Tag Archive: James Stewart


ROPE (1948) – Transatlantic Pictures – Rating:  ★★★ 1/2

Color – 80 mins. – 1.37:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  James Stewart (Rupert Cadell), Farley Granger (Phillip Morgan), John Dall (Brandon Shaw), Cedric Hardwicke (Mr. Kentley), Constance Collier (Mrs. Atwater), Joan Chandler (Janet Walker), Edith Evanson (Mrs. Wilson), Douglas Dick (Kenneth Lawrence).

Written by Hume Cronyn (treatment), Arthur Laurents (screenplay)

Cinematography:   Joseph A. Valentine

Edited by:  William H. Ziegler

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On May 7, 1947, Alfred Hitchcock wrapped production on The  Paradine Case, bringing to a close his nearly decade-long affiliation with David O. Selznick.  Although the Selznick/Hitchcock  period began rather auspiciously with Rebecca in 1940, it was drawing to an  unsatisfying close.  Cast and crew alike seemed to sense  that The Paradine Case was doomed to failure.   But  Hitchcock himself seemed little phased.  As at other points of  his career when he was making what he felt to be a  substandard picture (e.g. Waltzes From Vienna, Jamaica Inn)  his mind was already on his next project.

And that project was titled Rope, and would be the first film made by Transatlantic Picures, a production company founded by Hitchcock and partner Sidney Bernstein.   Transatlantic Pictures made a deal with Warner Brothers for distribution, beginning an association between Hitchcock and Warners that would last for several years.

Rope was an unconventional film, both in story and in structure.  It begins with two young men murdering their friend, just for the thrill of it.  They then place his body in a trunk, and proceed to host a dinner party, serving the food from the very trunk which holds the body.  The party guests are all intimately related to the young victim as well, including his father, his aunt, his girlfriend, and his best friend.    The most interesting guest however is Rupert Cadell, former prep-school housemaster of the murderers and the victim.  Over the course of the evening, he suspects that something is awry,  and will ultimately figure out exactly what happened.

Continuous action:   Perhaps it is best to let Hitchcock himself describe the manner in which Rope was filmed:

“I wanted to do a picture with no time lapses – a picture in which the camera never stops… As I see it, there’s nothing like continuous action to sustain the mood of actors, particularly in a suspense story.  In Rope the entire action takes place between the setting of the sun and the hour of darkness.  There are a murder, a party, mounting tension, detailed psychological characterizations, the gradual discovery of the crime and the solution.  Yet all this consumes less than two hours of real life as well as ‘reel’ life.”

So Rope is meant to play out in real time, with the 80-minute running time equaling 80 minutes of story time.  There are 10 editorial cuts in the movie, meaning that the takes average 8 minutes in length.  That is a long period of time to film without cutting.  Imagine an actor flubbing his line, or a technical mistake, at the seven-minute mark.  That meant resetting to the beginning of the sequence and starting over.  Here is Hitch again:

Rope was a miracle of cueing.  Everybody; actors, cameramen, the prop crew, the electricians, the script supervisors, spent two solid weeks of rehearsals before a camera turned.  Even before the set was built I worked out each movement on a blackboard in my home…Whole walls of the apartment had to slide away to allow the camera to follow the actors through narrow doors, then swing back noiselessly to show a solid room…Tables and chairs had to be pulled away by prop men, then set in place again by the time the camera returned to its original position…But the most magical of all the devices was the cyclorama – an exact miniature reproduction of nearly 35 miles of New York skyline lighted by 8,000 incandescent bulbs and 200 neon signs…On film the miniature looks exactly like Manhattan at night as it would appear from the window of an apartment at 54th Street and First Avenue.”

rope5In the above picture, you can view the cyclorama in the background.  The clouds, made of spun glass, would “move” across the cyclorama as the action progressed.  And as the late afternoon turned to evening, the sky would darken, and the lights in the buildings would turn on.

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Now here is the same cyclorama seen from a more close-up angle, and later in the evening.

