[18 June 2010]
In this sixth installment of our overview of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, we take a look at his most divisive period – a string of wildly inconsistent material ranging from masterpieces (Strangers on a Train and Dial M For Murder) to films we didn’t even bother reviewing (Stage Fright, The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn). While still crafting about one film per year, it was becoming clear that Hitch was in need of a creative rebirth. Indeed, he was about to enter the most extraordinary phase of his career.Rope
Owing to the technical experimentation for which it is best known, Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller has gotten less attention for its subject matter than the more critically acclaimed films that followed. Still, it remains more than an interesting experiment in “real time” cinema. It was ahead of its time in both its portrayal of gay characters and for the cynical and somewhat sinister nature of its hero, Rupert Cadell as played by Jimmy Stewart. If Rope is hamstrung by its technical limitations, these limitations also allow for longer discourses on power and violence, as well as more delicate subtext concerning the nature of masculinity and the fuzzy line between normal and deviant behavior.
Rope was Hitchcock’s first Technicolor feature and his only one filmed with several long takes, giving the illusion of one continuous shot. Given these artistic choices, much of the film’s production went into set engineering. Scenes were meticulously choreographed to accommodate the large color camera, which also necessitated a set that could allow for constant camera and actor movement. Since it was shot on a soundstage, an elaborate cyclorama of the Manhattan skyline was also built, replete with twinkling office lights, moving clouds, and a sky that went from afternoon to night outside the windows of the apartment where the action takes place. Yet with more concentration on dialogue than many other Hitchcock films, Rope has room for greater explanation of the motivation for murder.
Rope is based on the Patrick Hamilton play of the same name but, as screenwriter Arthur Laurents later explained, with much of the homoeroticism removed. Still, there is no denying the relationship between the two villains Brandon and Phillip (played by John Dall and Farley Granger, respectively) is more than a friendship. Brandon and Phillip share the New York apartment where they murder former classmate David. They stow the body in a wooden chest Brandon insists be used as a dinner party place setting. Critics have made claims that David’s murder symbolizes the sex act between Brandon and Phillip. Other interpretations focus on the possible sexual relationship between one or both young men and the bachelor Rupert. However, such interpretations reveal as much about our assumptions about male relationships as they do the film. This is a movie from the 1940s after all. Any homosexuality had to be slyly suggested rather than made blatantly obvious. So what makes these characters gay? Standing too close? Living together? Farley Granger’s pretty boy good looks? The plot’s similarity to the real life murders committed by the purportedly gay Leopold and Loeb? What is clear is that Brandon and Phillip have taken the Nietzschean philosophy of their former prep school housemaster to the extreme.
During the party, Rupert speaks casually about murder being “a privilege for the few.” The housemaster turned publisher states his impatience with “social conventions,” preaching Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman. While David’s Aunt Constance is delightfully scandalized by Rupert’s theoretical justification for murder of the inferior by the superior, the victim’s father is disturbed by Rupert’s arguments. With Rupert’s seeming seriousness, it is not implausible that his influence is partially to blame for David’s death. As concern over David increases amongst the guests, Rupert begins to suspect Phillip and Brandon, particularly as Brandon drops hints about his absence. Rupert finally discovers the body’s hiding place and is both shocked and ashamed. He is quick to renounce his Nietzschean philosophy, though he does not hesitate to pass judgment on his former students, hysterically shouting, “You’re going to die!” as police sirens wail in the distance.
Jimmy Stewart ended active duty as a United States Air Force bomber pilot during the Second World War just a couple of years before the film’s release. Early in the film, Brandon tries to assuage Phillip’s guilt by saying, “Good Americans mostly die young on the battlefield, don’t they?” The combination of fact and fiction is interesting here, as Stewart returned to America a war hero, though his wartime actions undoubtedly caused death and suffering to many, likely to civilians as well as soldiers. As a meditation on justifications for violence, then, this oft-overlooked film is worth viewing. Where it falls short is in suspense, a flaw owing less to structural experimentation than to the murder and hiding of the body occurring on screen. Within the milieu of Hitchcock’s classic suspense films, then, Rope is a lesser work.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to shoot you, Mr. Haines. It might disturb Mother” utters the psychopathic antihero Bruno Anthony (played by Robert Walker). Based on Patricia Highsmith’s first novel (she would go on to pen the classic “Ripley” series),Strangers on a Train centers on rising tennis star Guy Haines (played by Farley Granger). As Guy travels by train to meet his wife Miriam, he encounters the charismatic Bruno, who seems to know a fair amount about Guy already, given his rising celebrity. Guy’s marriage is deeply troubled as his wife frequently cheats on him and refuses him a divorce so that he is unable to marry his true love Anne Morton, the daughter of a rich and influential senator. Bruno casually presents the idea that he kill Guy’s wife Miriam and, in exchange, Guy will kill his father. It’s the perfect crime: since they are both strangers, no one will ever be the wiser. Guy, visibly uncomfortable by the conversation, hurriedly leaves his spooky acquaintance as the train reaches its destination.
