Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Killer Application - Rope

Alfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense. Many of his films hinge up on a murder, or an unjustly accused victim. He builds suspense in his films by keeping the audience wondering when the murder is going to occur or when the hero on the run is going to get caught. Throw in some deadly obstacles and a double cross or two and you've got some solid suspense entertainment.

I've tackled Hitchcock twice before. In Suspicion we have only the heroine's point of view to guide us. She begins to suspect her charming husband of being something more than he appears to be. The tension builds on this suspicion. In Psycho, Hitchcock provides us with the woman on the run, and keeps us wondering if she'll get caught. Then he murders our "lead character" and closes the movie with other characters walking into the spider's den. This is a bit of a hybrid, half hero on the run: half waiting for the murderer to strike.

"Rope" is a different type of hybrid. The movie starts with the murder: a young man is strangled right in front of the camera. The rest of the film is contained in the apartment where the murder has occurred and the where the body is still hidden. The two murderers host a party, placing a feast on the chest where the body is hidden. The party guests include the father and aunt of the deceased man, his fiancée and best friend. Also invited is the old professor who was a favorite teacher of not only of the victim, but of the murderers.

This macabre setting acts like a pressure cooker. The murderers are so confident and smug that they don't believe they can be caught, and that what they have done (with the murder and the party) is actually a work of art. They tempt fate, and the notice of the very observant professor (played by the always solid Jimmy Stewart), but guilt starts to take its toll on one of the killers, threatening to ruin the whole work.

The audience is now waiting to see if the killers get caught, at the same time we get to find out more about them during the party. And as the party continues we find them deplorable, arrogant and (Brandon especially) a bit deranged. There is a logic to their reasoning, but it's a logic that seems to come from people who think they are better and smarter than everyone else. The audience wants them to get caught by the end, but the old professor is now in very real danger, trapped in an apartment with two killers, who admire and fear him.

"Rope" is often considered an experiment in Hitchcock’s filmography. All the action occurs in the apartment, and Hitchcock goes further by attempting to make the whole movie appear as if it has been filmed in on continuous shot. The illusion is interesting and it required the actors to be comfortable with performing the entire film in long takes. There is very little editing at all, but the camera is not locked off. It moves almost constantly, following the characters around the apartment, peering over shoulders and looking around doorframes. Anyone interested in camera work should check the film out for that alone.

Hitchcock stated that he wanted to create a filmed version of a play, something that was locked off to one set, but that allowed the freedom of movement that a film would offer. It's interesting and yet at the same time it hurts the film. Despite all of Hitchcock's efforts the film ends up feeling stagy. Some of the actors play very broadly (especially the killers) and while that would be fine on the stage a bit more subtly would have done wonders for the film. In the end, the tension is built, but not to the heights of the more masterful Hitchcock thrillers.

What I find interesting from the story point of view is the fact that the killers are the main characters in the film. We can't sympathize with these men, they are too arrogant and sociopathic to really like. The cold calculation of the act of murder and the party are intriguing, but after establishing their motive (they do it to prove a philosophical point), the audience is more engaged with the cat and mouse game. Will they get caught? If so, what will happen? Will the teacher, who exposed them to the philosophy they cling to, attempt to stop them or understand what they are doing? It's an intriguing set of questions, it's too bad the execution doesn't elevate these to a more surface level.

Have you seen "Rope"? What did you think of it? Have you read a story or seen another movie where remorseless killers were the main character? How did the creators attempt to make you sympathize with them, or were you just waiting for them to get caught?

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