Thursday, December 31, 2009

DVD Review: ROPE (Transatlantic Pictures/Warner Bros., 1948)

In movies, as in life, we "see" what we're predisposed to notice. The conventional wisdom regarding Rope, Alfred Hitchcock's first color film -- and, by far, his most cinematically audacious one -- is that it contains gay subtext out the wazoo. It seems like a slam dunk: screenplay writer Arthur Laurents is gay, two of the three major players are gay/bisexual, and the play on which the movie is based was a dramatization of the real-life case of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy gay men who murdered a youngster in 1924 just to see if they could get away with it. These facts imbue such moments in the film as a reference to "chicken strangling" and a character fussing with a champagne bottle with extra layers of meaning. While the subtext might very well have been inserted intentionally, one can, if one chooses to do so, regard the movie with equal validity as a black-hearted satire of liberal elitism.

For all the cachet that the homosexual patina may lend the film today, Rope is best-known for Hitchcock's decision to shoot it in real time, using a series of long takes ranging from 5 1/2 to 10 minutes. Hitchcock himself later felt that the gimmick hadn't really worked, and the director does resort to such clumsy cutting devices as focusing on a character's back before moving on to the next long take, but the stagey approach isn't really that off-putting. The major structural problem with the movie is that we know from the beginning that the two self-satisfied roommates (John Dall and Farley Granger) have done the deed; the only question is how it's going to be revealed. It would have been a much greater challenge for Hitchcock to have gradually uncovered exactly what had happened in the boys' luxurious apartment.

Given the stress of the long takes, the cast acquits itself very well, with one unfortunate (albeit unintentional) exception. James Stewart plays the worldly-wise prep school headmaster whose gauzy theories of "justifiable homicide" have helped persuade Dall and Granger that they can pull off their shocking crime. The callous casualness of Stewart's "what-if" musings will be familiar to anyone who's listened to an academic ramble on about praiseworthy dictators, evil corporations, and other topics that s/he can discuss with the smug self-satisfaction of someone who never expects to shoulder responsibility for the consequences. But these musings coming out of the mouth of Stewart, just 18 months removed from It's a Wonderful Life? The mind reels. Given the impossibility of the task set before him, Stewart manages to make the prof's feelings of horror at the discovery that the boys have actually taken him up on his ivory-tower idiocy somewhat believable. Surely, however, a more appropriate actor could have been used. At least Hitchcock gave Stewart the chance to redeem himself in several classic thrillers in the following decade. Rope winds up a very interesting misfire, but one very much worth seeing at least once.


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