Of the 41 Alfred Hitchcock films I currently have under my belt, this is the one I rated the lowest, one rating point lower in my system than 1931's The Skin Game, the next worst. I saw it early on in my quest for more Hitch and so have often felt that I may just not have got it. I've thus been looking forward to a fresh viewing to reevaluate and see if I still feel that a film that currently has a rating of 8.0 out of 10 at IMDb is really just a minor entry in the master's filmography.
The technical achievements are certainly astounding. We pan towards a shaded window from the street scene background to the opening credits, then cut inside to a murder by strangulation and from then on the entire film appears to be very close to a single take. It isn't, as a reel of film in 1948 only ran to ten minutes, so every eight minutes or so Hitch panned onto something of a solid and consistent colour so as to make the cut unseen and preserve the illusion.
The murderers, for there are two, are Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, as played respectively by John Dall and Farley Granger and based upon the real life murderers Leopold and Loeb. It's all an intellectual exercise, heightened by the pair hosting a dinner party for the victim's family in the very room where the murder was committed and the body still resides, within minutes of the act itself. Shaw is the driving force for the murder, arrogant and supremely confident; Morgan is far more nervous and reticent about the whole thing.
Perhaps this major difference is part of my problem with the film, which certainly goes beyond the atrocious fibreglass backdrop that pretends to be a cityscape with blinking lights in windows but stuningly immobile clouds. Dall plays his part just like Vincent Price would have done and I kept imagining that it was Price I was watching instead of Dall, except that perhaps Price wouldn't have managed the gay subtext quite so well. Granger, who I thought was perfect in Strangers on a Train, is just annoying here and to my mind gives the game away every couple of minutes, if only anyone was paying attention, which of course they are more and more as the evening progresses.
The script is by Hume Cronyn, regular Hitchcock collaborator, based on the Patrick Hamilton play, and of course given the way the film was shot it's very much a play, merely one we have the privilege of watching from the stage itself. I still find it heavyhanded but there are moments of genius and there are so many double meanings that it becomes a game to count them. James Stewart is by far the best thing on the screen, beyond even Joan Chandler and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and he's given dialogue distinctive and memorable enough to be a gift to his acting style. He plays slyly with the dark humour and his timing is absolutely perfect. Simply moving his head sideways is artful and he's a joy to watch here.
Hitch does an awesome job, as he usually did, especially when there were intellectual games to play. He does a clever job of making an eighty minute movie seem like a hundred minutes long through clever speeding up of time, and there are some joyous scenes where he plays with the focus of affairs. My favourite is when the maid cleans up and we watch her going about her business, getting ever closer to opening the chest that contains the body, while all the conversation takes place off screen.
However all his work, admirable as it is, can't make up for a conclusion that still seems completely obvious ad inevitable to me. My conclusion is that I may well have judged it a little harshly on first viewing, but it still seems like a failed experiment. Technically it's a masterpiece but as an intellectual game it's clumsy, mostly through the acting of the pair playing the killers.
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