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Rope (Aug. 28, 1948)

Rope
Rope (1948)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros. / Transatlantic Pictures

Did you know that actor Dick Hogan’s last role was playing a symbolic male orgasm?

It’s true. Hogan — previously mentioned in this blog for his role in Shed No Tears (1948) — was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope as murder victim David Kentley.

It’s an important role, but a thankless one. As Kentley, Hogan has no lines, and is offscreen for most of the film’s running time.*

After the film’s opening credits have rolled, we hear his scream, then see him with a rope wrapped around his neck at the moment he is dying. He’s being murdered by a pair of thrill-killers named Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) who consider themselves “superior” and most everyone else — including their friend David — “inferior.”

Rope is based on a 1929 play written by British playwright Patrick Hamilton. Brandon and Phillip are thinly veiled versions of Leopold and Loeb, the infamous thrill-killers who in 1924 murdered a 14-year-old boy in an attempt to commit a “perfect crime.”

Leopold and Loeb were law students at the University of Chicago. Both came from wealthy families, and both had muddled ideas about Nietzsche’s concept of the “superman” and their own superiority.

Long story short, their crime was far from perfect, and they were arrested and put on trial. Leopold and Loeb were represented by Clarence Darrow, who was a staunch opponent of capitol punishment. The jury found them guilty and the judge sentenced the two young men to life in prison for murder, plus 99 years for kidnapping. Loeb was killed by another inmate in 1936, but Leopold was eventually paroled in 1958, after 33 years in prison. He died in 1971 of natural causes.

Dick Hogan

But back to the fictionalization of their crime, and that symbolic male orgasm I mentioned at the beginning.

I’m sure some will accuse me of “reading too much into” the film or seeing something that isn’t there, but I think anyone who reads up on the Leopold and Loeb case and then immediately watches Rope will find it impossible not to notice the homosexual undertones. Also, Hitchcock is one of the most self-aware filmmakers of all time, and he was fascinating by unconventional sexuality.

The very first scene — the murder — is a symbolic orgasm shared by the murderers; strangled, intense, and shameful.

The murder is a stand-in for a sexual encounter between Brandon and Phillip. Phillip doesn’t want to turn the lights on right away. “Let’s stay this way for just a minute,” he says, and Brandon lights up a post-coital cigarette. “We couldn’t have done it with the curtains open in the bright sunlight.”

This is about as explicit as a film from 1948 could be when exploring gay sex and gay desire.

Add to this the fact that the two young men are most in danger of being found out by book publisher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), who was the boys’ headmaster in prep school. The theme of naughty little boys possibly being found out and punished by a boarding-school authority figure is just one of the many skillful pieces of homosexual innuendo that Hitchcock sprinkles throughout Rope.

Granger, Stewart, and Dall

Rope is one of Hitchcock’s most impressive technical stunts. He filmed the action in long takes, like a play. Most of the cuts are necessitated by the length of film reels, and are done as seamlessly as possible (e.g., an actor passes in front of the camera, darkening the frame for a moment to facilitate a cut). Most of the action of Rope takes place during a dinner party at Brandon and Phillip’s apartment. They’ve arranged a buffet on top of the trunk in which David Kentley’s corpse has been hidden.

I don’t normally like films adapted from plays, but I love Rope. Stage plays are very different from screenplays, and I think the problem with most play-films is that something seems very, very “off” about the dialogue and the way the characters appear, disappear, and reappear in physical space. By filming Rope exactly like a play, however, Hitchcock ironically created a very exciting movie that works extremely well. There’s a creepy sense of intimacy created by the single setting and the actors all playing off each other without a cut every few seconds. And of course, the fact that every line in the film is colored by the viewer’s knowledge that the corpse of David Kentley is hidden away under everyone’s nose.

The way the film moves from day to night is eerie and impressive, too. The backdrop of the film is an enormous window that looks out over Manhattan, and as the film moves forward in time the sky grows darker and lights come on in the buildings and smoke curls from little smokestacks.

Rope should be seen at least once by everyone who has any interest in how films are made. And for people who love Hitchcock’s gruesome playfulness and gallows humor, it’s a film to be savored over and over.

