24. 2 CLOSE 4 COMFORT: A main character suffers from claustrophobia.
Outside of the expected films like Psycho and Rear Window, Hitchcock has been a blindspot to me, despite my obsession with the krimini and giallo films that owe a debt to his work. Let’s change that!
Based on the 1929 play of the same name by Patrick Hamilton, this movie was adapted by Hume Cronyn — yes, the actor and husband of Jessica Tandy — with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents.
After Lifeboat, this is the second in a series of Hitchcock’s films that take place in limited settings. Plus, it takes place in real time and appears to be a series of single takes that are covered by some really clever editing by William Ziegler (who also worked on Strangers on a Train and Spellbound for Hitchcock).
Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) want to prove their intelligence by staging the perfect murder. And to do so, they don’t just theoretically discuss it. No, instead, they strangle their old classmate David Kentley (Dick Hogan), hide his body in their apartment and then invite their friends over for a dinner party.
This whole scheme came from discussions they had back in college with their housemaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) about Nietzsche’s Übermensch and De Quincey’s theory that murder is a way of showing one’s superiority over others. Yes, the same opium-loving De Quincey whose writing inspired Suspiria, Inferno and Mother of Tears. So he’s a guest to take part in their artwork, as it were, as are several former classmates, friends and even the dead man’s father.
The claustrophobia of this movie comes from not only the killers being unable to deal with the impact of their crime — it’s one thing to calmly discuss a murder in the classroom and its another to actually get your hands dirty — as well as the fact that there’s a dead body in a trunk the entire time that people are making merry.
If you’re looking for a movie that pushes the limits of what could be done at the time, Rope is it. That’s totally not claustrophobic, as Hitchcock was pushing for something that hadn’t been done on film before. The long unbroken shots — which frustrated Stewart, who claimed that the experiment was worth taking but didn’t work — were unlike anything in standard moviemaking at the time. And it led to really technical things needing to happen, as the entire set was on rollers and could silently be moved as parts come in and out of the scene. What you aren’t seeing is a huge crew that were constantly moving heavy furniture and the huge Technicolor camera so as they wouldn’t be seen on camera, as well as multiple sound and camera people so that everything could remain in constant motion.
Keep that in mind as you watch the acting in this movie, as there was also a series of cues that the talent had to follow as well as actually act in the movie. Of course, this also led to plenty of issues on set, as there was an incident when the camera dolly ran over and broke a cameraman’s foot. In order to keep filming, he was gagged and dragged off the set. That take is in the movie.
Beyond that, this is shot on a stage with a gigantic cyclorama as the background — the largest one ever made — which had models of the New York skyline, as well as working chimneys and lights, a sunset that was artificially created as the movie’s runtime moves along and even spun glass clouds that could change position and shape.
Hitchcock even shot a prequel to the film in the trailer, showing the world outside the apartment, showing that he implicitly understood how to sell one of his movies by telling the audience that this would be the last time that they’d see David Kentley alive.
This movie was pretty controversial at the time, as the implied relationship between the leads led it to be banned in some cities. Keep in mind that this movie is less than a century old when you complain out how people are so sensitive. This is where we’ve come from and it wasn’t all that long ago.
This movie was unavailable for three decades because its rights were bought back by Hitchcock and left as part of his legacy to his daughter Patricia. The other four lost films were Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble with Harry and Vertigo. They were finally re-released in theaters in 1984 after thirty-five years of not being seen. Again, we live in a different world where everything is available; it was not always this way.