Hitchcock gives plenty of “Rope” in excellent interior murder mystery

Alfred Hitchcock, “Rope” (1948)

Adapted from a play by Patrick Hamilton and based on an actual murder case in which two young men strangled a teenage boy, “Rope” deserves to be a better known Hitchcock film than it is. Shot on one set, the movie is a series of several mobile 10-minute “takes” artfully put together so that the action more or less looks continuous to viewers. This method of filming and structuring the script so that the action took place in real time put a great deal of strain on the cast, especially the lead actors, and on the props people moving furniture during filming so it’s a measure of their ability and composure that most of the seven actors in “Rope” look composed and show tension and strain only when required to by the dialogue-driven plot.

Rich young flatmates Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger) have just killed their friend and former classmate David and stashed his body inside a chest. Their housemaid Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanston) returns from shopping and the three prepare a party for David’s family and friends who include his fiancee Janet (Joan Chandler) and his best friend Kenneth (Douglas Dirk) who happens to be Janet’s ex-boyfriend. The flatmates also invite their old university teacher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) who taught David as well. The chest is used as the buffet to serve the food. While the party guests wonder why David is taking so long to arrive and if he’s been held up somehow, the hosts steer the small talk to the art of murder and the argument, based on a popular interpretation of Nietzschean philosophy, that it’s not murder for someone of superior quality or character to kill a lesser being. Cadell gradually becomes suspicious and deduces from the mix of talk of strangling chickens, David’s absence, Mrs Wilson’s mention that she had the afternoon off to go shopping and circumstantial visual evidence that his old students have indeed applied his teaching literally.

Dall and Granger as the two gay flatmates are great in their roles: Brandon (who may be slightly sociopathic) valiantly strives to maintain an air of cool smug composure and even delight but as the day passes, cracks appear in his pretence as he becomes nervous and starts to stutter at odd times. Conscience-stricken Phillip becomes more agitated and confused and acts in strange ways that arouse Cadell’s suspicions; Granger perhaps starts too early in the film having qualms about his role in the murder and some of his acting verges on the hammy but his overall performance is good. The other guests don’t notice the hosts’ bizarre behaviour: the older people are worried about David, and Janet and Kenneth stare daggers at each other. Stewart, perhaps miscast for his role, affects a kind of stand-offish avuncular intellectual stance which fades out once he suspects his old students are up to something; but his investigative side is well done. Chandler and Dick as the estranged couple don’t have much dialogue together but still put up a credible if sketchy job sorting out their differences amid mutual suspicion and at least agreeing to be friendly again when they leave the apartment.

The film falls flat at its climax when Cadell berates the two flatmates, back-tracking and arguing against what he originally taught the two in his lectures. The suggestion is that philosophy itself as an intellectual exercise, and Nietzschean philosophy in particular, leads people into dangerous and amoral ways of thinking and behaving. The climax might have been stronger if Cadell had not only emphasised David’s humanity but made his argument against murder using the same philosophy and concepts that Brandon and Phillip had used to justify killing their friend. Cadell could have shown them that it is their narrow egotistic and self-serving interpretation of the Nietzschean idea of the Superman that has led them to murder, and in this way the flatmates learn they must be solely responsible for their actions and accept all the consequences, including a possible death penalty, that arise from them. (True Nietzschean Supermen gladly accept everything that life throws at them, including pain, isolation, shame and humiliation if necessary, as a test of their mettle and as something that guides their evolution to a higher state of being and living.) The scene could still be one full of anguish for Cadell and he could still feel guilty for his part in David’s murder, as he comes to realise that perhaps he’s not as good a teacher as he thought.

The use of one set with a constantly roving camera gives a claustrophobic feel to “Rope” and there are many touches of macabre humour in the dialogue, replete with double entendres that add more tension and make Phillip more nervous, and in the dinner party conceit itself: it is more than a farewell party (Brandon and Phillip are planning to drive to Connecticut after the party finishes), it is David’s wake as well. And what could be more gruesome and funny than to serve the food off David’s coffin?