Source material:  The movie is based upon the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton, which in turn was inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case.  (Leopold and Loeb were two University of Chicago students who murdered a fourteen year old boy to demonstrate their “intellectual superiority” in pulling off the perfect crime.  They were caught and sentenced to life in prison.)   Arthur Laurents’ screenplay follows the structure of the play fairly closely, with a couple of minor changes.  The setting is moved from London to New York.  In the play, it is a blue theatre ticket that provides the final clue for Rupert Cadell to solve the crime;  in the movie it is the victim’s hat, which is given to Rupert by accident, that serves as a clue.

Overall the dialogue of Laurents’ screenplay is better than the original play, but there is some delicious dialogue in the play that didn’t make it to the movie including a great self-referential moment, as the denouement approaches, when the character of Rupert says “It is the hour when jaded London theatre audiences are settling down in the darkness to the last acts of plays” which is of course exactly what the very audience listening to this dialogue was doing!  But Arthur Laurents creates his own referential joke in his screenplay.  When Mrs. Atwater and Janet (played by Constance Collier and Joan Chandler) are discussing movies, Mrs. Atwater is swooning over Cary Grant.   She says “He was thrilling in that new thing with Bergman.  What was it called now?  The ‘something of the something’?  No, it was just plain ‘something'”.  This is, of course, a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s own film Notorious, which had been a hit two years earlier, in 1946.   Hitchcock must have apprecited the in-joke.

Hitchcock and homosexuality:  There are several Hitchcock films that have homosexual undertones, but nowhere is the theme more prevalent than in Rope.   Leopold and Loeb, the actual killers that inspired the story, were in a gay relationship.   And that relationship remains intact in the Patrick Hamilton play.  So it is only natural that it would be carried over to the screen version as well.  Of course gay themes were strictly taboo in 1948 Hollywood, so they had to be implied through subtleties of screenplay and acting.  It probably helped that the movie’s screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, was gay.  The two actors who played the homosexual killers, Farley Granger and John Dall, were gay as well.  As a matter of fact, Laurents and Granger were in a relationship at the time the movie was in production.   Granger had this to say in his autobiography:  “John Dall and I discussed the subtext of our scenes together.  We knew that Hitch knew what he was doing and had built sexual ambiguity into his presentation of the material.”  Watch the early scenes between Dall and Granger, watch how close they get to one another, listen to the tone of Granger’s voice.  The gay relationship is hiding in plain sight.  When Phillip asks Brandon “How did you feel, during it?”  He is asking about the murder, but the viewer can imagine that same query in an entirely different scenario.  Later, when Brandon (played by John Dall), is describing Phillip (Farley Granger) strangling chickens,  Phillip vehemently denies ever strangling a chicken.    There are layers to the guilt here.  Phillip feels guilty because he has recently strangled a person, but the phrase “choking the chicken” also has another entirely different connotation.   This entwining of guilt that Phillip feels, his double secret, ( he is a murderer, and he is gay), continues throughout the film.

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The entire cast of the film sit with Alfred Hitchcock (far right) in front of the beautiful New York City backdrop.

Performance:   There are only eight characters in the film (nine if you count David Kentley, but he is killed in the first minute).   I’ve already discussed the good performances of John Dall and Farley Granger.  Everyone else is solid in this as well.  Cedrick Hardwicke and Constance Collier, two veterans of the stage, are clearly in their element in this film involving long takes.  Joan Chandler, Douglas Dick, and Edith Evanson are well cast too.  But the biggest surprise here is Jimmy Stewart.  Stewart later admitted that he was miscast in this role, but his performance is very good.  In the original stage play, the character of Rupert Cadell was the boys’ housemaster at school, and he exposed them to the idea of intellectually superior beings, who could kill “lesser” people with impunity.  But he also “taught” them something else as well;  for in the play, Rupert is gay as well, and probably was involved with both young men at some point.   Well there was no way Jimmy Stewart was going to play a gay character; even an implied homosexual element was out of the question.  So Jimmy played it straight.  His character works like a detective, sensing something strange about this dinner party from the very beginning. then gathering evidence until the final scene, when he uncovers the truth and summons the police.

Hitchcock and color:  Rope was shot in Technicolor, the first color movie in Hitchcock’s career.   Hitchcock had some very interesting thoughts on color which are worth sharing.  He said:

“I never wanted to make a Tecnicolor picture merely for the sake of using color.  I waited until I could find a story in which color could play a dramatic role, and still be muted to a low key…The key role played by color in this film is in the background.  I insisted that color be used purely as the eye received it.”

