"The plain, wherein a black bituminous gurge boils out from under ground, the mouth of Hell!" Judge Norman Short condemns his mortal soul by speaking ill of a Hitchcock movie. Read the review that will damn him for all eternity.
Our review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Blu-ray), published December 11th, 2012, is also available.
Nothing ever held you like Alfred Hitchcock's Rope.
There must be a place in film critic hell for me, or if there isn't someone is making one. I'm about to commit what may be a cardinal sin in the religion of film criticism. I'm going to write a negative review of a Hitchcock film. Sure, contemporary critics didn't like all his work, but Hitchcock has gone on to achieve mythical status after his death. He is certainly one of the great filmmakers of all time, but he missed the mark with the experimental Rope, an attempt to make a film look like a play. It isn't so much the attempt to make a cut-less version of the film that is at fault, but a story that doesn't follow through on the creepiness of its premise and comes off more like an episode of "Columbo." Universal has managed to make a DVD that is actually better than the film.
Facts of the Case
Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger) are two young social climbers who really took what their old college headmaster Cadell (Jimmy Stewart) taught to heart. He had taught them about Nietzsche and his philosophy of the overman, a superior man who did not have to obey conventions and morals made for inferiors. In Cadell's view, judicious use of murder by the superior man would erase the problems of poverty, traffic jams, and getting into a good restaurant. Well, those two students, boys being boys and all, decide to strangle their friend David as a social experiment. The film opens with his killing, and quickly he is stuffed into a trunk in the living room. Brandon glories in his accomplishment, but Phillip is less serene and more worried. Still, Brandon decides to go ahead with their party plans for the evening, with David's parents, girlfriend, and friends in attendance, and uses the trunk as a buffet table. As the guests arrive, they voice their growing worry about David not showing up, as Brandon grows smugger and Phillip grows more distraught. Cadell starts to see that something is wrong, and must find out if his teachings have been put into practice.
The premise of this film, the sort of thing you read on the jacket of the DVD advertising, sounded like something I'd enjoy; something that a Hitchcock could pull off with macabre glee. The beginning worked fine, and there were moments later that had real suspense, such as when the lady helping with the party starts to clean up the food and wants to put something inside the chest. Unfortunately those moments were far apart, and the acting in between looked more like something from "Peyton Place." Only Stewart and Sir Cedric Hardwicke gave anything like convincing performances.
The film was made in 1948, and as films of this age go, the transfer is pretty good. The Technicolor comes through in glorious shades of burgundy and blue, and the earth tones all looked rich and golden as well, though there are parts of the film where the rich colors fade. Nicks and scratches are common, some grain is evident, and some ringing or halo effect is also noticeable. Though it looks sharp enough, the full frame transfer quality is mixed at best. The sound quality is 2.0 mono track lacks fidelity or low end, but is clear enough for the dialogue to come through and the noise floor is low.
The extra content is the true gem of the DVD, as it is in the other Hitchcock classics recently released from Universal. The documentary "Rope Unleashed" by Laurent Bouzereau is the crown jewel of the collection, and is a 30 minute in-depth look at the film, with interviews from writers Hume Cronyn, who wrote the treatment, and Alan Laurents who wrote the screenplay, along with Pat Hitchcock O'Connell and co-star Farley Granger. Especially interesting was the unwritten and unspoken background of the story, that the two young men were homosexuals and even the James Stewart character was supposedly sexually involved with one of the boys. They referred to the homosexual undertone of the film as "it," and they knew never to even talk about "it." The censors of the time wouldn't have allowed any such references, and I can only imagine how the film might have been different if they had been free of such limitations. The innovative method of filming is also covered. Hitchcock wanted the film to look as if it had no cuts at all. Since a reel of film could only last about 10 minutes, Hitch was forced to use some fairly obvious transitions, such as closing in on the back of someone and changing reels to pull back out. A photo gallery (about 40 in all), production notes, cast and crew bios, and a heavily scratched trailer complete the extra content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Almost everything after the beginning of the film smacked of artificiality. The obvious transitions attempting to hide the reel changes, the characters, and especially the acting. Probably Sir Cedric Hardwicke gave the most natural performance, and Constance Collier the most delightfully over the top. Unfortunately the main characters were stilted and sounded like they were on a soap opera at best. James Stewart's character was too conflicted; at one point he is professing his view of the superior man and his disdain for conventional morality, the next he is horrified that someone might actually practice it.
If the story was stilted, the ending was worse, lacking any credibility. I thought I was watching some television detective show where the private eye puts together the clues and reveals the killer, who then admits all and is ready to be taken away. Critics and moviegoers were not fond of this film at the time, and it appears for once they knew what they were doing. Sometimes the greatness of a film only becomes apparent years later; in this case it wasn't long enough for me.
As part of the Hitchcock Collection box sets, this is a worthy addition because of the documentary. But I wouldn't recommend purchase of it by itself, since it isn't worthy of the cost and there are much better Hitchcock films.
I'd rule death by hanging, but the pun is just too obvious. It's too late to convict anyone who made the film, and Universal did right by the DVD presentation so it looks like there is no one to charge. So the case is dismissed, but not because nobody is guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• "Rope Unleashed" Documentary
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