The homosexual relationship of Brandon and Phillip is a definite subtext – Brandon as the more assured, dominant partner, Phillip as the more submissive partner – and the movie suggests they killed David because, apart from being “ordinary”, he is heading for a married life with Janet and can have what Brandon and Phillip can’t have. On the other hand, Brandon and Phillip might regard themselves as “superior” because as homosexuals they need not bother with finding marriage partners and conforming to social mores but can pursue a hedonistic high-society life-style and be and do what they like. Romance, marriage and family life are an important theme in Hitchcock’s work and here it plays out in converse ways in the form of a gay couple, in David and Janet’s engagement and in Brandon throwing Janet and Kenneth together as if they were puppets (and the film suggests that’s exactly what Brandon enjoys doing: playing people against each other).

“Rope” attempts to criticise Nazism and concepts of elitism that led to the Nazi pursuit of racial hygiene policies in which people were graded into a racial hierarchy and those deemed “inferior” were killed though whether Hitchcock misinterpreted Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman is another question. At the time the film was made (the late 1940’s), most people including the Nazis themselves did misinterpret the concept in a simplistic way (people who are Supermen can do what they like and are not bound by conventional notions of morality) so it’s understandable if Hitchcock did also.

“Rope” features excellent acting performances from its three lead actors (Dall, Granger, Stewart) and from support actor Chandler in a plot that combines suspense, tension and subtlety. The visual flow that comes from the unusual filming technique used in the 1940’s adds to the audience’s sense of being voyeurs, with camera reels changing every time the camera “bumps” into the back of one of the male characters or into the furniture; it also reinforces the tense nature of the setting. The background scenes that show day changing to night and the lighting up of the New York City skyline, thanks to the Cyclorama technique used, are interesting to watch.

Memories of Murder: masterpiece film about rival detectives in a corrupt society

Bong Joonho, “Memories of Murder” (2003)

A sober film based on actual events about a group of detectives in rural South Korea investigating a series of grisly rape-murders in the late 1980’s, “Memories of Murder” was the second movie directed by Bong Joonho and is ample evidence of his talent. The plot is very tight and well-paced and the film moves (if perhaps a little slowly and less noisily for fans of American TV crime thrillers) confidently to a stunning conclusion which confirms the viewer’s suspicions that arise about the characters and the crime investigation during the course of the movie, and what the suspicions imply about the nature of South Korean society during the period in question. Along the way the viewer gets the sense of an inevitable culture change from an authoritarian culture based on coercion and unquestioning respect for authority and hierarchy to a culture based on reason, the questioning of authority and tradition, and the use of abstract principles as a basis for behaviour and action, skilfully embedded in the familiar crime-show device of pairing two detectives from different backgrounds and with varying temperaments – the “mismatched buddies” – as the country-bumpkin police are joined by a city-slicker investigator from Seoul who brings more up-to-date skills and knowledge on how to pursue the investigation.

Early on we realise that detective Park (Song Kangho) and his colleagues aren’t up to the job of finding the serial rapist/killer when, in investigating the first murder, they accidentally destroy much of the crime scene evidence. Park makes a list of likely suspects and quickly zooms in on the local teenage village idiot Kwangho (Park Noshik) who he and his sidekick Cho (Kim Raeha) bring in for questioning and torture to get a false confession. Detective Suh (Kim Sangkyung) arrives from Seoul to assist the investigation and quickly determines that Kwangho is innocent and sets him free. Though Suh and Park are supposed to work together, mutual suspicion of their methods and approach prevent them from doing so, at least until Suh’s predictions that the killer will strike again and again come true. The detectives chase a number of leads, miss important evidence due to their brawling, arrest another innocent man and then, more by good luck and accident, discover the man (Park Haeil) who may actually be the killer. Autopsy evidence also comes the investigators’ way but they must send the semen samples and the new suspect’s DNA to the US as the appropriate skills and technology are lacking in South Korea.

Park and his country colleagues distinguish themselves early on as inept, lazy, stupid and brutal police overwhelmed by crimes the like of which they have never experienced and which all their knowledge and skill are inadequate to deal with. The viewer soon realises these men have been made the way they are by their society. In the 1980’s South Korea was a highly authoritarian society with a military government; there was little accountability and transparency in government activities affecting the people, and secrecy, corruption, incompetence and an expedient “whatever it takes” attitude to getting things done, leading to bullying, bribery, blackmail and violence, would have been rampant. Institutions responsible for law and order would have been infected by such a culture and the film demonstrates in its later half the public’s resentment of the police for their incompetence and brutality, particularly in scenes in which a drunken Cho causes a ruckus in a local restaurant and the diners leap onto him, causing him to have an injury that results in tetanus and leads to his lower leg being amputated.

