Rope (1948)

March 22, 2009

Having watched a good but disappointing Hitchcock, I followed it with an underrated one.  To reaffirm my faith in the bloke.  Or just to watch a great film, I suppose. Reputedly Rope is a film without cuts; a stage play filmed by a moving camera in real-time and that’s almost true.  But not quite.  There are eight ten minute takes neatly edited to look seamless.  I only spotted a couple of cuts – though I wasn’t especially watching for them- most notably on 33 minutes when a shot of John Dall cuts directly to James Stewart, which is the only one there’s no attempt to disguise.  But that’s most likely to do with the impossibility of filming the whole thing on one reel as opposed to any ‘cheating’.  The film does run in real-time and is, as near as makes any difference, a one camera one take film.  It’s a tremendous technical achievement in my eyes even with the odd trick.

And it’s simply so dramatic- from murder to conclusion in about eighty minutes of intense dialogue and psychological cat-and-mouse.  The impossibility of an unhappy ending in I Confess isn’t replicated here, there’s every chance that the protagonists of “the perfect crime” here may evade detection.  The tension, present from the opening death-scream, never relents.  Hitchcock marshalls the audience superbly in this film, ratcheting up the tension discretely- a pointed comment, a panicked look, the foregrounding of the cabinet and so on.  Truly this one goes right up to eleven.


The protagonists whose attempt to commit that “perfect crime” are documented here are Farley Granger’s Philip Morgan who is completely under the spell of John Dall’s Brandon Shaw.  Shaw is himself besotted with James Stewart’s Rupert Cadell- the murder is done simply to impress him- and the whole thing is charged with an electric homo-eroticism.  Each of them clearly has something going with the other- whether a history or an infatuation- and their range of mannerisms (affectations would be a better word) are clearly intended to suggest homosexuality: Granger- five years on from his similarly homo-erotic relationship in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt– is sissyish, John Dall is preening and Stewart bitchy.  The play was, I understand, based on a real-life case involving homosexual partners and the original cast was to include Montgomery Clift (gay) and Cary Grant (reputedly bisexual) which would have made the matter even more blatantly obvious than the coded, allusive nature of it’s suggestion here- the dialogue about Dall and Stewart having both seen Granger ‘strangling a chicken’ would have been as risque as it was possible to get past the 1948 censors.

Aside from the nerve-jangling tension and the technical excellence (see the night sky become dusk before your eyes) and the intriguing undercurrents and the audacity of the whole project then, what has Rope got to offer?  Well, there is a fantastic Jimmy Stewart performance.  The keenness of Cadell’s intellect is obvious in every measured comment, every searching look, every pause in the dialogue and yet to see the certainty and arrogance he has displayed throughout crumble almost instantaneously during the climactic sequence is astonishing.  In a second you see the man’s world turned on its head.  Superb stuff.  John Dall (who couldn’t look more like Ben Affleck even with the help of CGI) and Farley Granger are also really good, but not in Stewart’s league.  The dialogue is fantastic, full of pointed lines (Kentley to the strangler Morgan: “these hands will bring you great fame” as he plays the piano, for example).  Also, while not being as densely layered as his absolute finest films like Rear Window, Vertigo or Psycho this still raises questions about the capacity for murder- the distinction between the mens rea and the actus reus if you like.

Really, it is a very interesting piece and deserves a much better reputation than just being an experiment in film-making, it is simply a fine film. 9/10