But what Guy fails to realize is that Bruno has unilaterally decided to carry out his depraved plans, killing Guy’s wife Miriam. After the murder, Bruno approaches Guy at his home to tell him what he has done, and that he now expects him to carry out his part. He gives Guy the layout of his home and the keys with the expectation that Guy will murder his father to settle the score. Guy refuses and Bruno begins to seek revenge against him for breaking their “deal”, as he plots to frame Guy for the murder of his wife Miriam. Very quickly, Guy is yanked into Bruno’s cruel web as Bruno becomes a more and more intrusive presence in his life. With the help of his beloved Anne, Guy scrambles to evade the treacherous Bruno and to protect his life and the life of his loved ones.
Hitchcock actually commissioned the rights to the novel for a meager $7,500. Given the recognition that came with his name, he wanted it left out of all monetary negotiations. And because it was her first novel, Highsmith settled for the small amount. Upon realizing that it was Hitchcock who was directing the film, she was more than a little upset, realizing that she could have most likely commanded more money.
Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchcock’s most iconic films, and has been frequently referenced in films and television ever since its appearance. It was made during the mid-point of Hitch’s Hollywood years and employs many consistent themes and motifs that resonate throughout his bountiful oeuvre. A characteristic Hitchcock psychopath, the rich, disarming Bruno Anthony woos his prey, all the while laying surreptitious traps in their path. Though the film did not include the star wattage that pervaded some of Hitchcock’s other works, the performances were some of the best that Hitchcock ever realized, particularly with respect to Robert Walker’s portrayal of Bruno Anthony. There is a reason that Strangers on a Train is still so popular with audiences even today, that it is so frequently copied, and continues to make best movie lists—it’s quintessential Hitchcock. He provides slow and steady suspense and anxiety with each staircase and shadow, a brooding darkness that culminates in a justly revered scene on a maniacal carousel. It’s without a shadow of a doubt that this is one of his best.
The reason Hitchcock disowned this film—he told Francois Truffaut he regretted making it—is simple: the film lacks humor, a Hitchcock staple. He liked death to occur with irony, so as to double-hand dread with oddity. A good example is 1948’s Rope, which begins in medias res: two Leopold/Loeb-inspired men commit murder as an exercise in power. The more somber I Confess also begins with a murder, and like the former film reveals who has killed, and why. The goal isn’t to uncover a motive, but to see how far a priest will take confidentiality in confession. Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), a rectory employee, confesses to Father Logan (Montgomery Clift) about his robbery-turned-murder. When the investigation gets underway, Logan remains silent, even though someone was spotted fleeing the scene in a priest’s cassock, and the victim is no stranger to Logan. We guess him to be more involved long before Hitchcock throws in his mid-narrative twist. Regrettably, it comes in an overlong flashback sequence.
In his best scenes, Clift lets guilt channel through his matinee idol looks, a brief reminder of his more powerful performance in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun. When Otto confronts Logan, trying to maintain his trust, the film offers a new take on Hitchcock’s doubling motif, with dueling consciences being displayed onscreen. Yet, Hitchcock’s reported difficulty directing Clift is apparent throughout. A formalist who (as legend has it) planned out entire films through storyboarding, Hitchcock clashed with the actor’s improvised Method style, resulting in an awkward and stilted performance. The rising and falling cobblestone streets of Vieux Québec City provide an aesthetic austerity to this tale of religious tradition colliding with moral justice; lending an ancien regime look and feel to this outmoded religious parable. In 1956, Hitchcock would return to such territory with The Wrong Man, featuring a much more affecting performance from Henry Fonda. While not in Hitch’s trademark style, these films remain interesting as relatively straightforward commentaries on crime and punishment, morality and desire.
Sometimes it is easy to forget that, auteur theory aside, Alfred Hitchcock was a studio director making film after film under contract. In interviews he refers to Dial M for Murder as a basic studio product, the kind of film that “requires no great creative effort,” that allows you to “keep your hand in,” “play it safe,” and make “an average movie.” “I could have phoned it in,” Hitchcock apparently said in a press conference about his “ordinary craftsmanship” here, a pun that is just too perfect for this film!