“We must bear in mind that, fundamentally, there’s no such thing as color; in fact, there’s no such thing as a face, because until the light hits it, it is nonexistent.  After all, one of the first things I learned in the School of Art was that there is no such thing as a line; there’s only the light and the shade.”

Theatrical trailer:  Throughout the course of his career, Alfred Hitchcock had many unique and innovative trailers made for his movies.  The trailer for Rope is one of the most interesting.  It begins with a scene featuring the characters David Kentley and Janet Walker, sitting on a bench in Central Park.   David is killed in the very first moment of the film, and has no dialogue (other than a scream).  And yet here he is, conversing with Janet in a scene that could function as a prologue to the film!  The trailer is narrated by Jimmy Stewart, and can be viewed here.   (Please note:  All rights to this film are owned by Universal Pictures.)


Recurring players:  James Stewart would later appear in Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much remake, and Vertigo.  Farley Granger would reunite with Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train.  Cedric Hardwicke also appeared in Suspicion.  And Edith Evanson would appear in Marnie almost 20 years later.

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Where’s Hitch?  One could say that Hitchcock has two cameos in this movie.   Since the action all takes place in one apartment, he first decided to insert himself by creating a neon sign of his famous profile, which is visible out the window at about the 55 minute mark.  The profile is difficult to recognize on a small screen, and the word that appears underneath it in neon is pretty much impossible to see.  And that word is “Reduco”, the weight-loss aid that was the basis of Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat.  (So the neon sign is an advertisement, justifying its appearance on the New York skyline.)  Perhaps because it was so hard to spot, or so unconventional, Hitchcock shot a more straightforward cameo;  he can be seen walking down the street from left to right with an unknown woman at about 1:58, just after his director credit fades.

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Look closely!  There is Hitch’s profile, over the word “Reduco”.

What the actors said:  In his autobiography, Farley Granger said that “Rope was an interesting technical experiment that I was lucky and happy to be a part of, but I don’t think it was one of Hitchcock’s better films.”

Jimmy Stewart said that “Rope wasn’t my favorite picture”, and observed that the film was “nothing more than an experiment.”  However, he followed that by saying “I’m glad I did it, and I’ll go on record as saying I’ll make a picture for Alfred Hitchcock anytime.”

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock had the same reservations about this film as his actors did, saying “I undertook Rope as a stunt, that’s the only way I can describe it…As an experiment, Rope may be forgiven.”  Not a very ringing endorsement.  Perhaps the most significant thing he said is in reference to the technical aspects of the production:  “…technique is merely a means to an end and the audience must never be aware the the camera, the director, or the photographer is performing miracles.  Everything must flow smoothly and naturally.”

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Alfred Hitchcock clowning around with his three leading men, in a publicity photo for “Rope.”

Definitive edition:  The 2012 blu-ray release of Rope, from Universal, is the best available sound and picture quality for this movie.  The print is very clean, the color sharp and balanced.  Extra features include a 32-minute documentary titled Rope Unleashed, which features interviews with Farley Granger and screenwriter Arthur Laurents.  Also included are production photos, and the original theatrical trailer.

THE Mman1956sevenAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) – Paramount – Rating:  ★★★

Color – 120 mins. – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  James Stewart (Dr. Ben McKenna), Doris Day (Jo McKenna), Christopher  Olsen (Hank McKenna), Bernard Miles (Edward Drayton), Brenda De Banzie (Lucy  Drayton), Daniel Gelin (Louis Bernard), Reggie Nalder (Rien).

Associate Producer:  Herbert Coleman

Written by John Michael Hayes, from a story by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Original Music by Bernard Herrmann

Costume Designer:  Edith Head

Art Direction by Hal Pereira and Henry Bumstead

Why would an A-list director like Alfred Hitchcock choose to remake one of his own films?  He certainly wasn’t the only high-profile director in the “golden age” of film to do so:  Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, Howard Hawks and John Ford all directed remakes of earlier films in their catalogs.  It may have been producer David O. Selznick who first planted the seed in Hitchcock’s mind.   As early as 1941, Selznick told Hitchcock that he thought The Man Who Knew Too Much would be a good film to remake.  Hitchcock (who was under contract to Selznick at the time), actually began writing a new treatment of the story with John Houseman, but nothing ever came of it.