The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

February 19, 2009

The absolute tragedy of The Man Who Knew Too Much is that the opening half an hour of scene-setting and character establishment isn’t anywhere near strong enough to match up to the genuinely gripping meat of the film.  It is not that the film is boring, it’s certainly not like The Deer Hunter where the viewer’s resolve is tested and only the mentally strong can stomach the fourteen hour Wedding in order to get to the great stuff hiding away afterwards.  It is simply that the opening half-hour establishes James Stewart and Doris Day as an irritating and slightly foolish couple who think rather more highly of themselves, though maybe not of one another, than they might.  And when the film turns gripping suddenly it’s not so much that I get discombobulated by the shift, it’s simply that there’s a period where I know that I’m not engaged in the way that I should be and need to be for the film to work.  It happens of course, despite Doris Day and all the ‘oh-so-wholesome, apple pie, Que Sera Sera, too good to be true and dull as a pair of old pants’ baggage she brings I do begin to care.  I do get edgy.  I do want her to find a way to stop the shot.  That’s the skill of Hitchcock.  But he has to use so much of it redeeming the first half hour and- let’s be frank I hope this was forced upon him- the presence of Doris fucking Day and her fucking song, that the film is nowhere near the levels of dramatic excellence it could have reached.  For him to have blown his second shot at this story, and I haven’t seen the first in some years so I can only assume that he was unhappy with that too, is a real tragedy.  And it is blown- a real wasted opportunity.  Of course, as ever, I’m being hypercritical of someone I greatly admire.  If this was, say, a Barry Levinson film I’d be raving about it and moaning that he hardly ever shows any signs of this kind of skill in his other films.  But however good a job Hitch does of making up for it, there’s still no getting away from the fact that he lets her sing that fucking song in his film.  Twice!  Oscar my arse (as an Aston Villa manager may have said back in the sixties).


So I’m not going to mention her again- other than to say in some scenes she’s really pretty convincing, its just that in others she’s useless which means that she may as well have been useless all along.  Right, that’s it!  No more mentions of that woman again.  And no I’m not on about that woman, Ms Lewinsky, I’m referring- or rather no longer referring- to the blonde bombsite up there .

The film then takes a wonderful turn just over half an hour in.  There has been intrigue before this with the urbane but mysterious Louis Bernard’s behaviour perplexing the normal, upright McKennas.  There’s even been a murder- Bernard in largely unexplained face-paint is butchered in a busy Marrakesh market right in front of the McKennas.  But 37 minutes in Jimmy Stewart receives a chilling call, Bernard Herrmann strikes up the band and Hitch focuses the camera on Jimmy’s hand anxiously gripping a telephone directory and the film takes flight.  Up to this point Stewart had played his character as grouchy and a little aloof, but this is stripped away instantly and he seems fallible and human and all of his ornery qualities become strengths.  It’s a clever performance by Stewart, playing an everyman character thrown into a volatile situation beyond normal comprehension could easily see the opening stages of the film played out by a sweet, happy, pleasant man- a male Doris Day if you like- rather than an uptight, opinionated, sometimes bolshie and sometimes funny guy.  And because he is a real person with a genuine and convincing angst over the safety of his son I find myself hooked.  The score helps, the direction helps but the real strength of the scene is in James Stewart’s brow.


From that turning point we’re off on a Hitchcockian rollercoaster.  If you’ve seen The 39 Steps or North By Northwest, you’ll have seen this done better but it’s still exciting.  The action sees Day and Stewart frequently separate and not always acting with the other in mind, their frantic and often instinctual actions are beautifully shot with each finding themselves in odd positions as a result of their impetuosity- the scene with Stewart barging through a taxidermists as the staff try variously to restrain him and to protect their stuffed animals is priceless, James Stewart being bitten by a stuffed tiger in a Camden backstreet is not a sight you see every day!  There are false turns, red herrings,  suspicious officials and plausible bad-guys but at no point does this get confusing, it’s all deftly balanced and explained with great visual flourishes (though the earlier technicolour does look barely better than some colourised films I’ve seen) – and builds to the great Royal Albert Hall sequence.

The scene in the Royal Albert Hall is probably as dramatic as could be without tipping over into campy melodrama.  The set-up is fantastic, though it does require a little suspension of disbelief, and allows Hitch to stretch the scene out.  The viewer is already aware of the piece of music that will coincide in the shot being fired- a climactic cymbal crash- and the piece builds to it, then fades out several times heightening the tension through Doris Day’s character.  It is a beautiful example of how to control an audience.

