This is a film that I have actually had for quite some time, but only came across it again last week, having misplaced it. I’ve enjoyed several Hitchcock directed films; two personal favourites being Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954), so I hoped I would be on to a good thing. Today’s film was adapted from a play published in 1929, which had the same name and was written by Patrick Hamilton. I wasn’t particularly familiar with the actors involved, though one name did jump out at: James Stewart, which I recognised.
To get you up to speed here is the blurb:
‘James Stewart stars with Farley Granger and John Dall in a highly charged thriller inspired by the real-life Leopold-Loeb murder case. Granger and Dall give riveting performances as two friends, [Philip and Brandon], who strangle a classmate for intellectual thrills, then proceed to throw a party for the victim’s family and friends – with the body stuffed inside the trunk they use for a buffet table. As the killers turn the conversation to committing the perfect murder, their former teacher becomes increasingly suspicious. Before the night is over, the professor will discover how brutally his students have turned his academic theories into chilling reality in Hitchcock’s spellbinding excursion into the macabre.’
Unusually this film is shot on one set, aside from the opening credits, with quite long running scenes before there is a shift in character or action. This approach to filming a story comes with its specific advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand it can contribute towards rising tension levels, but it can also lead to the film dragging, if not handled properly. For me this film leaned more towards the latter than the former and in the main, I don’t really think I would rank this as one of Hitchcock’s greatest successes. However, I am getting ahead of myself…
A strong beginning is achieved, with the opening exterior shots of an idyllic ordinary street, clashing brilliantly with the sudden screams heard behind the closed curtains. The audience is also startled by then being shown the victim dying after being strangled, before being placed into a trunk by two men. Hitchcock plunges us into the middle of the action, with no run up or background to the victim and killers. Nor are these answers immediately in the offing, as post kill the focus of the narrative is on the physical reactions the killers have towards their recent deed. Given the differing roles they had in the crime, their reactions are similarly divergent, with the strangler suffering the most psychologically and in a way you feel as though he was probably more propelled into the activity by his more psychopathic friend.
In fairness giving one of the killers psychopathic tendencies is the only way you can really justify the point of having the party. Brandon invariably wants to keep pushing things just that bit further to see what happens, a tendency which spells doom for their perfect murder. This is no spoiler as the story is irrefutably an inverted mystery, which brings me to how this film doesn’t show Hitchcock at his best.
Now knowing who the killer is in a Hitchcock film is no bad thing, as in both my favourite Hitchcocks, the identity of the murderer is not in question. The focus is more on whether or not they will get away with it and what might happen to those doing the detecting. Yet in both of my favourite films there is more of a run-up to the central death. They may not be long run-ups, but they do allow the audience to get a handle on the key characters. Moreover, the sense of peril and tension is much better achieved in these two other films. We may not get so visceral a viewing of the killing, but somehow we still feel as though we’re getting a closeup on the crime. Maybe less is more in such moments. We then of course get to the killers themselves. I wouldn’t say I like or admire the killers in Dial M for Murder or Rear Window, but I do think I found them to be smarter crooks, who I wanted to find out more about. I equally found their motives for killing more creditable, as Philip and Brandon’s philosophical motive, just gives the death a strong sense of futility.
A lack of depth in the characters was also a weakness I ran into with Rope. I think this most affected the old teacher of the killing duo, who has the detecting role. His ability to unnerve those around him and play around with social chit chat, meant he had a lot of scope and potential, but it is a potential which is never fully realised. There is one rather good scene in which the teacher tries to prize the truth out of Philip who is playing at the piano. As the interrogation unfolds, a metronome is effectively used to pile on the pressure and overall I would say that this film does an interesting line in increasing the tension through the mildest of things. Moreover, background instrumental music is used sparingly throughout the piece. Another strong moment in the film is when it looks like the housekeeper will end up opening the trunk. This scene takes a little time as the woman shifts items to and fro to clear the lid of the trunk. But the scene ends a bit clumsily and with a sense of anti-climax, which brings me on to the final key reason this film didn’t quite work for me.
Being an inverted mystery there is an eventual showdown, but I found its’ use of understated tension to now be something of a weakness, as the whole final sequence drags painfully. Whilst there is some interesting camera work used in producing a re-construction of events, I found the denouement to be weighed down with lethargy, with a rather ham-fisted attempted at a fight over a gun. There could be an argument for psychological realism, but the lack of dialogue and energy does not make for great cinema and on the whole I found the finale concluded on a flat note.
Not sure how well or ill regarded this film is, so I am looking forward to hearing other people’s views on the matter.