*Interestingly, Hogan has a speaking role in the film’s trailer, but never utters a word in the film itself. Hitchcock’s films always had some of the most inventive trailers, and Rope is no exception:

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Brute Force (June 30, 1947)

Snitches get stitches.

Or, in the case of Jules Dassin’s Brute Force, they get forced into a giant machine press by a group of cons wielding acetylene torches. They also get tied screaming to the front of a mining cart and used as a human shield during a massive prison break.

Westgate Penitentiary is hell on earth. All the cells are filled to double capacity. The warden is a weak-willed jellyfish who cedes all authority to the sadistic Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn). There are punishing make-work assignments in the dreaded “drainpipe.” Capt. Munsey plants contraband on prisoners just to send them to solitary confinement. And worst of all, on movie night the cons are forced to watch The Egg and I.

Brute Force is director Dassin’s first film noir (and still one of his best). It’s also producer Mark Hellinger’s second great film to star Burt Lancaster (the first was The Killers, in 1946).

In 1947, Lancaster wasn’t the versatile superstar he would eventually become. He was mostly known for playing “The Swede” in The Killers. The Swede was a lovesick former prizefighter; a big, dumb brute who feels pain, but little else. Brute Force allows Lancaster to stretch a little as an actor. The character he plays, Joe Collins, is the biggest, toughest man in Westgate — on the surface, not that different from The Swede — but he’s also a canny tactician who is ruthlessly efficient at getting what he wants. Collins doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but Lancaster’s physical performance is phenomenal, and would have been at home in a silent film.

It’s a cliche to say that an actor’s body is his “instrument,” but it’s true of Lancaster, a former circus performer who expresses more with his body and his eyes in Brute Force than words ever could.

Collins is the de facto leader of the men in cell R17. He wants out of Westgate Penitentiary, but unlike all the daydreaming, hard-luck sad sacks who are behind bars with him, Collins has a plan, and it’s a good one. But for his plan to work, he has to have the support of the other five men in cell R17, as well as the cooperation and support of a hardened old convict named Gallagher (played with grumpy gravitas by the great Charles Bickford). Gallagher is up for parole, and he’s not sure if he wants to endanger his chances of release by throwing his lot in with Collins.

Brute Force is a film as lean and mean as Joe Collins himself, which makes the sentimental back stories of the convicts feel especially unnecessary. I’ve seen Brute Force at least three times now, and every time I see it I hate the flashback portions of the film more and more. I don’t think Dassin was fully committed to them either, and the abrupt tonal shifts they force on the movie are irritating and unnecessary.

They’re unnecessary because in a prison film about a sadistic captain of the guards and his unfair treatment of the prisoners, the audience will naturally identify with the prisoners without really caring about how they ended up in prison. (Imagine a flashback sequence in Cool Hand Luke that shows Paul Newman saving children from a burning orphanage — what would be the point?)

The fact that the audience knows from the outset of the film that Capt. Munsey arranged to have a shiv planted on Joe Collins in order to throw him into solitary is upsetting enough to most people’s sense of decency and fair play. We don’t also need a ridiculous subplot about Joe’s girl on the outside, Ruth (Ann Blyth), who has cancer and refuses to get the operation she needs unless Joe is with her.

Ditto for the backstory of “Soldier” (Howard Duff, in his first film role — he’s listed in the opening credits as “Radio’s Sam Spade,” the role he was best known for at the time). Duff’s boyish face and incongruously deep, soothing voice do more to elicit the audience’s sympathy than the smarmy flashback in which he’s captured by MPs in Italy and falsely accused of murder while distributed food to the hungry.

Not every backstory in the film is sentimental, nor does every backstory paint its criminal protagonist in a great light. But they are all, in their own way, unnecessary. For instance, the audience doesn’t need to see the flashback in which Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) gives his wife a fur coat with money he’s embezzled to know that he’s a white collar criminal. (Although it’s always nice to see the beautiful Ella Raines, who plays his wife.) Lister’s eyeglasses, his effete appearance, and Munsey’s line — “You’re no hoodlum, like the others in this cell. Why protect them?” — tell us all we need to know about Tom Lister.

The only flashback I enjoyed and would be sad to see excised from the film is the whimsical story Spencer (John Hoyt) tells about the beautiful girl named Flossie who helped him out of a tough jam only to turn around and take off with his money. Not only is the flashback funny and mercifully brief, it ends with the wonderful line, “I wonder who Flossie’s fleecing now.”

