My first Alfred Hitchcock movie which I watched precisely for that reason – that it is an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
First and foremost, I am fascinated by the fact that the whole story is set in just a set of rooms – a living room, a foyer, a dining hall and the adjoining kitchen. No more, no less. Given the fact that it is based on Patrick Hamilton’s play, this makes sense. However, it is fascinating when a movie plays out this way because movies, currently, are so intensely involved with change of locations and epic scenery. The elimination of ‘place’ as one of the points of focus assures that the viewer’s attention is going to be on the characters entirely. It was just something that was driven home while watching the movie.
And rightly so, too.
Because the characters – more precisely, their thoughts – is the epicentre of this gripping drama.
Of course, the movie opens with the murder scene. The murder has already taken place before we know who is being killed or why. Again, putting the murder in the first scene like this eliminates the viewer’s thoughts regarding the traditional thriller questions of ‘will he die’ or ‘whodunnit’. The two men, Brandon and Phillip, have strangled David, their friend, to death with a rope. A confirmed fact.
Thence, it issues that the movie is about the narcissism of the murderer Brandon, the morality of murder, outrageous philosophies and more importantly, will they be punished for this pointless, heartless crime?
The movie is nine out of ten parts conversations. In this age, thriller and crime don’t bring to mind imagery of extensive psychological and philosophical conversations (eg, John Wick). However, what I loved about this movie was that it was basically a lunch party with people talking and interacting with each other and yet, it kept me on the edge of my seat, grasping my full attention for every second of it. And it wasn’t just the fact that I wondered if Brandon and Phillip would pay for their crime, it was the movie itself.
Brandon’s conceited dramatising of his crime, Phillip’s self doubts and nervousness, and Rupert’s careful and keen observations was an engaging threesome to pursue. John Dall is excellent as Brandon Shaw. He is charming, stimulating and yet, he is a cold blooded murderer. He doesn’t even need a reason to kill except his own inflated ideas of his superiority over the murdered man. Because he can kill, and he deems himself smart enough to pull off a “perfect” murder. His idea of serving the meal over the ‘coffin’ of the friend he murdered says everything about his personality.
On the other hand, Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger is, again, excellent as an actor here) is disgusted and scared by the idea. That speaks about his personality. In retrospect, it is hard to understand how Phillip would take part in this heinous crime. At first, it seems improbably. But the more I think of it, the more I realise that Phillip is simply a weak person, easily swayed and with no confidence in himself – the kind of person who would be gravitated towards a man as sure of himself as Brandon is. It doesn’t matter what Brandon asks him to do as long as Phillip can share some of his glory. And a man like Brandon would require a man like Phillip because his vanity requires an audience. They are two halves of a whole, both feeding and living of each other, and equally guilty. Phillip’s diffidence and admiration would feed Brandon’s instinct to do something greatly terrible. And Phillip is upset more over being found out than actually murdering a friend. His repentance would be born of fear not regret. He is angry at Brandon for showing off while he had been perfectly alright up until the crime.
Rupert Cadell (the amazing James Stewart), on the other hand, is not so easily understood. He is the man who can be charged with instilling these ideas in Brandon’s mind as his teacher. Brandon was also looking to impress his former teacher. Rupert rejects all moral responsibility for the crime but does the viewer forgive him? He is the one who expose the murder and get Brandon and Phillip punished for the same. But as a perpetrator of the ridiculous ideas that ended up in an innocent man being pointlessly killed, is Rupert truly blameless? Or can he be absolved of responsibility just because he discovers and exposes the crime? And the fact that he was able to do so in the first place was because Rupert thought like Brandon – their ideas are the same. Only Rupert is neither as vain nor thoughtless to translate those ideas into actions.
Then why would be talk loud and emphatically about those ideas in the first place?
At first I violently felt that I could not absolve Rupert of any responsibility. He knew full well what kind of ideas he talked of. While Brandon and Phillip are completely responsible for their own actions, Rupert should acknowledge that he is responsible for his thoughts, too. His blindness to his own philosophy is no less frustrating than Brandon’s conceit.
But then, on less passionate thinking, I realise that Rupert is frustratingly right chiefly because he does not translate these lurid thoughts into actions and in fact, he is the one who brings the perpetrators to justice. There is no blaming him – not without prejudice.
The movie had great dialogue, great acting, and really great minor characters.
The simplicity and actual moral seriousness of David’s father was well contrasted to the convoluted philosophies of the trio. The dynamics between Janet and Kenneth and the resulting revelations which point Rupert towards the crime were a great element to the story. The obliviousness of David’s aunt and Mrs Wilson provide for a macabre comedy.
The play and the resulting screenplay were fabulously done. Patrick Hamilton is a lovely writer, so of course, the story turned out to be great.
As for the reason I watched this movie – well, this wasn’t the one I ought to have chosen if it was simply Hitchcock I wanted to watch. The story is powerful in itself. However, what I did gather of direction was pointed out to me – the long shots, and hence, I admired it more. The story was told quite brilliantly through the focus on objects – the rope, the wooden chest, the drinks, the piano, the hat, the gun – the long shots with people talking and the camera moving around such that it seemed more like a movie and less like a play. However, if I’m to truly get to know Hitchcock, I need to do a little research to select his movies. This was a whimsical watch – but well worth the watch.
Finally, my two cents on Leopold and Loeb and ‘the homosexual subtext’.
The only other movie I have watched based on Leopold and Loeb is Murder By Numbers starring Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt in the roles of the murderers and Sandra Bullock as the officer who discovers their crime. It wasn’t sensational enough – because sensationalism is what the retelling of this gruesome, heartless story seeks. Murder has always been sensational – I don’t mean to go into the morality or politics of that. Butt the moral elements in Murder By Numbers seemed to portray the killers (Michael Pitt’s character, to be precise), in a forgiving light that he did not deserve.
I suppose the hint of homosexuality would have been scandalous in the 40s and 50s but the homosexuality is really something that is furnished by the viewer’s mind than actual events. Brandon and Phillip can quite easily be heterosexual men drawn intensely to each other by their personalities and the needs the other man fulfills because of his personality. There are many attractions that can exist between two people other than sexual. Murder is passionate and powerful. I’m viewing this movie by 2017s standard, so of course, the homosexual subtext is amusing and nothing more. Do I credit homosexuality as a reason why Phillip might have joined Brandon in this murder?
A strong, resounding no.
I’ve already stated my interpretations of Phillip’s behaviour and personality and I stand by it. If Brandon and Phillip have homosexual dynamics, it isn’t relevant to the crime. It can reinforce their need to do it together possibly, but it doesn’t change the original reason why they are drawn together to do it. I felt the homoerotic subtext while watching the movie but it didn’t distract me from the original point of the play at all.
If this story is retold today, then unless there’s a scene where Brandon and Phillip are portrayed as actually touching or kissing each other, I won’t really give it a second thought.