Fast-forward about 13 years.  Hitchcock was in the midst of his prolific run at Paramount Pictures in the mid 50’s.  He had cranked out 3 films in less than two years, all penned by screenwriter John Michael Hayes.   He owed Paramount one more movie, after which he had to fulfill a contractual obligation to Warner Brothers for a movie.  Hitchcock already knew what movie he was going to make for Warner Brothers:  The Wrong Man.  But what movie would he first make for Paramount?  A remake of  The Man Who Knew Too Much, also written by Hayes.

The basic plot of this remake is the same as in the original film.  The McKenna family, on vacation in an exotic locale, witness a murder, and the dying victim imparts vague knowledge of an upcoming assassination attempt.  The child in this family is kidnapped, to prevent the parents from disclosing what they know to the police.   So the parents set out to find their missing child on their own.

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This film can be divided neatly into two parts:  the first 49 or so minutes, which take place in Marrakesh, Morocco, and set up the murder and kidnapping; and the latter 71 minutes, which take place in London.  The first section is by far the weaker of the two;  the pace is at times drearily slow.  Consider that Hitchcock’s original version of this movie took less than 15 minutes to shift the action to London, and this version takes over three times as long.   There are two separate story threads at work in this first section of the movie.  The overlying one introduces us to Ben and Jo McKenna (played by Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day), and their son Hank (Christopher Olsen), travelling in Marrakesh.   The McKennas have several mysterious encounters, first with a man on a bus named Louis Bernard;  later outside their hotel where a woman appears to be staring at Jo; and finally with a rather odd-looking man who “accidentally” knocks on their hotel room door.   The attempt to slowly build up suspense has some nice touches, but overall it takes far too long to get going.  Even attempts at humor don’t always work;  much is made of Ben McKenna’s ignorance of (and annoyance with) eating customs in a traditional Moroccan restaurant.  Yet he has earlier stated that he was in Morocco during the war.  Certainly he would have observed some of the local customs?   The underlying storyline is far more interesting, and this focuses on the state of the McKennas’ marriage.

John Michael Hayes often focused in his screenplays on the difficulties in relationships, how sacrifices must be made for any relationship to succeed.   His screenplays often have men and women from different worlds, who have seemingly irreconcilable differences in career and hobbies.  The best example of this is in Rear Window, in which Jimmy Stewart’s character deflects all talk of marriage with the incredibly sublime Grace Kelly, because of their different jobs and social standing.  The movie ending hints at a possible compromise.  One could  argue that the McKennas in The Man Who Knew Too Much are a logical progression of the couple from Rear Window.  Ben McKenna is a successful doctor in Indianapolis, Jo is an accomplished singer on the Broadway stage, who gave up her career for her husband.    And thus is established a theme of patriarchal dominance (as pointed out by Steven DeRosa in his informative book “Writing with Hitchcock”) which is rather on point for mid-1950’s America, and might have made more than a few movie-going couples squirm in their seats a little.

There are a dozen examples of dialogue in the opening section of the movie that point to the frayed edges in the McKennas’ marriage, and most of them are written with the subtlety and humor that were Hayes’ trademark as a writer.   Jo questions why Ben couldn’t be a doctor in New York, so she could appear on Broadway.  She asks him when they will have another child, which clearly blindsides him.  When their son Hank is getting ready for bed and sings the line “When I was just a little boy, I asked my mother what would I be?” the McKennas exchange a knowing glance.  Clearly Ben wants his son to follow in his footsteps as a doctor, while Jo, by encouraging Hank’s singing, has other ideas.

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The male dominance established in the film’s early sequence is not always so subtle.  In the movies most disturbing scene, (and one of the most disturbing scenes in all of Hitchcock), Ben McKenna forces his wife to take a sedative before he tells her that their son has been kidnapped.   By modern sensibilities this goes beyond patronizing.  But I find it hard to believe that a 1950’s audience would have been any less disturbed.  Doris Day’s performance in this scene is gut-wrenching and unforgettable.   But as is usually the case with Hitchcock scripts, the male lead will be emasculated later on, and it is the female who will save the day.

