DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope

Rope is easily my second favorite Hitchcock film. Like Psycho it possesses an unease throughout its runtime. Unlike Psycho, which the unease is due to all the information you don’t have, Rope has no mystery. The murder opens the film. We witness the sociopathic activity of a dinner party in which Brandon and Phillip invite family and friends of the deceased to continually showcase their so-called moral superiority.

It’s fitting that Hitchcock chose this particular play to adapt and this particular film adaptation to try something innovative. Rope gives the appearance that it’s one continuous take. It’s not, but the way it’s disguised doesn’t take away from the suspense. A recurring visual motif is that of the string. Showing that one’s time is running out. We see it with Louis Bernard in the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. We see it again with Fry’s sleeve at the end of Saboteur. Hitchcock expands this motif to the visual style of the film. The film is the rope. It tightens metaphorically around the necks of Brandon and Phillip like the physical rope they used on David Kentley. However, movies, like ropes, have ends. And it’s only a matter of time before their lives are over.

Much has been discussed for decades on the film’s homosexual subtext. I’ve seen the film so many times, I’ve come to see it almost as text. At the very least there’s so much sexuality that present just in the opening scene. There’s the murder. Following you have Brandon lighting a cigarette. Phillip asks can they just stay here for just a moment after the act. Phillip asks Brandon at one point how did it make him feel? Brandon responds by saying he couldn’t feel anything at first, but as the victim’s body went limp, he got a sudden rush. I wonder was the film implying Brandon’s impotence? There’s a moment that I think confirms this when he’s stroking the neck of a bottle of champagne and is having trouble getting it open and Phillip takes it an opens it easily. For a film from 1948, Hitchcock really puts these themes on display. I really think people realized it then and just chose not to say anything. It’s really one of his more frank instances of sex in his work other than Psycho and Marnie.

Rope is also a film about class and how easy it is to corrupt a mind when you present ideas that shouldn’t be in public consciousness. David is murdered because Brandon and Phillip took to heart the words of their teacher played by James Stewart. The idea that murder is an art that should be allowed by the few exceptional people in the world. Towards the end we do learn that Stewart’s Rupert Cadell while speaking on it, would not act upon it, but the damage is done. He’s played a role in the death of a young man. During the dinner the characters get into a heated argument about this theory. The sensible reasoning comes from David’s father played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Brandon showcases his contempt for those he deems lower than him. When the point is made that his views are similar to that of Hitler, he tries to brush it off as they were just brainless murderers, but he’s so sophisticated he’s above the pointlessness of fascism. I though it a smart choice to have Hardwicke, an actor I always felt possessed a high class air, take the reasonable and humane position. Rope displays how easy it is for these types of theories to permeate the mind of those who have certain feelings and how quick and easy they can be acted upon.

Rope is a film I can never get enough of. Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest would all mostly be put ahead of this and there’s good reason to. However Rope remains a favorite for packing so much substance into an apartment in the city. There so much on display and it manages all of this in 80 minutes.

A Leone Double Feature: The Last Days of Pompeii & The Colossus of Rhodes

I discovered Sergio Leone in college when I rented The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from the library. It was the film that got me into the western as genre. It wasn’t long until I was able to watch A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Eventually I discovered the greatness of Once Upon a Time in the West as well as Once Upon a Time in America and Duck, You Sucker. However, I never saw his 2 earliest works. Both are part of the biblical/historical epic category. Leone was part of productions like Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis so it was familiar territory for him. With these first 2 films he cuts his teeth and we see where this master of the medium began his career at.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII

I was expecting this is be a very low budget operation. It still might have been, but I was very impressed. Mario Bonnard took ill on the first day of shooting and Sergio Leone steps in to take care of everything. Although he wasn’t credited, this is his first work as a director and it’s a pretty solid effort. Some beautiful sets, decent pacing. I also was not expecting the decent sized addition of Christianity into the film. It’s not preachy or anything, mostly just showing the way of life of the people. Leone becomes known later for his extreme close ups and huge wide shots, but he had a handle on quiet indoor scenes as well. Also, the climax? Really well done. I’m surprised I managed to get this many words out of this film, but it surprisingly surpassed my expectations.

THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES

The Colossus of Rhodes is Sergio Leone’s first credited directorial work. Believe it or not, with higher production value than The Last Days of Pompeii, I felt The Colossus of Rhodes although entertaining, didn’t entertain as much as the prior film. Yet with it, we see Leone step away from what is basically his apprenticeship on these historical, biblical epics and move into the era and genre he would be best know for. I think one basic shortcoming of The Colossus of Rhodes is it’s a bit over plotted. It’s actually very Hitchcock in nature with the central character, played by Rory Calhoun is on vacation keeps getting caught up in the political intrigue of the land. His character comes across much like a Cary Grant which is also why I made the Hitchcock connection. We do see Leone’s development with size and scale. I think my issues were mostly with scripting. Funny enough, The Colossus of Rhodes feels more accomplished than A Fistful of Dollars. That might be due to it having MGM’s backing. The Colossus of Rhodes and The Last Days of Pompeii were the only of Leone’s directorial work I had not seen and with that I feel I can safely say, Sergio Leone never made a film I did not like.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction- Saboteur

Saboteur remains a solid middle tier Hitchcock thriller. I actually enjoy it more than Foreign Correspondent which was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars 2 years prior. It treads the line between strongly serious and 40s Hollywood schmaltz.