In fairness to producer Hellinger, who was largely responsible for the flashbacks, he knew what it took to get a picture made, and how to make a picture that would lead to another picture. The top brass at Universal probably wouldn’t have been crazy about a grim prison movie with no female characters, so the backstories of the prisoners allowed for several beautiful actresses under contract with Universal to draw people into the theater. (And even though I don’t like the flashbacks, I never mind seeing the aforementioned Raines or the beautiful Yvonne De Carlo, who plays Soldier’s Italian femme fatale.)

Also, Hellinger’s skill at wheeling and dealing helped him negotiate the film’s violence around the production code, and helped Dassin get away with things other directors might not have been able to. Brute Force is an extraordinarily violent film for 1947. Of course, it doesn’t show what really happens to human bodies blasted by Thompson submachine guns or .30 caliber machine guns, but it implies enough.

I haven’t said a lot about Hume Cronyn’s performance as Capt. Munsey, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise him. The diminutive, soft-voiced Cronyn is one of the most memorable villains in the film noir pantheon. Cronyn gives “Napoleon complex” a whole new meaning, and he gives lines like “I get quite a kick out of censoring the mail” a creepy, sociopathic edge.

It’s pretty clear that Dassin is using Munsey to make a statement about creeping fascism in America. Munsey is a homegrown little Hitler, and just in case you don’t immediately get the connection when Munsey professes his simplistic, Social Darwinist philosophy, Dassin drives the point home with the set design of Munsey’s office, which includes a giant framed photograph of himself, enormous shotguns that he relishes stroking and polishing, and sculptures and paintings that scream homosexual body worship, not to mention a phonograph on which he plays the overture to Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” while brutally beating a hapless inmate (Sam Levene) with a length of rubber hose for information.

Despite a few missteps here and there, Brute Force is a great film, and should be seen by anyone who appreciates prison movies, film noir, violence in the cinema, finely crafted black and white cinematography, or the brilliant film scores of Miklós Rózsa.

A note about Jules Dassin: because of his French-sounding surname, and the fact that one of his best and most well-known pictures, Rififi (1955), is a French-language film, a lot of people are under the mistaken impression that Jules Dassin was French. He wasn’t. He was an American who was born in Connecticut in 1911 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. He immigrated to Europe after he was blacklisted following testimony about him that was given to HUAC in 1951.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (May 2, 1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Directed by Tay Garnett
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on the 1934 novel by James M. Cain, opens on a lonely stretch of highway outside of Los Angeles, with a shot of a sign hanging outside a gas station that says “Man Wanted.” We’ll soon learn that the sign has a double meaning.

Itinerant drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is hitchhiking from San Francisco, and has thumbed a ride with a nattily dressed man (Leon Ames) whom we’ll soon learn is the local district attorney. Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), the owner of the gas station/lunch counter, runs out and greets Frank, assuming he has come about the job.

It isn’t long before Frank meets Nick’s wife, Cora, (Lana Turner), in one of the best introductions of a sexpot in ’40s cinema. As he’s eating at Nick’s lunch counter, a tube of lipstick rolls across the floor, the camera focuses on it, then pans back along the floor until it comes to rest on Turner’s legs. Cut to Garfield, his breath quickening, then to a full shot of Turner, in a skimpy white two-piece playsuit that would still turn heads today (although her turban might stand out as being a little odd).

As soon as Cora appears, we know Frank will take the job working for Nick just to be close to her. In the book, Nick is a Greek, and described in detail as a physically repulsive character. In the film, he’s just a harmless old fuddy-duddy. Things play out the same, however. Cora leaves a “Dear Nick” letter and she and Frank run off together, but life on the open road, hitchhiking with a delighted-looking Frank, who has two suitcases under his arm, doesn’t agree with Cora or her white blouse, or her white peekaboo toe pumps.

Lana Turner

So they return before Nick comes home and finds the note, and pick up again with their unhappy triangle. One murder attempt designed to look like an accident goes wrong, and after Nick announces that he is selling the business and taking Cora with him, Frank and Cora devise a simpler plan to just get Nick drunk and push him off a cliff in his car.

