5 things I love about Rope (1948)

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I adore Rope. I know that feels like a rather insipid statement, but it’s Hitchcock, so there’s not a whole lot left to say. I blame film students. So instead I’ll just randomly tell you why I love Rope, in what I sometimes call ‘5 things I love about…’. Other times, it’s 7, but I think this list covers it.

– The long, continuous takes give Rope a ‘play’ feel, and it’s quite genius. It is a play originally (Patrick Hamilton, 1929) and it just screams it. As a playwright myself, I have been unknowingly influenced by it for years. In fact, this is the type of thing that makes you go ‘Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.’

– John Dall and Farley Granger are deliciously despicable as the arrogant murderers turned party hosts, serving food from their victim’s ‘grave’ as they entertain their guests.

– Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanson)’s solo take, when she’s clearing the table, coming in and out of the living-room, with the camera steadily focused on her is incredible because of how much tension it holds. It’s one of the most nerve-wrecking scenes in the film, in my opinion.

– Movie talk! ‘I’ll take Cary Grant myself!’ ‘Oh he was thrilling in that new thing with Bergman’ Wink, wink. The funniest moment.

– The final scene is spectacular. Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart)’s speech is delivered in his usual, passionate, Mr Smith-like way and every word burns through your soul. If this doesn’t make you hate Brandon and Phillip more than you already should, then nothing will.

Rope might not be the best Hitchcock film, but it is certainly one of the most daring and one of my personal favorites. But then again, I’ve said that about nearly all of them. Still working on my top 10. It’s not easy, I tell ya.

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The elusive Raw Deal (1948) theme tune

Just where exactly does one find such a thing? I’ve looked everywhere for ages and I cannot find it. It’s such a hypnotizing theme tune, and because I’m writing a noir serial at the moment, I’ve been listening to a lot of noir theme tunes (David Raksin was a genius, by the way, Laura (1944) and The Big Combo (1955)? Is he kidding me? Hero!) but I simply cannot find the one from Raw Deal. If anybody knows where I can get it, please let me know.

‘It Might As Well Be Spring’

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Though not the best Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, State Fair (1945) is certainly one of the loveliest. Not only that, but it also has one of their greatest ever tunes, the Oscar-winning ‘It might as well be Spring’. Oh, what a wonderful number. A tad reminiscent of ‘The Boy Next Door’ from Meet me in St Louis (1944), if you will. And Jeanne Crain! She had a face made for Technicolor and she never looked more radiant than she did here.

State Fair is such a sweet little thing. I feel like it’s one of those films you put on when you want to feel all nice and cozy. And who doesn’t love Dana Andrews? That man was great in everything.

COMEDY GOLD #3: Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight (1933)

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George Cukor’s tragi-comedy Dinner At Eight (1933) is a remarkable thing. Not least because the dinner itself never actually happens. It is all about the intertwining lives of the guests in the days leading up to it, ending right after they walk into the dining-room.

Being an ensemble movie – and being a Cukor movie – it’s all about the performances: Billie Burke and her permanent ditziness as the socialite and hostess of the titular dinner, Lionel Barrymore as her husband with a failing business and failing health, John Barrymore and his tragic descent into despair as he realizes he’s a has-been, and, of course, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery as the couple who can’t stand each other. But to me, Marie Dressler is the stand-out. And in a movie whose cast includes the Barrymore brothers and arguably the most beloved blonde bombshell of the 1930s, that’s quite a feat.

In her first scene, with Lionel Barrymore, her over-the-top entrance precedes her larger-than-life performance. Carlota Vance (Dressler) is a retired stage actress, who is now broke and looking to sell her stock. She and Oliver Jordan (Barrymore) are old friends and she confides in him that she has no money, in what can only be described as a scene-stealing moment, for no other reason than her extraordinary expressions. I mean, what a face! She had the perfect face for comedy and she knew how to use it. And on top of that, what does it for me in this film is that she slips between comedy and drama seemingly without any effort, so naturally, that it only hits you a few seconds after she’s done it. Her scene with Paula (Magde Evans) towards the end is a good example of this. It’s a tender, heartfelt moment that starts off as anything but. It’s actually probably my favorite scene in the film and it’s because of Marie Dressler.

Her crowning moment, and the film’s most iconic one, is her scene with Kitty (Jean Harlow), in which she delivers one of the best putdowns in 1930s comedy and one of the funniest closing lines ever. Marie Dressler was perfect in this and rightfully got top-billing. In the original Kaufman and Ferber play, however, Constance Collier played Carlota and when you read things like that, you can’t help but think that the two of them would have been absolutely hilarious in a film together. I almost feel cheated that we didn’t get to see that. But hey, we’ll always have this and that’s good enough for me.

DOUBLE BILL #12: The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

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James Cagney once said about acting, ‘Learn your lines, find your mark, look ‘em in the eye and tell ‘em the truth.’ And he did. That was the thing about him. You always believed him, no matter what he was doing. And it was fascinating to watch. The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), in particular, are all him and about him.

