I decided to undertake something only slightly less harrowing and much more enjoyable than studying for the bar exam this summer: watching as many Alfred Hitchcock movies as I could get my hands on via my Blockbuster subscription. I will review the movies after I watch them as a way of actually posting here. I grade each movie simply on how much I liked it in relation to the others. SPOILER ALERT: If you don't want to know what happens in a movie, then don't read my reviews. There will be no SPOILER ALERTs within the reviews.
Jimmy Stewart is what is wrong with this movie. I suspect that is not a sentence often typed.
And it's a shame because this movie had incredible potential. Based on the Leopold and Loeb murders, it revolves around two college-aged men who kill a former classmate to prove their superiority. To add further force to their argument, they place his body in a large wooden chest and hold a dinner party where the food is served atop the chest. Among the guests are the victim's father, aunt and girlfriend.
Up to this point, the movie is executed brilliantly. John Dall gives an Academy Award-level performance as Brandon Shaw. His Shaw is so charming, witty and happily disturbed that you are repulsed every time he is on stage, yet can't bring yourself to hate him completely. It is in the tradition of good movie villains, from the men James Bond fought with through Hannibal Lecter that Dall's performance arises from. Just as Loeb was dominant over Leopold, Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) is subservient to Shaw. Morgan is not as in love with the idea of this audacious murder as he is in love with Shaw. The homosexual aspects of their relationship are never discussed, but can virtually be assumed. Granger is pitch-perfect as the weaker, nervous co-conspirator, who is terrified of being found out.
But neither Shaw nor Morgan is the most important character in this movie. That distinction falls to Stewart's Rupert Cadell. He was their prep school housemaster and their intellectual guiding star. Their Nietzschean view of themselves -- as the Ubermensches who are superior to normal humans -- comes from Cadell. He is the one who formed them and he is the one who will turn them in.
Hitchcock loved to use Stewart as the everyman. We see the world through his eyes and instinctively like him. As a result of films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It's A Wonderful Life or Vertigo or Rear Window, we have a Pavlovian response to Stewart. We know that even when he does the wrong thing, at heart, he is doing them for the right reasons. When is the last time you saw a film where you didn't root for Stewart's character? Much like Tom Hanks or Kevin Costner or Harrison Ford, we instinctively root for Stewart whenever he appears on the screen. So expecting Stewart to carry a role in which he has to be the champion of the Nietzschean view of superior humanity is a bit like asking Don Knotts to play the coldly efficient police sergeant on the take.
When Cadell defends those views, we twitter just like the victim's aunt. Stewart seems to be playing more of an academic shock jock than a true believer. This role is key because it shows the evolution of this murder. Just as Shaw pressed Morgan into the murder, Cadell shaped Shaw to the point that his interest became more than an intellectual belief. Stewart's Cadell is such an intellectual dabbler that it seems so incongruous for him to have influenced Shaw so strongly.
I took a history of the theater class in college and the professor once asked how someone should play royalty. Should they walk differently? Would we be able to tell simply by having them wear a crown? Should they manically treat their subjects with a tyranny befitting absolute power? All of those actions are worthless unless the other characters react in ways that one would react around a king. If a character walks on to the stage wearing a robe and crown, but the other characters feign indifference, we know that he is not as important as he seems.
The key to this movie is in how every reacts to Cadell when he is on the screen. In this respect, it is the victim's father (Cedric Hardwicke) who plays the Everyman, sputtering his indignation at the horror of the Nietzschean ideas while garnering our sympathy. In order for Cadell's turn from defender of the ideas to prosecutor of the boys for taking the ideas to the logical conclusion to have real force, we have to believe that he held those ideas firmly to begin with. Stewart's persona prevents him from filling that space given to him in the reactions of the other characters.
Cary Grant apparently turned down the Cadell role as he did not wanted to be associated with the film's homoerotic undertones (he didn't need any more public evidence that he might be a homosexual himself). Grant would have been better able to fashion a character that was an older version of Shaw and filled that space. It is a shame that we will never know.
Up Next: Rear Window