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Laramie Movie Scope:

Stagy drawing-room dramatization of the perfect crime

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(1948) Behind closed curtains during the day in the top apartment of a New York City building, two young men strangle a third. Brandon Shaw (John Dall), suave and sure of himself, and his anxious accomplice Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) then place the body of David Kentley, a Harvard undergraduate they'd known since prep school - "the perfect victim of the perfect crime" - inside a cassone, an old chest, in the middle of the room and then open the curtains.

"The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create," declares Brandon to the aspiring concert pianist Phillip, as they prepare to celebrate before leaving later that evening for Brandon's mother's place in Connecticut where Phillip can practice for his Town Hall performance, "just for the experiment of committing it." As a finishing touch, Brandon has invited several guests for a farewell party, audaciously including the parents of their victim.

When Phillip reacts fearfully, Brandon suggests he consider things from the artistic angle, explaining that to do otherwise would be like - Phillip supplies the metaphor - "painting the picture and not hanging it." One further inspiration, Brandon moves the candlesticks and serving dishes from the dining table in another room to the top of the cassone, along with the first-edition books he intends to give to Mr Kentley, making the setting a masterpiece of deception in plain sight.

He reminds Phillip that the only crime is "the crime of making a mistake of being weak." Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (who briefly appears on the sidewalk in the opening scene beneath the apartment), adapted by Hume Cronyn from Patrick Hamilton's play, Rope's End, this stagy cinematic drawing-room dramatization of a murder is similar to the infamous 1924 case of Leopold and Loeb, a pair of privileged University of Chicago students guilty of murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks and sentenced to life imprisonment.

When their housekeeper Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanson) arrives, she's disappointed with the alteration in arrangements; Phillip becomes further upset when he discovers the rope they'd used, which Brandon takes from him and casually drops it into a kitchen drawer.

First to show up is Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick) for whom Brandon has devised a malicious surprise, David's girlfriend Janet Walker (Joan Chandler), formerly Kenneth's romantic partner (and before him, Brandon's sweetheart). Mr Henry Kentley (Sir Cedric Hartwicke) brings along his sister-in-law, Mrs Anita Atwater (Constance Collier), an amateur astrologer, since his wife's home ill with a cold.

Last but not least, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), formerly the housemaster at Somerville prep school, now a publisher of philosophical books, from whom Brandon and Phillip learned that "murder is a crime for most men but a privilege for the few." Of course, the others are expecting David, known for being polite and punctual, as well.

"You always did stutter when you're excited," observes Rupert (whom Brandon had earlier criticized to Phillip as being an intellectual incapable of actually carrying out his ideas) who also questions the occasion for champagne. During Brandon's narration of an incident at his mother's home of Phillip's expertly wringing the necks of poultry, Phillip, overly excited, blurts out: "I never strangled a chicken in my life!"

Light-heartedly with fanciful touches, Rupert expatiates upon the advantages murder would have on resolving many social problems, but (drawing from Nietzsche) "the privilege of committing it should be reserved for those who really are superior individuals." Brandon interjects that the victims would be inferior beings whose lives are unimportant. Mr Kentley objects to their morbid humor and "contempt for humanity."

The guests express serious worries about David's absence; Janet has a theory that he's been kidnapped. Well into the strange and stimulating evening, Rupert, after speaking at length with Mrs Wilson and applying the logic of his intellect, says to Phillip, whom he accuses of being "allergic to the truth": "I merely suspect."

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Copyright © 2009 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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