Technically The Postman Always Rings Twice is a film noir, but it occasionally borders on farce, especially after the murder, and is filmed in a professional and well-lighted but ultimately flat style. Too much of the film’s running time is taken up by courtroom machinations and the gamesmanship between Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn), Frank and Cora’s lawyer, and district attorney Kyle Sackett (Ames). It’s all well-done and entertaining, but in a light and breezy way. There’s the threat of execution in the gas chamber for our two protagonists, but there’s no sense of impending doom during the courtroom proceedings, and with the focus on Ames and Cronyn, it borders on comedy. Things pick up in the noir department towards the end of the picture, but it takes too long to get there, and is undercut by a ridiculous, moralizing denouement. In some editions, Cain’s novel is barely more than 100 pages long, but this film is bloated and overlong at 113 minutes. More minutes in the film than there are pages in the original novel? There oughta be a law.

MGM wasn’t known for this kind of picture. In general, they didn’t even do crime pictures or thrillers. After the runaway success of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity in 1944, however, every big studio released at least one similar picture in an attempt to cash in on the craze, with all the attendant love triangles, murders, and doomed protagonists. What better choice for MGM than another novel by Cain? Especially the one most similar in its basic plot? Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce had already been done, and with a murder plot that was never in the novel, which was more of a straight kitchen sink drama. His 1937 novel Serenade was too weird. It featured a love triangle, but between a spicy Mexican prostitute, her opera-singing boyfriend who loses his voice when he’s tempted by homosexual desires, and the orchestra conductor whose magnetism threatens to draw him into a gay tryst. (Eventually Serenade was made into a film in 1956 starring tenor Mario Lanza and directed by Anthony Mann, but the gay theme was jettisoned.) And his 1942 novel Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, about a town full of gangsters and crooked politicians, seems as though it would have been a more appropriate vehicle for James Cagney or George Raft 10 or 15 years earlier.

So The Postman Always Rings Twice was a natural choice for MGM, a powerhouse of a studio that churned out high-quality product week in, week out. The film works as well as it does because of the presence of Lana Turner, who in 1946 may have been the sexiest woman in Hollywood. John Garfield turns in a credible performance, but he and Turner never quite click. So much of the film is spent setting up and knocking down plot points that their relationship seems almost like an afterthought.

A better adaptation of Cain’s novel is an unauthorized one, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943). (Cain’s publishers sued for copyright infringement, and kept the film off American movie screens until 1976.) Both the grimy working class milieu and desperate, sweaty love affair are better handled in Visconti’s film. The American version is just too sterile.

Ziegfeld Follies (April 8, 1946)

Ziegfeld Follies premiered in Boston on August 13, 1945. It was first shown in New York on March 22, 1946, and went into wide release on Monday, April 8, 1946. On some theatrical release posters, the film’s title was Ziegfeld Follies of 1946. The film is a lavish, old-fashioned musical pieced together from a big bag of spare parts. It was a pet project of producer Arthur Freed, and was originally intended to mark Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 20th anniversary in 1944, but it went through so many edits and revisions that it missed the mark by more than a year.

Despite the studio’s boast on the theatrical release poster that Ziegfeld Follies is the “greatest production since the birth of motion pictures,” I really didn’t enjoy it that much. The musical numbers are hit and miss, and the comedy bits all hit the ground like lead zeppelins. There are a lot of impressive set pieces, and the colors are really bright, but as far as plotless extravaganzas go, it just doesn’t have the latter-day stoner appeal of Fantasia (1940).

The film begins with little models of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, then P.T. Barnum’s big top, then Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s theater. That’s it, folks. The only three shows in the history of the world that matter. Clearly humility is not on the program for the evening.

William Powell, who played “Flo” Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), reprises his role for the first segment of the picture. He’s on a set that looks like the kind of pad Liberace and Louis XVI might have picked out for themselves if they were roommates, talking a lot of nonsense about magic and the theater (it took me a little while to catch on to the fact that he’s supposed to be in heaven). We’re then treated to an elaborate stop-motion recreation of Ziegfeld’s 1907 opening by the Bunin puppets. All of his great stars are recreated as puppets; Marilyn Miller, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, and even Eddie Cantor in blackface.