The Public Enemy (dir. William A. Wellman) follows Tom Powers (Cagney) and his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), two neighbourhood gangsters from Chicago, throughout their lives of crime. The sheer brutality, honesty and rawness of it, both as a gangster film and a family drama, is almost unparalleled, and to have it boiled down to just ‘the grapefruit scene’ is infuriating, even though I understand it’s meant to be a representation of who Tom Powers is and what he can’t seem to be able to do. There are, however, many jaw-dropping moments throughout the film, such as the rain-soaked revenge scene, or the scene where Tom is raped by his friend’s girlfriend after she gets him drunk. Not to mention the ending. Oh, that ending…

What I love about this film is that Tom Powers is a failure in almost every way. He is a petty gangster, a hoodlum, and he knows it. He wants to break away from that but something always stands in the way. He’s an impulsive, violent thug with mother issues, and arguably no redeeming qualities, and the deeper he sinks, the harder he fights to get back up. But his moment in the sun never comes. Deservingly so. He came from nothing and he died with nothing, in one of cinema’s most horrible and brutal endings. The raw nature of the film makes Tom Powers a wonderful character. He’s so charmingly detestable, he’ll make you want to shove a grapefruit in his face.

Angels With Dirty Faces (dir. Michael Curtiz) is, again, a tale of crime and friendship. In it, childhood best friends Rocky Sullivan (Cagney in an Oscar-nominated performance) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) begin their adolescence as, you guessed it, neighbourhood hoodlums. However, as they grow older, their lives take different paths. Jerry is now a priest, and Rocky is an ex-convict. The famous Dead End kids make an appearance as the neighbourhood gang who idolizes Rocky Sullivan and whom Father Connolly wants to protect from a life of crime at all costs.

Upon his release from prison, Rocky goes to see Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) about the money he owes him. This encounter leads Rocky right back to his old ways, and for the rest of the film, he becomes a sort of anti-hero and a very ambiguous character that you can’t help but love and root for, right down to the powerful final moments. You never really know where you stand with Rocky. You can tell that he’s probably trying to redeem himself, but at the same time, he can’t help but do what he does best and for which he is worshipped. Because of this, Rocky and Jerry’s friendship is always at risk and is a constant element throughout the film. The love and the affection are still there, but they are on different sides of the moral compass and neither of them will back down, right up until their final moments together.

Angels with Dirty Faces is an incredibly powerful film, with so much going for it, and I like to think of it as a love story in the form of friendship, disguised as a gangster film. Also, might be interesting to point out that James Cagney and Pat O’Brien were actually best friends in real life, which I think is lovely.

What I find interesting about these two films and so many other gangster films of the era is that James Cagney gets his comeuppance in both of them. And in such a heart-wrenching way, as well. Him walking towards the camera in Angels is a wonderful moment. I could watch that on a loop all day along. Oh, and that’s another thing. He had a great face for close-ups. Not in a Greta Garbo way, but in a way that you would feel every single thing that he was feeling in that moment, because it beautifully incapsulated everything that happened in the film previously and signified the character’s beaking point, just like in the revenge scene from The Public Enemy. If there’s a James Cagney close-up, there’s going to be closure. Plot-wise and emotionally. And it’s beautiful.

Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (1945)

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Because it’s Oscar season, I wanted to talk about one of my all-time favorite performances in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category, the wonderful Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (1945).

The Lost Weekend is a stark, honest and heart-wrenching depiction of alcoholism and its consequences, as we follow Don Birnam through his four-day drinking bender. The film starts by showing us a bottle hanging out of a window. This is Don’s apartment. We see him packing his things as his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) talks him through the weekend they’re about to have. Helen (Jane Wyman), Don’s girlfriend, comes over to see them off and casually mentions she’s going to see a show that afternoon and that she has two tickets. Don suggests that Wick should go with Helen and that they can catch the 6.30 train. Both Wick and Helen know exactly what he has in mind but he reassures them they’ve got nothing to worry about. What follows is a harrowing, nerve-wrecking sequence of events as Don gets increasingly desperate for a drink, and another, and another, culminating in that infamous ‘mouse and bat’ scene, superbly acted out by Ray Milland.

It’s hard to choose a best moment in this faultless performance, but the scene where Don explains why he does this, is surely very near the top. He’s a failed writer – we’ve all been there – and this is his way of coping with it: he drinks himself into oblivion. And the way he details his suffering in this strikingly real speech (‘There are two of us, you know: Don the drunk, and Don the writer’) is heart-breaking because it’s so true.

Ray Milland won the Oscar for his performance and, let’s face it, he had no competition. His performance was a break-through, an eye-opener and it’s completely timeless. The Lost Weekend ended up with three more Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Director (Billy Wilder) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Wilder and Charles Brackett, adapted from Charles Jackson’s novel), but more importantly, it stands the test of time for its unafraid depiction of such a delicate subject, with a phenomenal central performance at its core.