Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The recent Foxcatcher has us thinking back on other stranger-than-fiction true crime yarns.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is not officially based on the case of Leopold and Loeb, a duo who conspired to kill a teenage boy as the “perfect crime” in 1924. But its actual source, a 1929 British play, may have been inspired by the crime, and the film has become closely associated with the case. It’s even more closely associated with experiments in long takes and real time: Hitchcock used only a handful of visible cuts in the movie (hiding the rest by panning behind bodies and objects), and no time jumps, the film taking place over the exact 80 minutes of its running time. One of the only visible cuts comes right away: The camera circles from a rooftop view of the city below to a window, and then, instead of continuing its journey, cuts inside to the very end of a murder. The perpetrators are Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger); the victim is their friend and former classmate, David (Dick Hogan).
The movie plays out in the aftermath of David’s death; Brandon wants to complete his perfect murder, a beacon of his superiority to people who merely “occupy space,” by immediately holding a dinner party at the very apartment where David was killed, with the body tucked inside a trunk displayed in plain sight. Phillip seems more remorseful, or at least more nervous about getting caught, especially because Brandon invites their prep-school housemaster, Rupert (James Stewart), to the gathering. Brandon admires Rupert’s keen mind and dark-humored theorizing about why superior people should be allowed to commit selected murders; as these details emerge, Brandon and Phillip’s plan more closely resembles a dorm-room thought experiment come to terrible life.
The tension between Rupert’s dry speculation, Brandon’s pitiless follow-through, and Phillip’s nerves may be why the movie feels like an interpretation of the real crime, even though it’s heavily fictionalized. Dall’s Brandon has Leopold’s supposed interest in murder as an intellectual exercise, and the subtextual homosexuality of his relationship with Phillip (they appear to live together, and make all of their plans as a pair) mirrors allegations about Leopold and Loeb’s partnership. Hitchcock’s hybridized staging, which fuses the geographical and temporal simplicity of a theatrical production with the complexities of a mobile camera, creates a kind of living diorama not unlike his later use of 3-D in Dial M For Murder. Rope isn’t as tense as that film (or as many others on the director’s roster), but it has its moments, often derived from his experimental technique. In one scene, a conversation takes place off to the side of the frame as a housekeeper casually uncovers the all-important trunk, unknowingly threatening to discover the body inside. Despite the staginess and the technical experiments, the movie remains unnervingly plausible.
Availability: Rope is available on DVD and Blu-ray, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, or to rent or purchase from the major digital outlets.