Interestingly as the investigation drags on with little to show for progress and the murders continue relentlessly (curiously the public shows few signs of panic and concern but maybe that’s because the killings are being covered up deliberately), Park adopts some comical and pathetic methods of gathering evidence, including consulting a shaman who advises leaving a sheet of mud at the scene of the most recent crime (the mud supposedly forms an image of the killer’s face). At the same time, Suh, frustrated with the people and the organisational culture he has to work with, and the lack of help from outside, resorts to more violent methods of getting results. Viewers can see quickly how good police officers, eager and idealistic at first, become disheartened and disillusioned and end up being absorbed into the culture of violence and intimidation within the police force when the central bureaucracy, interested in looking good rather than being good, is unwilling to supply adequate back-up, resources, education and training to officers in the field. (And the serial killer often cunningly commits his crimes during siren calls when everyone, including the police, must stay indoors.) Eventually Park and Suh do co-operate together after previous temper flare-ups and fights in the office but it’s a case of “too little, too late” and Park eventually realises that even with modern and traditional methods of fighting crime, he and Suh are too far in over their heads with the resources and back-up they have, and that Suh is being corrupted by the stress of the difficult investigation and the failure of the authorities to support them.

As I’ve come to expect of him, Song is an excellent actor here as Park, in turns belligerent, comic, violent and, later in the film, capable of some insight into his behaviour and the situation he is thrust into. He sees that his use-by date has come and gone and it’s time for him to get out of detective work and start afresh. The question is whether Suh can realise the same thing as well and get out before he is too brutalised by police work and ends up another violent cypher in the system. All other actors around Song rise to the challenge of bringing a difficult and thought-provoking real-life CSI story to life and all do a great job. There are moments of humour and comedy as well as sheer horror and tension in the film and these demand versatile actors to carry them off successfully; with Song at the helm, film directors have much of their work done already, as he has a substantial track record of playing multi-faceted characters who can be comic and serious at the same time and it’s no big surprise that directors like Jong and Park Chanwook have frequently called on Song to play the lead in several films and that audiences outside South Korea readily recognise him as his home audiences do.

Visually the film is a treat to watch with beautiful and often moody background scenery of golden fields, lush green grass and dark, wet forests at night, depending on the plot’s requirements, to portray the countryside of South Korea as it might have appeared in the 1980’s. Attention to historical detail in background scenes and the technology used in the 1980’s, the detectives often relying on mini-cassette recorders to record interviews, looks impeccable. The film is almost entirely in flashback and all flashback scenes are in mostly dull shades of earth-based colours: brown, yellow, green and blue with the odd splash of red that calls attention to the serial killer’s quirks.

I’d say if you’ve never seen movies about crime scene investigations and you want to see at least one, try “Memories of Murder” first. It is a historic drama set in a particular period of South Korea’s history when the country was about to undergo a great political transformation from military rule to genuine democracy so there’ll be much that audiences outside that country won’t understand. It would be worthwhile for people to learn some recent Korean history to understand why and how South Korea had a military government in those days and how reviled it was in spite of past achievements in transforming the country from war-torn poverty to an industrial nation. As a film about detectives investigating a series of hideous crimes that they are woefully under-equipped for and which takes a heavy toll on them, it’s mesmerising viewing. One of the four most popular movies for cinema-goers in South Korea in 2003, the film is currently being remade in southern India in the Tamil language with a 2011 release date.

The actual series of crimes on which “Memories of Murder” is based remains unsolved and there were calls within the South Korean government in 2006 to have the statute of limitations extended to enable police to find the murderer.