As soon as the story transitions to London, the pace quickens, and this latter half of the movie is far better.  The McKennas work (first separately, then together) to locate their kidnapped child, with the major set piece of the film being the assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall, just as in the original version.  ( I will focus on a comparison between the Royal Albert Hall sequences in a later entry.)  It is Doris Day who prevents the assassination, by screaming to throw off the shooter’s aim.  And again it is Doris Day who uses her singing to attract the attention of her child in the movie’s final sequence.

Six minutes of self-indulgence:  In one of the movies better sequences, Jimmy Stewart’s character goes in search of a man named Ambrose Chapell, not realizing that the name refers to a place, not a person.  After a brilliant set-up, and escalation of tension, the sequence moves into a taxidermy shop (which seems to specialize in exotic animals),  where we quickly realize that Ben McKenna is not in the right place.  Further, his rather bizarre and disturbing dialogue alarms the shopkeepers (it sounds as if McKenna is proposing that they stuff a dead person!)  Clearly they think McKenna is a madman.   There is much jostling around, before McKenna flees.  This sequence ultimately serves no purpose in advancing the plot;  it exists only for it’s own sake.  The sole purpose is some comic relief, to deflate the building tension.  Hitchcock enjoyed sequences like this.  He once likened movies to riding a roller coaster, in that you have to give the audience ups and downs.

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Performance:  Jimmy Stewart is adequate in this film, but not nearly as strong as he was in both Rear Window and Vertigo.  He does have several good moments.  Doris Day, who is a polar opposite of the typical Hitchcock heroine, was astounding in this role.  She gives an outstanding performance.   Christopher Olsen has little to do in his role as Hank, and what he does is mostly forgettable.  In Hitchcock movies, it is female children that are given interesting and memorable roles.  Male children, as in this movie,  are used for comic relief more than anything.  Bernard Miles does a decent job as Drayton, the leader of the gang, but he is no Peter Lorre.   Brenda De Banzie does a very good job as Mrs. Drayton, especially as her maternal feelings begin to show in the later portion of the film.

Recurring players:  Jimmy Stewart appeared also in Rope, Rear Window and Vertigo.  Patrick Aherne was in The Paradine Case.  For trivia buffs, Frank Atkinson appeared in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (in the first he is the policeman shot behind the mattress, in this one he works in the taxidermy shop) as well as Young and Innocent.   Betty Bascomb is the only other person to appear in both versions (in the original she gives up her room for the two policemen, in this one she is Edna, the glasses-wearing kidnapper).  I think Betty Bascomb is also in Sabotage;  she is not credited on imdb, but I am almost certain that the girl in the aquarium is her.   And of course Bess Flowers, the Queen of the Hollywood extras (who appeared in more movies than anyone in film history), was also in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Notorious, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch  a Thief, Vertigo, and North by Northwest.   Gladys Holland, Louis Mercier and Edward Manouk were also in To Catch a Thief.  Anthony Warde also had an uncredited role in Rear Window.

Where’s Hitch?  At the 25:40 mark, Alfred Hitchcock can be seen in the crowd of people in the marketplace, watching the performers.  He is to the left of the screen, seen from the rear.

Academy awards:  This movie was the winner of one Oscar in 1957, for best Original Song:  “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)”.   This was the only nomination the movie received.  Hitchcock was at first opposed to the use of a song, but the studio felt that it would be a missed opportunity to cast Doris Day in the lead and not have her sing.  Alfred Hitchcock was pleasantly surprised with the song penned by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, which became a hit record after the release of the movie.

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What Hitch said:  In comparing this remake to his original film, Hitchcock said “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”

Definitive edition:   The 2012 Universal blu-ray is by far the best-looking print of this movie available.   That being said, it is not a fantastic print.  There are some problem areas with the movie, where some colors will shift over the course of a scene (particularly skin tone).  On the other hand, some scenes are absolutely gorgeous.  The VistaVision process allowed for amazing image clarity and color separation.    Perhaps a true restoration will be done at some point, but in the meantime, this is as good as it gets.  The soundtrack is a two-track mono, and sounds very good.  Also included is a 34-minute making-of documentary, production photographs, and two trailers.

 

 

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