Saboteur has a few really nifty suspenseful sequences. The opening titles set the tone with the shadow of a man walking towards the viewers. I imagine this is supposed to be the character of Fry walking to the factory to set the fire that kickstart the events of the film. The quiet as the workers eat lunch and we see the smoke billowing. Of course I have to mention the Statue of Liberty scene which is firmly in the canon of Great Hitchcock scenes.

I think what keeps Saboteur in the category of good and not great is that it’s thrills are combined with typical Hollywood melodrama which prevent it from being all it can be. Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane are good in their roles, yet I don’t feel the charisma you get from other Hitchcock leads. However most of the runtime they act like a couple in a screwball comedy and not caught up in international intrigue. The film’s music does not help this as it can at times play either too sentimental or just too strongly that in a scene of action it’s too much. I’m glad the Statue of Liberty sequence knew not to have music to undercut its thrills. Yet this is still early Hollywood Hitchcock and he would evolve.

I know it’s not on the level of North by Northwest. I’m not sure it’s on the level of either version of The Man Who Knew Too Much or The 39 Steps. However Saboteur is still quite entertaining as an early effort from the superstar director’s Hollywood career.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

Psycho is my favorite film that Alfred Hitchcock directed. It was the first film of his I ever saw. It’s pretty much his most well known feature. It’s one of a few masterpieces that he had during his career alongside Rebecca, Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest. I have always been of the mind that Psycho is the film that Hitchcock’s whole career was building to. Everything that he did in the past, all the tricks he learned, all the sly elements to get past the censors all made it to this film in particular.

One thing that separates this film from others in Hitchcock’s filmography is that it’s about the average person. Most of the time Hitchcock’s characters can be sort or upper class, high society types who get caught up in these thrilling events. With Psycho, every character is someone you would meet in day to day life. We are first introduced to Marion and Sam. She’s a secretary, he works in a store. Finances are the barrier to them being together. Norman is man who runs a motel off the main highway. From Lila Crane, to the sherif to the psychiatrist each character is really just the average person. This makes the events of the film more palatable to the audience because this isn’t an adventure like North by Northwest, this is life.

Psycho is a film of passion. Marion’s whole story is driven by her impulse to steal the money. Her tragic demise is due to passion as well. I’ve talked about Psycho with others before and that’s something that gets lost in discussion. Some try to make every action be justified by what came before it, but these events are impulsive. It would be difficult to lock it down logically. In Psycho, people aren’t planning things. They are reactive.

There’s a theme of duality present as well in combination with their passion. Norman and Marion really mirror each other. Both feel trapped. Both see something that can get them out of their traps, for Marion it’s the money and for Norman it’s Marion. Both also show the trouble they have when questioned by authority figures. In both of their cases, especially Norman’s, they aren’t bad people, rather just distressed people.

Psycho remains a masterpiece for me. A tense, and even gothic horror film that still unsettles me even today.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – Topaz

In order to watch Topaz, you have to go into it with different expectations. It’s not the usual Hitchcock we’re familiar with. It’s not a splashy thriller like Notorious or Saboteur. There’s no Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ingrid Bergman or Grace Kelly. No Saul Bass titles or Bernard Herrmann score. There’s no individual getting swept up in larger affairs. Topaz is a full fledged about espionage. However that’s not why I’m down on it. I’m fine with Hitchcock taking a change of pace. The irony is, he made a film that was in-line with the type of filmmaking that was going on at the time. He tried to be with the times and it did not work. Not because it’s different. Rather because it’s dull.

The main issue with Topaz is because it’s so low key, the audience needs something or someone to hold onto. None of the characters in the story possess anything that makes them interesting to us, with the lone exception of Roscoe Lee Brown as Philippe Dubois. The sequence involving him is the most entertaining of the entire film and it happens pretty early. Brown’s character also feels like the only one in the entire film that feels like he has a story we could be interested in. I would have enjoyed the film being all about him.

Topaz, while an admirable attempt to take advantage of serious material, sadly is an indicator of the time of the Master of Suspense is coming to a close. It’s just not an interesting or entertaining film. Though I can’t be totally disappointed. I can allow a Topaz when you have so many great films in your filmography.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction- The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

As Darth Vader told Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas’ Star Wars, “The circle is now complete.”