Each segment that follows is introduced by a storybook page. Fred Astaire appears in the first, “Here’s to the Girls.” He acknowledges that “Ziggy,” as he calls him, never had much use for villains or plots, then sings an ode to the American girls who were Ziegfeld’s main attractions. Cyd Charisse dances a little solo and then Lucille Ball cracks a whip over eight chorus girls dressed as panthers. Finally, Virginia O’Brien hollers for some fellers, and then sings, “Bring on Those Wonderful Men.” It’s a punishing spectacle that sets the tone for what is to come.

In the next segment, Esther Williams appears in … surprise, surprise … a water ballet. It’s fine, and she spends a lot of time underwater, which is neat, but what is the sequence even doing in this picture?

Next, Keenan Wynn appears in the comedy short “Number, Please.” I found it completely unfunny, but maybe that’s because I can’t stand “frustrating” humor. Basically, all he wants to do is make a phone call, but he’s thwarted at every turn, until his face is red and steam is coming out of his ears. For me it dragged the movie to a halt like a sweaty punchline comic working the in-betweens at a burlesque strip show.

Next, James Melton and Marion Bell sing “La Traviata.” Yawn.

Ooh, goody, more comedy! Victor Moore and Edward Arnold appear in “Pay the Two Dollars,” in which a man spits on the subway and is trapped in a legal nightmare because his attorney won’t let him just pay the $2 fine. Again, what’s up with the horribly frustrating situational humor? Not only did this segment not make me laugh, it made me feel as if I was watching a stage adaptation of a Kafka story.

Next, Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer appear in a “dance story” called “This Heart of Mine,” with music by Harry Warren and words by Arthur Freed. It’s pretty good. It took me back to the days when lighting a girl’s cigarette and then dancing while smoking was still classy. On the other hand, no one glides across a ballroom like old Fred, so the rotating circular centerpiece seemed wholly unnecessary. Who did the director think he was dealing with, Clark Gable?

The next comedy segment is called “A Sweepstakes Ticket,” and for some reason it’s filmed on a regular set, not the impressionistic “stage” sets used in all the previous comedy bits. Hume Cronyn gives away a winning Irish sweepstakes ticket to make up the few bucks he was short on the rent, and he and his wife Fanny Brice try to get it back from their landlord. Again, it’s not at all funny, just frustrating.

The next segment, “Love,” with Lena Horne (R.I.P.), was a nice opportunity to see black people in Technicolor, and in a steamy tropical setting no less. It should have been longer.

Next, Red Skelton shows us all what will happen “When Television Comes.” He does a promo for “Guzzler’s Gin.” He drinks a whole bunch each take and acts more and more stinko. If you’re amused by cross-eyed drunkenness and double-takes, this will still do the trick. Although it’s possible audiences in 1946 were amused by this segment, I can’t imagine they were left with a very clear idea of what the advent of television would mean for the country.

Up next is “Limehouse Blues,” in which Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer return, only this time in yellowface. The Chinatown tropes are offensive, but the colors and imagery are quite beautiful and impressive, in a non-P.C. sort of way. Once we get to the actual dance number, however, the piece is hamstrung by its own ridiculous conceit. It doesn’t help that in all the medium shots, Astaire’s makeup makes him look a lot like Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).

In “A Great Lady Has an Interview,” Judy Garland seems to be lampooning Katharine Hepburn or possibly Greer Garson. I got the feeling that there were a lot of industry in-jokes that I wasn’t getting. For me, Garland is always a treat, however, so I didn’t mind it that much.

And then, like a terrible party that suddenly becomes fun 20 minutes before the police arrive to break it up, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly appear in “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” by George and Ira Gershwin. Their dialogue is funnier than any of the “comedy” bits in the movie, and their side-by-side dance number is transcendent. Ziegfeld Follies is worth seeing for this sequence alone.

Finally, Kathryn Grayson sings “Beauty,” by Warren and Freed. It’s standard stuff, but there are enormous piles of bubbles that I thought were pretty cool.

In other news, the last living Ziegfeld Follies “girl,” Doris Eaton Travis, died yesterday at the age of 106. I hope it doesn’t seem as if I’m beating up on the Follies themselves. I’d love to go back in time and see a Ziegfeld revue on Broadway. This film just doesn’t really capture the magic.