JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

Grounds For Justifiable Homicide

I just listened to a 2015 episode of The Incomparable Old Movie Club where the good fellows discussed two of Alfred Hitchcock’s less appreciated films, 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt and 1948’s Rope.

You have to be looking pretty closely to see Hitch’s cameo right after the opening credits

I needed no convincing on the first movie, as I’ve long considered Shadow of a Doubt to be a masterpiece, but my two viewings of Rope had left me feeling much as Hitch himself felt about it: an interesting experiment but ultimately a failed one. After listening to the podcast and hearing all their enthusiasm for the film, I decided to give it another viewing.

The movie is based on a British play by Patrick Hamilton which was inspired by the Leopold/Loeb case of 1924 (or rather the Loeb/Leopold case as it was referred to in those days). Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were wealthy, over-privileged gay lovers in Chicago who fancied themselves intellectually superior persons, and they thought that gave them the right to kill whomever they wanted. And of course, being so superior, they would commit the perfect murder. Of course, they were caught immediately, and during the course of the first “trial of the century” Orson Welles, I mean uh, Clarence Darrow managed to keep them from receiving the death penalty.

A fictionalized version of the case was eventually published in 1957 as Compulsion by Meyer Levin and made into a movie of the same name starring the aforementioned Welles.

The color cameras used for filming Rope were huge

Anyway, long before Compulsion, which was a realistic portrayal of the case, although it changed all the names, Hamilton’s stage play took the main premise of two gay lovers who commit a “perfect murder” because they are “intellectually superior” to create a suspense drama where the central characters commit the murder at the start of the show and then stuff the body into a trunk in the center of the stage. That trunk remains visible to the audience throughout the rest of the play as the two gay lovers host a party, seemingly daring their guests to discover the body in the trunk.

Jessica Tandy’s husband Hume Cronyn worked with Hitch to develop a motion picture treatment from the play, and that was eventually turned into a screenplay by Arthur Laurents, whom you may know better as the author of the libretto for the musical Gypsy.

Hitch wanted to keep the feel of the stage play by giving the illusion of having the movie filmed in one long continuous take, thus keeping the trunk with the body in it foremost in the audience’s collective mind. He did this by carefully planning the movie (as he always did anyway; that was the part of movie-making that he most enjoyed), and breaking the 80 minute feature into ten shots, none longer than about ten minutes.

The walls of the sets could break away to let the equipment through as the actors moved around

Mostly he disguised the cuts by having the camera move in for a closeup of someone’s back or some inanimate object, but there are a few actual standard cuts as well.

Since Hitch was famous for his technique of montage (basically that means cutting from one clip to another), this new style of working seemed to go against everything he had learned from a lifetime in cinema. For example, one of his standard techniques would be to show a person walk into a room with the camera facing the actor who is clearly seeing something. Then cut to the object that the actor is looking at, followed by another cut back to the actor to get her reaction.

Another challenge with this new style of filming was the huge color cameras then in use (this would be Hitch’s first Technicolor film), and the network of thick cables lining the floor that the actors would have to seamlessly navigate around. He had his set constructed with walls that could be moved out of the way to make room for the cameras to follow the actors as they moved from room to room. This was long before the days of the Steadicam.

I had long read about the film, but it was out of circulation for years, so when it was re-released to theaters in 1984, I was eager to see it. And I was disappointed. It just didn’t seem very suspenseful.

Cut to the mid 2000’s when I got it on DVD, and my opinion didn’t change.

So yesterday, after listening to that podcast, I gave it another view, and while I’m still not as enthusiastic as the fellows on that podcast were, I think I know what my problem is.

It’s Jimmy Stewart.

I think Jimmy Stewart was miscast in Rope

He’s just wrong for the part of the former teacher of the gay lovers of John Dall and Farley Granger, and whose philosophy has inspired them to commit the murder. There’s supposed to be a sub-text that Stewart’s character is possibly gay himself and may have had an affair with one of the lovers in the past. Also, it becomes clear that Stewart’s “philosophy” which inspired the lovers was really meant more as tongue in cheek repartee, not genuine moral guidance. Stewart doesn’t have the light touch to bring this off.

But Cary Grant would have. And Hitch originally wanted Grant for the role, but Grant, who actually was gay, didn’t want to have anything to do with a role or a film with a gay subtext. Given the standards of the time, of course, there is no mention of the word “homosexual”, only the most indirect implications of it.

