Monday, April 18, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Rope (1948) 1h 20m

On Wednesday, 20 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh kicks off its outdoor shoes and cozies up with one of the most audacious and criminally underrated pictures we’ve yet seen, *Rope* (1948), directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring John Dall, Farley Granger, and the incomparable Jimmy Stewart. It was Hitchcock's first film shot in colour, and few of his efforts more richly deserved the added dimensionality and depth of field that colour offers, afterward. 

We don’t think of him this way now, but in his heyday as an A-list Hollywood actor and script-adapter, Hume Cronyn bore a well-earned reputation for being a ripe miserable bastard—particularly toward anyone who dared to tell him no. Thus it was that, on an improbably rainy spring afternoon in Los Angeles in 1947, Cronyn barged in on a studio meeting to present Alfred Hitchcock with one of the less circumscribed and deferential movie pitches ever to that time: He wanted Hitchcock to make a murder mystery, adapted from a one-act, one-room play, and filmed so as to suggest that everything we witness is unfolding in real time. 

The story of the narrative is easily told and almost impossible to spoil. Dall and Granger play two well-polished collegiate aesthetes, bored and lonely after having just completed a mesmerizing course from a philosophy professor obsessed with Nietzsche’s Superman. After a brief conversation in which the philosophical underpinnings of their thinking are revealed to have been suitably and explicitly misunderstood by them, the two young men decide to exhibit their self-appointed superiority. And to do this, it follows (-?), they will commit an act of unspeakable private barbarism—and then confidently host a cocktail party immediately thereafter in the same space. Apparently without so much as washing up first. 

The guest of honour is naturally their would-be mentor, the prim and tweedy Professor Cadell (Stewart), invited by the pair with a clear intent of showing off, without actually revealing to him what they’ve done. No stranger to overzealous college-boy idolatry, Cadell’s simmering discomfiture is at first mistaken for a professor’s natural remorse at seeing enthusiastic converts get it wrong. But gradually, as innuendos find lubrication through the force of drink, Cadell comes to realize that the discomfiture in this case very possibly, indeed probably, counts for so much more than mis-quotation ever could. 

More than anything, this is what makes Rope such a brilliant work of cinema: It’s not how the boys change over the course of this claustrophobic little evening of boat-house protocol and WASPy badinage; it’s how Stewart changes. He knows something is up from the moment he hits that door, of course—but like a man struggling to process the news of a fatal accident, he must drag himself through the stations on a passion-play of self aggrievement and denial. If it’s as bad as it starts to sound, he is indirectly responsible for an act from which he will never quite release himself. If it’s worse, he might not get the chance.  

You may have seen Aleksandr Sokurov’s *Russian Ark* with us a few months ago, and you may have seen Alejandro Inarritu’s *Birdman* without us, a few years before that. If either is the case, then you know how difficult it is just to make a movie look like it was filmed continuously, even in contemporary times. For its era, then, Rope is nothing short of norm-shattering. No one but the 1948 version of Hume Cronyn could have marshaled the Superman’s private conviction of his craft, to devise such a comfortably subversive concept for a film. And no one but A. J. Hitchcock could have carried it off with such riveting aplomb. 

I hope everyone will join us, Wednesday 20 April at 6:30pm, for this spellbinding little keepsake-box of macabre suspense and relentlessly onrushing dread. It’s not true that movies don’t get made like this anymore, but it may as well be.

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