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Alfred Hitchcock

In Chicago a few weeks ago, Kathleen picked up an interesting book at the Art Institute, Peter Conrad's The Hitchcock Murders (Faber and Faber, 2002). Although I've only just started reading it, I'm already sure that it belongs on the shelf of distinguished Hitchcock studies that includes Robin Wood's Hitchcock's Films Revisited and Donald Spoto's indispensable The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. Mr Conrad has read the original works that Hitchcock adapted (like Shakespeare, he did not invent his own material), and he makes many interesting observations about Hitchcock's alterations and improvements. I watch Hitchcock's movies fairly regularly, but Mr Conrad's book has rekindled a passion to see them.

By the time Kathleen got home for dinner last night, I had just finished watching Rope. Rope has never been one of Hitchcock's hits, supposedly because it takes such extraordinary pains to reproduce the effect of a staged drama. Astonishingly, it is filmed entirely in extended takes, with no camera cutting whatsoever. At intervals of from six to ten minutes - the camera pulls up behind some block of solid texture, such the back of a suit jacket - and then, after an almost unnoticeable splice, it pulls back again for a wider view of the ongoing action. This apparent repudiation of cinematographic potential invites the sawdusty objection that Hitchcock is not being true to his medium, but to my mind critics complain about the long takes because it spares them from dealing with the singular horror at the core of the movie, which is of course the body of innocent David Kentley, lying unseen in an antique Italian chest throughout a stylish Manhattan party. Precisely because the camera rarely leaves the room, David is always there, and never more ghoulishly than when his murderers - who had no reason to kill him, nothing to gain from his death - set up their buffet dinner on the lid of the chest. Of all Hitchcock's movies, Rope probably has the most glamorous surface, and the vista of Manhattan's skyline, as evening falls and the light in the sky is replaced by lights in innumerable windows, makes a formidable distraction from the crime that opens the film. In the middle third of the movie, dominated by overlapping conversations alternately lighthearted and earnest (angry, even), we're allowed, if not to put David Kentley out of our minds altogether, then at least to regard him as an abstraction. But when Mrs Wilson, the maid, clears up the buffet, the camera drifts to a point just beyond the chest and anchors there, gazing implacably across it through the enfilade of rooms. While the party guests, offscreen to the right, wonder for the umpteenth time why David hasn't shown up, and Mrs Wilson efficiently but unhurriedly removes the cloth and the candlesticks, the corpse is more palpable than if it were visible. Then David's aunt appears, relating his mother's distress on the telephone, and we feel the terrible sorrow that is about to descend on a nice family.

Glamorous as it is, Rope is also Hitchcock's most intellectually satisfying movie. Much of it is taken up with the 'theoretical' discussion - David's body in the chest means that it can't be truly theoretical - of conventional morality and of the arguable right of superior people to violate it. Arguable, I say, just because it has been, ever since Nietzsche, particularly among young people who aren't familiar with pain and loss. The murderers in Rope (based on the true-life murderers, Leopold and Loeb) are young people, only recently out of school, and one of their guests is their inspiration, a former housemaster who used to dazzle them with high-flying, counterintuitive, arrestingly 'transgressive' - as we might say - propositions. Magnificently played by James Stewart, Rupert Cadell is crushed to discover the fruit borne by his teachings, which he now understands to have been irresponsible and derelict. At the end of the movie, while the approaching police siren wails, it is he who slumps in a chair like the true guilty party, while one of actual murderers mixes himself a drink and the other plays Poulenc on the piano. In one sense, Rupert is as dead as David.

Kathleen has put Rope on the short list of Hitchcock movies that she won't watch. (Psycho and Strangers on a Train are two others.) Why don't I share her horror? I do, entirely - but I find peering into the movie's atmosphere of total depravity reassuring rather than disturbing. First, it's safely contained; Rope is 'only a movie.' Second, it's an affirmation, in its backward way, of my ideas of right and wrong, a reminder of why the sense of right and wrong is vital. The senselessness of the murder sweeps away all excuses and explanations; a pure demonstration of power, it is absolutely evil. But this isn't to say that Rope is a dry object lesson. The contrast between crime and context - never has there been a more realistic, or more genuinely chic, Manhattan penthouse - makes for thundering drama. The tension between what's known and not known, between what's appropriate and what's unspeakable, is the real passion of Rope. (October 2003)

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