So there it is. My problem with the film, I think, is the casting. Other people do seem to really enjoy it just as it is. And there is much to like. It’s certainly worth seeing at least once, even for none Hitchcock lovers.

I suspect that the average film-goer might not even notice the experimental way that it’s filmed unless it’s pointed out. And there are excellent performances by the entire cast, really, even Stewart, once he gets past the former teacher part and morphs into a Columbo-like detective role. And when the camera comes to rest on the trunk as the maid gradually removes the objects that have been sitting on it, in preparation for opening the trunk to place some books inside it, some of the old Hitchcockian suspense comes to the fore.

While I tend to give Hitch’s films at least eight stars out of ten, I only gave this one seven. Still pretty good.

Predestination

My two favorite science fictions authors when I was a teenager were Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Actually I think they still are.

Anyway, one of my favorite short stories by Heinlein was “—All You Zombies—”, which despite the title has absolutely nothing to do with zombies. It was perhaps ten pages long and packed a lot of story into that short space. I don’t think I ever imagined it would be filmed, or if it ever was converted into a movie, surely Hollywood would totally mess it up.

Happy to report that I was wrong. I just watched the 2013 movie Predestination, and it’s about as faithful a rendering of Heinlein’s story as is possible to do. So faithful that it uses many bits of Heinlein’s dialog (which I still recall even though it’s been years since I last read the story), and even includes a jukebox song that Heinlein references during a key scene. Of course, it's not really a product of Hollywood, having been made in Australia.

Clearly it had to expand on the story a bit to fill out its 90 minutes, and that’s the source of both its greatest strength and its one weakness.

Its strength is that it humanizes Heinlein’s major characters by expanding on their motivations and letting their emotions show through. The initial meeting of two of the characters, which occurs more than halfway through, was a very moving moment. Sadly, by adding one additional plot thread, the movie also loses a bit of the tightly controlled logic of Heinlein’s original; but since the movie does so many other things right, I can’t get too upset about that.

Its a time travel story, and that's all I'm going to say about the plot; if you plan to see it, I recommend not reading anything else about it.

Currently its only available on disc and pay per view, but I do recommend it highly.

It's Christmas! How About a Little Truce?

Prince Charles? Would you go to war if he were assassinated?

Prince Charles? Would you go to war if he were assassinated?

Suppose Prince Charles of the UK were assassinated while he was traveling in South Korea.

Would you consider that a justification for the US going to war with, say, Japan?

No?

And yet in essence that's what precipitated the First World War, or The Great War, as it was called.

Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were shot dead in Sarajevo, and because of a series of treaties binding various countries to fight for each other, Europeans suddenly found themselves at war with each other in August 1914.

Yes, it was a bit more complicated than that; there were long-simmering rivalries and feuds among the various nations, etc., etc. 

Given the precipitating event, the killing of a prince whom no one really liked, it was necessary for the propaganda machines of the warring nations to flip into high gear, whipping up the populations into a frenzy of irrational hatred for the "enemy".

And so it came to pass that on Christmas Eve, 1914, during a lull in the fighting, with German troops on one side of the trench and French and British troops on the other, the soldiers heard their "enemies" singing Christmas carols across the divide.

An informal "truce" was declared and the "enemy" factions joined together to sing carols, trade cigarettes and booze, and discover the common humanity that they all shared.

Joyeux Noel (Widescreen)
Starring Diane Kruger, Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet, Natalie Dessay, Rolando Villazón

That's a true story.

Alas, it doesn't have a happy ending.

The next day, the troops were reluctant to fight against their new-found "friends", and so each side began to warn the other of when a surprise shelling was about to occur.

Needless to say, once the generals found out about the "truce", they were not amused. There was going to be hell to pay, and they exacted their own form of punishment on the "disobedient" troops.

As I said, that's a true story, and it formed the basis of one of my favorite movies of the last few years, 2006's Joyeux Noel (that's French for "Merry Christmas").

And now it's been turned into an opera, Silent Night with a libretto (based directly on the movie's screenplay) by Mark Campbell and music by Kevin Puts; it was the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Silent Night the Opera

Silent Night the Opera

Originally staged by the Minnesota Opera in 2011, it has now come to Opera Philadelphia. I'm going to see this afternoon's performance, and I have to say, I haven't been this excited about a new musical work since, oh, since Stephen Sondheim's Passion nearly 20 years ago.