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 to films we didn’t even bother reviewing.
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.
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.
Strangers on a Train
“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.