This month we look at two movies that keep the viewer captive in a room to discuss murder and justice mostly in real time. Rope was Hitchcock's response to critics who said that he was a one-trick director who relied on dramatic cuts to tell his stories and create suspense. Rope only a few cuts in the whole movie, most of which are hidden within the frame to seem as though the movie is a continuous cut. Twelve Angry Men was Sidney Lumet's first movie and it was pretty much assigned to him on the recommendation of Henry Fonda who had worked with him in the theater. Lumet didn't choose the material, but it was defined by his signature themes of justice or fairness.
One of the threads most common to Alfred Hitchcock movies was his use of suspense. His movies could run a range of different genres and tones, but most, if not all of them would make the audience squirm waiting just a bit longer than anticipated for something bad or uncomfortable to happen. In Rope, the murder has just happened off of the edge of the screen as the movie is beginning. The rest of the movie has the perpetrators throwing a dinner party as the body is stashed in a trunk in the foreground for the audience to keep an eye on while the characters wait for their friend to arrive.
It's more than just a movie about a murder, it's a movie that debates the wrongness of murder and the concept that some men are more entitled than others to do whatever they want. The men invite their old philosophy professor, Jimmy Stewart, to debate this concept with other diner party attendees. Rope doesn't ask "when" homicide is justifiable but if there is a "who" that homicide is justifiable to commit.
Sidney Lumet said that the common thread in his movies is the them of fairness. His filmography is considered one of the most wide ranging in film history, His first film was Twelve Angry Men, he directed The Wiz and he is best known for Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Network. Overall, Lumet directed something like 45 movies between 1957 and 2007. At least twice he was able to release two great movies in the same year, 1964 with The Pawnbroker and Fail-Safe and 1982 with Deathtrap and The Verdict.
Even though his movies were wide ranging and spanned fifty years his movies had a few running themes.
1. New York City
Most of his movies take place in New York City, even if the main character travels to Oz. His masterful Holocaust drama The Pawnbroker is set in New York City. The Marlon Brando led movie The Fugitive Kind and Running on Empty are probably the only movies that I have seen from Lumet that didn't have to be set outside of the city and weren't even set in the northeast of the United States at all. I don't think he could have gotten away with setting The Sea Gull or Murder on the Orient Express in NYC, but I'm sure he tried. One of the running themes of his New York imagery is of piles of trash lining the streets. They even show up in movies like The Wiz and Dog Day Afternoon to establish the city as though he's sending a message to city leaders to clean up the mess. I've heard the argument that it's a romantic look at the grittiness of '70's New York. However, there's nothing romantic about piles of stinking garbage oozing into the streets. Rope is one of a small handful of Hitchcock movies that takes place in New York City, as many of his movies take place in the Bay Area of California. He doesn't embrace the trash in the streets.
2. Gender and Sexuality
Women aren't treated especially well or are ignored, Paul Newman is the flawed main character in The Verdict but as he's cleaning up his act he still slaps a woman to the floor in a fancy man's club. There is a lot of progressiveness from his movies when it comes to talking about gender and sexuality from early in his career from movies Dog Day Afternoon and Q and A that have trans characters and Deathtrap where the main characters are in a somewhat normalized same-sex relationship. Those movies come from the decades of the '70's, '80's and '90's. They might not be the best representations of the LGBT community, but many of the characters are treated quite fairly for the eras that they came out. Although Katherine Hepburn's character in Long Day's Journey Into Night is just as damaged as the rest of her family and she is ganged up on by the men for her addiction despite theirs, it is her movie and her husband and sons support her performance and not the other way around. Women characters treated with representation are pretty rare in Lumet movies, I can only think of Long Day's, The Wiz, Guilty as Sin from 1993 and Marisa Tomei in a supporting role in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.
Rope had a stealth theme to slip past the censors in puritanical Hayes Code Hollywood. The two main characters played by Farley Granger and John Dell were playing two gay men, a fact that accidentally came out in early scripts that used British terminology from the source material that unintentionally made these "dear boys" sound especially gay. Both Granger and Dell were gay men working in Hollywood. The technical constraints of not having any cuts required the two men to share scenes in very close proximity because the shots wouldn't be able to cut back and forth between the two of them and they would have to share the frame in every scene. Screenwriter Arthur Laurents, a gay man himself, considered the characters to be gay, and they had particularly full LGBT characters especially for the time, something that Sidney Lumet could also claim with his sympathetic portrayal of LGBT characters robbing a bank to fund a sex change in Dog Day Afternoon in the 1970's.