Winter’s Bone: flimsy plot backgrounded by real poverty and catastrophic social problems

Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone” (2010)

Meet Ree Dolly: she’s a 17-year-old girl caring for her severely depressed mom and two younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee, on their farm located somewhere in the Ozarks region in the southeast United States. Dad hasn’t been seen for some time and is due to appear in court on charges of illegally making methamphetamine in a backyard lab. One day the sheriff pays a visit and warns Ree that if her father doesn’t appear in court, the family property which also includes a timber-cutting business will be repossessed as Dad had put it up as part of his bail conditions. This forces Ree to set off on an arduous search for her missing father, one that forces her to beg favours of members of her extended family and to navigate and test the limits of her impoverished community’s mores and codes of honour. We discover that nearly everyone is either unemployed or, like Dad, is engaged in cooking and trafficking in methamphetamines, and the whole community has always been suspicious of the police for reasons unexplained but which must go back a long way in the area’s history. This complicates Ree’s task as we learn that people also consider her father a snitch for talking to police and therefore deserves whatever happened to him.

Flimsy plot and crime-noir conventions aside, the film is memorable for the strong performances of Lawrence and John Hawkes and its portrayal of a clannish society wracked by extreme long-term poverty and the associated problems: drug abuse, low school retention rates, teenage pregnancy, violence, distrust of police. Lawrence virtually becomes Ree with minimal or subtle acting; hard to believe she’s never been to drama school. But that may be a plus since drama school might teach students certain methods or techniques that would be out of place in a film like this where a “non-acting” acting style is called for. Contradictions in Ree’s character become credible: she has courage, she is forthright, she is smart and keeps her family together yet she’s suspicious of police and won’t ask them for help, and is sufficiently naive enough to want to enlist in the US army just to get the cash to pay her dad’s bail. Hawkes as meth addict Teardrop also reveals unexpected aspects: initially unpleasant, unpredictable, unhinged and unhelpful, he proves a loyal ally to Rees and gradually assumes a stand-offish role as guardian to her family.

The Ozark mountain community seems familiar and yet unfamiliar in surprising ways: with the men hooked on meth and with little else to do apart from cooking illegal batches of the stuff, the women preoccupied with keeping their families and networks together and policing invisible boundaries between themselves and the men, they’re like what I imagine Mafia family networks or impoverished Australian indigenous desert communities to be. The men do their thing or waste their lives on alcohol, drugs or being sick, the women do all they can to keep family and clan networks intact and functioning, both sexes keep to their specific domains with the women deferring to men in making decisions and outsiders, especially representatives of the law, are regarded with suspicion. It would be easy to caricature and criticise these insular, suspicious mountain people but Granik portrays them in all their contrariness and their culture, where it seems everyone can do almost anything with instinctive ease (chop wood, hunt and skin animals, play a musical instrument, work a farm, cook crank), with sympathy and humanity.

The aspect of this community I was unfamiliar with is the methamphetamine epidemic: before seeing this film, I was simply unaware that crank use was so widespread in the US rural Southeast; in 2003, state police in Indiana alone found 1,260 small-scale lab facilities making meth, up from 6 in 1995 (source: Wikipedia). I had imagined alcohol and narcotics abuse, dealing in illegal weapons and people joining militias and white-power groups would be the main headaches for police. The dangers of making meth, easy enough but requiring the use of toxic, inflammable chemicals in extracting and purifying it, are made all too obvious in “Winter’s Bone”: early on, Ree is called on to inspect the charred remains of a shed that housed a lab where a batch went wrong; dialogue in the scene initially suggests her father was a victim in the accident. The whole area around the shed is poisoned and the community can’t afford to clean up the land and water supply. But while it’s arguable that the environmental damage of the meth epidemic should be the community’s immediate worry, there are other more sinister forces capitalising on the people’s helplessness: the US government, capitalising on the meth addiction to increase its police-state control of the people, and on the area’s poverty to drive young kids like Ree into the US army to fight never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, surely rates as the major threat to the Ozark mountain people’s survival and integrity.

Ree does become older and wiser but her future remains uncertain; the only thing she knows that ensures she still gets out of bed in the morning and away from crank abuse herself is her family’s dependence on her, as she acknowledges to Sonny and Ashlee: “… I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back”. It’s a heartwarming statement that confirms the power of family ties but given Ree’s context, very depressing as well.