The movie is based on a successful stage play by British playwright Frederick Knott, who also wrote the script. Despite his protestations, Hitchcock made an enjoyable and economical film, while retaining the play’s sense of spatial confinement and the theatrical emphasis on exposition and dialogue. We start with a basic love triangle, consisting of rich heiress Margot (Grace Kelly in her first role with Hitchcock), her husband, former tennis star Tony (Ray Milland), and her lover, detective story writer Mark (Robert Cummings). Unbeknownst to Margot and Mark, Tony has known about their affair for a year and has used this time to hatch a plan for the perfect murder. It’s a cold-blooded plot, revolving around an old school friend he spots in a pub, who has made a new career out of swindling money from older ladies and occasionally killing them; a love letter from Mark that Tony manages to acquire after staging the “theft” of Margot’s handbag in a crowded train station; a phone call; and an innocuous-looking latch key. After luring conman Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) to his apartment, Tony blackmails him into accepting the perfect plan: using Margot’s own key, Charles will enter the apartment the following night, Tony will call Margot from his club at 11 pm, she will come out of the bedroom to pick up the phone, and Charles will kill Margot and stage a routine-robbery-turned-accidental-murder in the apartment. Tony has a perfect alibi, and Charles’s payment will come in untraceable small bills that Tony has been saving for a whole year.
Plan A looks great, but Margot fights back, killing Charles with a pair of scissors while Tony is still on the phone. The turn in the film comes in the following scenes, as we watch Tony constructing Plan B in front of our eyes, planting evidence that will incriminate Margot and make it appear that she intentionally murdered Charles for blackmailing her. At first this plan works too, and Margot is imprisoned and sentenced to death, which would have been a new version of the perfect murder for Tony if other people hadn’t started seeing patterns. In a last-ditch effort to save Margot, Mark concocts what he thinks is a fictional explanation of the events, but one that comes too close to the truth, while Chief Inspector Hubbard (in a great performance by John Williams as the quintessential British policeman) notices that the murdered man had no key on him. Although all latch keys look alike, and nobody uses a key-ring in this film, there is a different level of perfection in how a key works in its proper lock. When Tony opens the door to his apartment using the key left by Charles under the carpet on the stairs outside, he finds that he has an audience, and that this simple action of opening the door finally reveals his role in the story. Cool as ever after this version of a grand entrance, he pours everyone a drink!
The film is quite insistently about certain kinds of storytelling, about how many explanations can fit the same physical facts, and whether these explanations are as interchangeable as the similar looking latch keys and the similar looking men’s raincoats that are also swapped in the film. All the questions of a classic mystery work well here: sometimes the truth sounds like fiction, sometimes explanations that fit perfectly do so because they are artificially designed to fit, and the question is whether the truth has a different propelling power or not, whether it fits even better. In fact, the mystery is solvable only because nobody made a copy of the two original keys, an option that occurs to Tony too late as he tries to enhance his first explanations. And although everyone is just so cool and modern about it, the whole lock and key metaphor has a provocative connection with the adultery subplot: we see Margot kissing her husband at the beginning of the film and kissing Mark only a few seconds later. Keys and locks have to be perfectly matched, but it’s different for people. It’s as if Margot’s infidelity has created the possibility that a different key can fit this lock, an option that the male characters have to render impossible, unacceptable, through the course of the film.
If the film traffics in the fantasy of the perfect murder, it fuels this fantasy through the implicit desire for a perfect monogamy. Or, the perfect murder is the only answer to the demise of a fantasy of perfect monogamy. Given that the film presents men’s clothes, keys and positions in the story as largely interchangeable, whereas Margot’s handbag, for example, is never lost or replaced by another similar object, one can see where the anxiety comes from. This motivating violence of a fundamental gender betrayal is brought to the foreground in the recent remake A Perfect Murder (Andrew Davis, 1998), starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen. More intense than its 1954 counterpart, the film seethes with a hidden rage about a promised but undelivered or compromised patriarchal order. Woman with Money? Men interchangeable? Unthinkable.
Dial M For Murder was shot in 3D, at the tail end of a short-lived fascination with the technology in the 1950s and it may strike contemporary viewers as an unconventional choice for this depth-making technology. The film is rarely screened in 3D today, so it is hard to appreciate what the mode does for this insistently interior story. In contrast to the contemporary tendency to use 3D for new worlds and huge visual spectacles, here we need to notice the creation of depth at choice narrative moments, rather than set-up or world-establishing moments. When Margot answers the phone the camera creates a slow half circle around her, the murderer comes into view, poised behind her and slowly extending his knotted scarf to strangle her. If this visual treatment activates depth, the background space, the moment when Margot reaches for the scissors in order to defend herself activates a break of the implicit fourth wall, the forward space, as her outstretched hand reaches straight through the screen towards us. In addition to using many unusual and overhead camera angles, and many objects in the extreme foreground, Hitchcock uses 3D to add dimension to a limited space—limited at first in its spatial footprint perhaps, but since when have stories been truly limited in their meanings by physical facts?