3. Camera Movement
Even though he was known as an actor's director, he almost always has at least one mind boggling movement of the camera. The Hill opens with a camera move that starts from an inmate running up the titular hill, stumbling and falling and being carried down. The camera rises into the air and moves away from the hill, shooting from twenty feet in the air. The shot quickly moves out of the prison yard and over the barbed wire fencing with only a subtle hint of light tire marks in the dirt. The shot must have been made with a fast moving crane on wheels moving through on opening in the fence that is closed as it passes by. Often these camera moves are made more powerful due to Lumet's preference to use a minimal score to let the film create its own air for his movies to live within.
Hitchcock needed to use a different set of skills on Rope than the rest of his filmography. Shot in what seems like one long shot, Rope seems like it could just be shot in one afternoon in the style of a play. This was not exactly the case. While the set would seem to look like a stage, there are pieces of furniture between the actors and the camera that need to move as the machinery of the camera moves throughout the scenes so that the audience can see the action. Crew members scrambled around the set behind the view of the camera while action was being recorded.
The movement of the camera was no small task as it was the first use of Technicolor by Alfred Hitchcock. Technicolor cameras were enormous and loud, the loudness was muted by placing the camera in a giant soundproof box. Seeing as it was his first attempt with the coloring process meant to create bold colors, it might not have been a surprise that things went a little wrong. When the film came back after development, all of the colors were muted and dulled and the negatives were ruined. Hitch was stuck having to re-shoot and reprocess the whole movie again. Each of the long shots were redone, the length of the shots limited only to the amount of film that could fit on a single reel.
Lumet himself considered the running theme of his movies to be fairness. I would elaborate to say that many of his movies act as an inspection into justice regardless of if it's successful or not. Whether it's Twelve Angry Men debating an accused's guilt or Serpico facing off against dirty cops or his final film Before The Devil Knows Your Dead as a family deals with the repercussions of a desperate act, almost all of his movies can ask "has justice been served" and "is it fair?" Martin Scorsese's favorite Lumet movie was Prince of the City, a movie where an informant wears a wire to take down a criminal organization that he had worked with. Lumet had felt uneasy about that movie as he had felt that being a rat and not being loyal was antithetical to his neighborhood sense of fairness. However, Find Me Guilty from the 2000's told the story of a mobster in a RICO case that refused to "rat out" his friends and I'm sure Lumet felt this made amends to his sense of fairness. As much as I enjoy Lumet's sense of fairness, it's a little dodgy to go along with his romanticism of loyalty over justice when it concerns violent crime.
Sidney Lumet spent most of his career asking philosophical questions and Hitchcock was most interested in exploring the human psyche. Rope is stylistically kind of an outlier in that it asks questions of philosophies of fairness rather than mindset. The four cuts in all of Rope are so out of the ordinary for Hitchcock compared to the example of the shower scene in Psycho that sports FIFTY-TWO cuts in 45 seconds. It's almost not a Hitchcock film at all as his movies are known for his on-screen cameos. Hitch's visage is only seen in lights in the background that outline his famous profile. I think it would have been too distracting to have him drop off a french horn case to the apartment in the middle of the scene in order to show up in person.
The two leads of these two movies Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda both won Oscars in roles opposite Kathrine Hepburn. Both actors only won the statue once and Hepburn took home four. Stewart won in 1941 for The Philadelphia Story and Fonda won 41 years later for his role in On Golden Pond. Hepburn won her first Oscar in 1934 and her last one in 1982, also for On Golden Pond. She was nominated for best actress in 1965 for her part in A Long Day's Journey Into Night directed by Sidney Lumet, just to bring it back around again. In "Long Day's" she plays the mother of Jason Robards, who was only 15 years her junior because she was playing old ladies for like 40 or 50 years.
The murderers in Rope argue that if a man is great enough, they should be anything they want. This thought experiment is taken to the lengths of murder especially when it's not just for jollies, blood lust, or anger, but because it's to prove out a thought experiment. Jimmy Stewart treated it as a thought experiment and was on board with the idea, until he realized the kind of men that would do such a thing could never be great men if they would be willing to carry it out. Lumet's sense of fairness leads him to argue the greatness of people righting for fairness for all in an unfair world.
One movie is an intentional aberration in the director's style and the other an unknowing signature movie of another director's career, but both Rope and 12 Angry Men are thought provoking and compelling films. No need to hit the theater when movies like these bring the boards to home viewing.