time, despite their planning, just enough goes wrong to nearly botch their mission. Bart drives off and Peggy shoots a guard. He’s not the only one. 

 guncrazy1When Bart finds out, after the fact, he realizes they have just stepped up a level with murder stuck on them. The game is winding down and the only place Bart can turn is his hometown where his sister is. For good reason, she cannot stand Bart or Peggy who she sees as poisoning her brother. And it’s true. Bart seems different now, so paralyzed by fear that he even pulls a gun on his old friends.

The last ditch effort of Bart and Peggy is to literally head for the hills. The dragnet is sent out and the hounds are let loose. They hardly have a chance before dropping from exhaustion in a swamp. They’re trapped and a crazed Peggy looks to shoot it out to the death. But for once Bart breaks with her remembering his friends. It doesn’t help him much.

Gun Crazy is a B-film and yet it is easy to forget because the way Joseph H. Lewis constructed this film is so impressive in its economy. One scene that reflects this so beautifully is the long take from the back seat of the car. The camera does not change positioning and so we see a bank job from the outside, and it only helps to build up greater tension.

 We also have enough time to care about certain characters. We have enough time to see Peggy is really no good. Yet with her keen marksmanship, she is a different shade of femme-fatale who is still as deadly as any of her contemporaries. Along with They Live by Night (1948), this is one of the archetypal Bonnie and Clyde-esque films. Thank goodness this film’s title was changed from Deadly is the Female to the more apt Gun Crazy. That it is. 

4/5 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

Gun Crazy (1950) – Film-Noir

Starring John Dall and Peggy Cummins, the film opens with a young boy who is infatuated with guns. After stealing a gun from a hardware store, Bart is sent to reform school even though his friends and sister testify he would never kill a living thing with it. Bart spends some time in the army and finally returns home grown up. He goes to a carnival with old friends and meets a female sharpshooter. She gets him a job and they grow close only to be fired from the carnival. They get married and are happy for awhile but then she gives him a choice. Either they start robbing stores fro money or she will leave him. Reluctantly he agrees and they begin to get a little money robbing stores and gas stations. It is not enough so she convinces him to pull one last job so they can live a content life together. They begin working at a meat packing plant in preparation. The day arrives and they succeed but then Laurie shoots two people out of fear much to Bart’s horror. They must split up and the manhunt begins. The FBI track them down and the only place to go is back home. His old friends plead with him to surrender but they flee into the mountains with the authorities hot on their trail. They are trapped and Laurie is desperate once again but Bart cannot bear it anymore. Despite the tragic ending Bart ultimately redeems himself but it is too little too late. This was a precursor to Bonnie Clyde and it has its share of tense moments.

4/5 Stars