Film Noir

How to Outsmart Yourself

Who's the cat and who's the mouse?
James Stewart and John Dall play cat and mouse.

*Spoiler alert.

We are not smirking. Really. We’re not.

Okay, okay. We are smirking because we’ve just watched Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rope for the twelfth time.

We never tire of this movie. We love it when smug, arrogant people get their come-uppance. And we love that Hollywood – itself rather smug and arrogant – knows exactly how to sucker punch the self-inflated.

In this film-done-as-a-stage-play, two rich young men named Brandon and Philip (John Dall and Farley Granger) decide to murder their friend. They are not motivated by hatred or jealousy. No, their goal is more scientific – lofty, even: they want prove that a perfect murder is possible. So they choose their friend, David, whom they regard as intellectually and culturally inferior. They see him as the best sort of victim because they can’t see him serving any useful purpose and, therefore, won’t be missed by society at large.

The murder takes place just ahead of a small dinner party that Brandon and Philip are hosting. Before guests arrive, these two shove the deceased in a large chest and decide to cover the chest with a tablecloth upon which they will serve dinner. (You know, so the guests can eat from this “altar”, as Brandon calls it.) That is pretty macabre, but that’s not the worst of it. Besides their old schoolmaster (James Stewart), the dinner guests include David’s father, his aunt and his fiancé, all of whom are looking foward to seeing David at the party.

Soon the guests arrive. Brandon (Dall) is beside himself with excitement. He’s dying to gloat about his clever murder; indeed, he almost wants to be found out so everyone can see how smart he is.

However, Philip (Granger) is disturbed not only by the murder, but by the fear of discovery. He begins to drink heavily and, despite Brandon’s orders to pull himself together, his behaviour becomes erratic.

No matter! Nothing will spoil Brandon’s evening! Dall is utterly mesmerizing as the smarmy young man who prods his increasingly-worried dinner guests. He gleefully eggs on David’s anxious father: Why is David so late? What horrible thing could have happened to him?

When Stewart’s character starts having suspicions, Brandon’s excitement only intensifies. Someone’s on to him! Whee! It’s the best night of his life! His whole demeanour screams: “Nyah nyah, you can’t catch me!”

Until the inevitable happens, as it must, because this is 1948 and, after watching the appalling Brandon strut around for over an hour, we are desperate to open a can of come-uppance – for poor David’s sake, if not for our own.

Hitchock filmed this movie in what appears to be one feature-length take. It’s fascinating to see how it’s done, if you can ignore the splits in the beams above the doorways (where the walls had to be moved to accommodate the cameras), and the weird close-ups of the backs of men’s suit jackets (as the crew changed film reels).

Yet, the staging is brilliant, as is the acting. Every single actor in this movie is terrific, which is another reason why we love watching it. Everyone is utterly convincing.

If you have never seen Rope – or if you haven’t seen it in a while – make the opportunity to see it soon. Its theme is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s.

Rope: starring James Stewart, John Dall and Farley Granger. Written by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Universal Studios, 1948, 80 mins.

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