Mother (by Bong Joonho): force of nature that can’t be pigeon-holed

Bong Joonho, “Mother” (2008)

There aren’t many good movies these days where the central character is a middle-aged woman. Of course she’s a mother – most women her age are mothers after all – but never was there a mother like the unnamed Mother (played by Kim Hyeja) whose protective instincts for her son Dojoon (Won Bin) and sense of justice combine to make her an unstoppable force of nature, resulting in her finding out things she really doesn’t want or need to know, getting into dangerous situations and behaving in ways she’ll later regret. Right from the start, you know Mother is no ordinary woman: the film’s opening scenes set her standing or walking alone in a vast sea of wild greenery, looking as if she’s communing with the spirits of the trees, the earth and the sky; later we see her in her herbal shop, cutting up some strange dried roots and an inspector comes by to chide her for practising acupuncture without a licence. The suggestion that Mother is a throwback to Korea’s shamanic tradition, usually passed down from mother to daughter, is strong. We see Mother going about her business and learn that she has an adult son who might be mentally retarded and is easily led astray by his friend Jintae (Jin Gu). An early scene hints that Mother and Do-joon may have an incestuous relationship though perhaps the simplest explanation is that Mother has always had Dojoon in her bed since the day he was born.

Dojoon is accused of beating a teenage schoolgirl to death and is forced to sign a confession by the police. Mother simply cannot believe her son is capable of murder so she enlists the help of police and a lawyer to help clear his name, only to be frustrated at their apathy or incompetence so she resorts to playing detective herself. This investigation leads her into a near-confrontation with gang violence and some seedy information about the teenage victim among other things.

One thing about this movie is that it never settles into one thing or one stereotype about people. Is the film a crime film, a social commentary or a character study thriller? It’s a bit of everything: “Mother” sweeps from one genre to another as Mother impulsively dives into one perilous situation and then another, oblivious to her own safety until actually threatened, at which point she may scuttle somewhere, hide or just lash out instinctively without thought for the consequences. You kind of sense that director Bong himself lost control of the plot at times and allowed his star Kim to drag him and the film crew into wild rural locations which, though beautiful on the screen, were also uncomfortable: in later scenes, Mother treks through mud and marsh just to reach a lone eccentric in his shack and the film crew has to follow. Kim Hyeja gives everything she has to her role as Mother and holds the whole film together despite her unassuming manner.

In the end (OK, spoiler alert here), the police find the culprit but in a way that suggests that, nasty enough fellow though he is, he has also been tortured into making a confession. By this time, Mother herself has become a changed woman. Her investigations have come to naught but has she learnt something about herself and the people around her? Will Mother be more conforming, more considerate of others, more thoughtful about her actions and their impact on others? Will she be a less attractive character as a result?

As for the other characters, Won as Dojoon gives a good impression as the son who can be amazingly lucid at times yet is clearly immature and needs the kind of guidance that Mother and Jintae aren’t able to give. Something about him hints that he may indeed be capable of murder. In short, like Mother he just can’t be pinned down to a good-guy or bad-guy stereotype. Everyone else serves as a means of highlighting the system that victimises Mother and Dojoon as outsiders and leads Mother to commit desperate acts; so folks may appear to be one thing in one situation and then something else again in another. Generally what we see here through “Mother” is Bong’s exploration of a society that is rigid, self-controlled and self-censoring, treating people as things to push around when it wants and demanding much out of them. To survive in such a society, people end up being two-faced: the lawyer is initially officious and demands a hefty fee, then becomes a drunken womaniser; the police are lazy yet quick to punish; teenagers may be good kids at school and at home and still get involved in trading sexual favours.

No wonder that Mother is only really at peace when she is in contact with Nature which becomes an essential character in the movie: there are many scenes with rural or semi-rural backgrounds, all lovingly filmed in a lingering way, so beautiful and so appealing to the eye. If movies could be travelogues for countries, then “Mother” could be one for provincial South Korea, just for the countryside and the picturesque houses alone; as for the people who populate the place, I’m not so sure … Even so, Nature is a pretty hard partner to manage and Mother’s own nature, operating on emotion and intuition, leads her into situations and actions that can be horrific.

There are some really very powerful issues within this movie about the nature of Korean society and the oppression that people like Mother and Dojoon suffer under it, and how it affects the way they think and act and must cope with the consequences of their behaviour.