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, completes Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. And with that we no longer simply have an Italian director dabbling in the genre of the western, we have a new sub-genre of the Italian Western. With each film Leone has improved his style and with this film you can tell him anything. You thought For A Few Dollars More was larger in scope than A Fistful of Dollars? The Good, the Bad and the Ugly feels like it’s 5 times larger. With scenery so vast, you wonder how do the characters even get to their destinations, because the way Leone has it shot, it feels almost endless.

Even with the film being set during the American Civil War, it’s not actually about it. Leone didn’t believe in trying to replicate history, but rather how small people get caught up in history. Even then, he doesn’t have the characters see the horrors of war and decide to join the cause. He plays things ironic though by having the war basically save the lives our our characters at various moments, almost validating their cynicism about the spectre of
war. It’s not about sides, it’s about survival. Again Leone changes the priorities that have been present in the genre in the past. This, as well as his prior films, are fairy tales about the west. It’s fitting that after this, his films would begin with Once Upon a Time. Leone is not interested in presenting reality. The American westerns he grew up with tried to pass off myth as reality. He’s telling stories. Similar to those of King Arthur or Robin Hood. The Man with No Name is a folk hero in these films.

The three titled characters, played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach respectively, while being nicknamed the good, the bad and the ugly, do not necessarily possess all those qualities. Eastwood’s man with no name, while not a terrible person, does not always embody a good person. Van Cleef, while mostly bad, does show moments of humanity. Wallach’s Tuco, despite being called the ugly, is the most charming of the trio. Aside from each character having one or two moments, I applaud Leone for sticking to his guns that characters in his films are not one or the other. That they are capable of being different based upon the situation. Once again, shades of gray.

One thing of note that I thought really encapsulates the fairy tale vibe, is that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a prequel. We see the moment that Eastwood’s character gets his iconic poncho. Once the film is complete, I feel a desire to go right back and watch A Fistful of Dollars, to see the stranger ride into the town again. It’s like when you read a story to a child and the moment it’s over, they want to hear it again. It’s circular. Hence why I quoted Darth Vader at the beginning.

With The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sergio Leone took the western to a new realm. By this point, you couldn’t go back to the traditional western. Studios, producers, writers and directors would need to bring something new to the table. The end of the Dollars Trilogy, marks the beginning of the revisionist western.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – For A Few Dollars More

For a Few Dollars More is a prime example of always giving a movie a second chance. For years this was my least favorite of the Dollars Trilogy. My last viewing really opened my eyes and now it sits high upon my personal western canon.

The big story of For a Few Dollars More is confidence. Sergio Leone grows more confident with his directorial style. Clint Eastwood is more confident in his performance, adding some humor to the Man with No Name. Ennio Morricone is more confident with his scoring. The production design has grown, there are more settings than the prior film A Fistful of Dollars. I think the biggest reason for this growth is due to Leone now being free from Akira Kurosawa. As we know, A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. However, Leone did not get the rights to adapt the film so that of course hangs a bit of cloud over the Italian director’s film, despite its quality and influence in the genre. Here Leone has an original script, an original take and now he can continue his building of the new mythology of the western.

Leone continues to peel back the shine that was a part of the traditional western film experience. One such scene in For A Few Dollars More takes place in a church where the villain Indio is with his gang. There after a double murder, Indio challenges a man to duel within the church. Catholic iconography made its appearance in A Fistful of Dollars, but it plays a different role in this scene. In a classical American western the film would not have messed with the sanctity of a place of worship, yet Leone upends that with violence being committed there. He creates new storytelling rules but not adhering to old ones. Speaking of duels, he also evolves that element. For Leone it’s not so much about the actual duel, but the ritual of the duel. The Morricone score swelling to operatic and orchestral highs. The extreme close ups of eyes, faces and hands on hips. Then the shooting begins when the music ends, punctuated by loud gunfire.

In addition to these stylistic changes, we also see the start of the Leone way of flashbacks. Throughout the film, Indio has memories of past events. Yet Leone does not play these as a way of presenting facts to the story, but rather he presents them fluid. Just as when any of us remember something that occurred during our lives. We’re just there, in the moment again. We will see more of this with Once Upon A Time in the West, Duck You Sucker and to perhaps its greatest effect in Once Upon a Time in America.

Leone also improved upon his character archetypes. Normally, the bounty hunter character is a person who is almost disparaged by both heroes and villains. They are portrayed as one who needs to fixed so that by the end of the film, they can be seen as truly heroic. With Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as Mortimer, they are bounty hunters because it is there profession. It is how they earn a living. Again Leone trying to do away with the overly staunch and almost manufactured morality of the western and brining more shades of gray to the picture.

Now the Leone is on his own with his own material, he takes a major leap forward with For A Few Dollars More. The confidence in his ideas is on full display and what’s amazing is that he hasn’t hit his zenith yet. Once that happens, the western will never be the same again.