Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Just Enough 'Rope' ...

There is an art to fine film making. Sadly, it seems to me, it is a rapidly disappearing art.

I teach in the local community college system. I teach writing in general, journalism in particular, not film appreciation or anything like that. But I speak with my students about things — and I overhear more of their conversations with each other than they think I do — and I have seen more interest in flash than substance among young people.

That may well change as they grow older — and I'm certainly not speaking about all young people, only of a tendency I have seen in a majority of them.

Perhaps it is always this way, to whatever extent technology has advanced. But it seems to have gone to a new extreme of late. There has been much angst in recent months about what connection, if any, there may be between violent video games and violent acts committed in public places.

If there is such a link, it may have existed all along. The only difference would be that the catalyst was not as high tech as it is today.

I have often heard it asked: Doesn't modern technology make it easier to encourage violent acts — by dehumanizing victims and virtually eliminating individual responsibility? And doesn't technology raise the bar when it comes to impressing and motivating the young?

If all that is true, how can one explain the thrill killing of a teenager by college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in the 1920s? Movies were decidedly less flashy then than they are today. In fact, movies at the time of the Leopold and Loeb murder case didn't even have sound, and they weren't in color. It's hard to imagine young people being inspired by that level of technology — and, in fact, I have seen no evidence that they were.

But, clearly, some young people were doing that sort of thing nearly a century ago, and I would argue that it has been going on longer than that. Indeed, if you speak to someone who believes in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, that person will tell you that young people murdering others goes back to the dawn of recorded time.

I have mixed feelings about portions of the Bible, but I can't help but think such a trait has been with us all along. Until recently, though, it may have been harder to make a convincing case that technology was the prime culprit in violent crimes.

I'm sure it must have been even more difficult 65 years ago today, when Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" premiered. It was inspired by a play that had been inspired, in due course, by the Leopold and Loeb case, which was quite sensational in its day but was more than 20 years old when Hitchcock made his movie.

As a how–to for committing murder, "Rope" was practically worthless. The victim was seen for only a few seconds, and I do not recall hearing him speak any lines. In fact, I think the only time his voice was heard was in the trailer that you can see attached to this post.

The rest of "Rope" really was psychological. There was none of the blood and gore to which modern moviegoers are accustomed — although, to be honest, there rarely was anything of a graphic nature in Hitchcock's movies (not even in the infamous shower scene in "Psycho" — there were no lingering shots, and even if one freezes frames on a DVD, it still is not possible to see anything that is truly graphic).

Audiences heard more — much more — about the murder than saw it.

"Rope," as I say, was psychological. I saw "Rope" for the first time when I was a teenager. Maybe I was a weird kid, but I always liked it because it was such a psychological exercise. The partners in the crime, played by John Dall and Farley Granger (who is probably better remembered for his role in Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" a few years later), were inspired to commit the "perfect murder" by the words of a mentor (Jimmy Stewart, who was already familiar to film audiences, in the first of four movies he made with Hitchcock).

One of the two was decidedly more enthusiastic about the murder and went to great pains to make it a "masterpiece" by hosting a dinner party to which the mentor and the victim's father, aunt and fiancee had been invited. The party was held in the murderers' apartment, and the victim's body was hidden in the same room where the guests would be eating.

With the exception of some initial excitement and, perhaps, nervousness, Dall's character was sailing along at the party, but Granger's character made no real attempt to hide the fact that he was upset (only Dall's character knew why). He drank too much and appeared to be experiencing remorse, but the guests, having no knowledge of what had happened, could not figure out why.

Stewart's character did put two and two together, but the rest of the guests were increasingly alarmed by the fact that the victim had not arrived and had not called. If this movie were to be remade today, that is something that would have to be addressed. The guests in the 1948 movie fretted that they did not know where to reach the victim because he had not called. In the 21st century, they all would have cell phones, and each probably would have made at least one attempt to call and/or text him.

But time probably would not alter the greater theme — that young people are easily influenced by their elders. Role models do wield considerable clout.

And that is something else that, as an adjunct professor, I try to keep in mind. I try not to be careless with my word choices. I try to be aware that whether I think that something I say or do is of significance isn't nearly as important as whether my students think it is.

I don't want to say anything that could be misinterpreted — especially if it could lead to someone's death.

Jimmy Stewart's character in "Rope" probably felt the same way — if somewhat belatedly.

(By the way, you can see "Rope" on Turner Classic Movies this Sunday at 11 a.m. [Central]).