After this, the film falls a little flat again.  The drama of what has just gone on needs to be released in some way but the plot requires that the final loose end is tied up.  This section of the film- lamentably shoehorning in another rendition of ‘Que Sera Sera’- cannot help but be anti-climactic and the film loses some impact here too.  It is a little too contrived, a little too neatly arranged and the final scene where the couple return to their waiting guests- who would have had time to grow a beard during their absence- is as cheesy as Hitchcock ever got.

And so I find The Man Who Knew Too Much disappointing.  Plenty within it is of the highest calibre and much of the rest is really unworthy of such a great filmmaker. 5/10

Vertigo (1958)

January 29, 2009

There is something about this film, something in the atmosphere of it, which is quite unique.  It isn’t quite dreamy and it certainly isn’t surreal, I’m guessing the best word is hypnotic.  The film lasts about two hours but feels longer because it immerses the viewer within- it doesn’t interest or intrigue or engage me, it enraptures me.  Everything contributes- the storyline with its twists and juxtapositions, the cinematography which somehow makes contemporary San Francisco look ethereal (and this isn’t the lustre added by the intervening years, I am sure), the performance of James Stewart with conflicting emotions of guilt and confusion and love and hope writ large across his brow, the direction which is confident, controlled and unhurried and finally- perhaps most importantly- Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score.


There is such a great deal of depth to ‘Vertigo’ that you really can find new things to consider with each watch.  Here’s what I mean: watching this yesterday I was, for the first time, pondering the control that the male characters exercise over the female characters in their lives- Gavin Elster over Judy, ‘Scottie’ over Judy, ‘Scottie’ over ‘Midge’ and the unknown man from the bookseller’s story over Carlotta (his comment “they could do that back then” being ironic in that context).  Juxtaposed with this are the supposed obsession with Carlotta which Madelaine portrays and the obsession with Madelaine which leads ‘Scottie’ to possess Judy.  The film examines these relationships without drawing conclusions- these are left to the viewer- in each instance the man is rich and substantially older, the girl becomes a plaything or a means of passing the time, to be moulded and shaped in whatever image suits the man’s mood.  What this says about patriarchal relationships for Hitchcock is unimportant, he posits the question for the viewer to consider without guiding those thoughts.

There are culture snobs who claim that cinema isn’t art.  If Goya or Rembrandt created anything that betters Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ then I’ll eat my hat- 10/10.

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

December 24, 2008

Through the cruelty of another, a man’s life is in ruins and he is faced with “bankruptcy and scandal and prison”. He is about to take his own life when an Angel offers him the chance to see what the world would be like had he not lived. The bleakness that permeates the lives of everyone he knows and loves in his absence persuades him that he “really had a wonderful life”. At this point, I start blubbing.

Then he gets his life back and I’m in floods of tears and he tells the Sheriff “isn’t it wonderful, I’m going to jail” before his friends and neighbours gather around to save him and sing “Auld Lang Syne” and I get carted off to hospital and put on a saline drip having cried all of the salt from my body.

Frank Capra Jr is a wonderful feelgood Director and in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, whether intentionally or not, he passed off a serious message about the perils of rampant capitalism and the need for some form of communalism in the most capitalist country in the world at the outset of McCarthyism and got away with it. He made wonderful, life-affirming movies and this is the finest of them.

James Stewart gives a marvellous performance embodying the young, idealistic George Bailey and the warped, frustrated version a mere ten years on (he doesn’t look the same man!) wonderfully. It’s the performance of a lifetime from one of the world’s finest actors.

The supporting cast of fully-realised and interesting characters are all excellent- especially Donna Reed as Mary Bailey and Lionel Barrymore as Henry F. Potter.

I have a good friend with impeccable taste who simply doesn’t get this film.  I understand that, I don’t get The Clash- though I know that I should.  It depends on if you’re touched by what you’re seeing or hearing and sometimes you’re immune.  Odd, but true.  I’m the opposite, this just gets me.  It just does.  This truly is one of the most perfectly realised pieces of film-making I have ever seen. It is by turns funny, sad, dramatic, harrowing, heartwarming and wise and it is as clear an example of a 10/10 film as there could be.