Vintage Cable Box: “Rope, 1948”

“By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed??!! Did you think you were GOD, Brandon!!?? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him??!! Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave!!?? Well I don’t know what you thought or what you are but I know what you’ve done!!! You’ve murdered!!! You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as YOU never could and never will again!!!” 

Rope, 1948 (James Stewart), Warner Bros.

Rope is an insane film, and it’s made on the presumption of a gag, a practical joke, perpetrated by master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock on his unsuspecting audience. This fits into Hitchcock’s theory of suspense. When questioned about the ideas of suspense, Hitchcock offered a simple scenario: two men sitting at a table talking while a bomb (that the audience can see) ticks away underneath. The audience wants to tell the men at the table to get out of there because a bomb is about to go off. That is suspense to Alfred Hitchcock. In Rope, it is not a bomb, but a dead body. I wouldn’t know how to begin describing what unfolds unless I did it from the false beginning, the anonymous entry of our two leads; these young men, Brandon and Phillip, college pals and roomies in a beautiful New York apartment, who decide, for no other reason than lazy curiosity and “moral superiority,” to strangle their friend, David, to death.

While Brandon (John Dall) is enthralled, amused, and satisfied by the act, his partner-in-crime, Phillip (Farley Granger) is horrified and disgusted, so we get two sides of a strange yet symmetrical coin. These are two “privileged” kids. They get everything (all the basic necessities and more) they want in life, and we, as the audience, are supposed to hate them. They (mostly Brandon, the obvious leader) decide to keep the body in a trunk with the rope that was used to strangle David, and then to use that trunk as the centerpiece for a dinner party they are throwing at which they have invited all of David’s closest friends as well as his mother and father, and their school housemaster (James Stewart). Phillip is unhinged, mainly because, I believe, he is worried about being caught. We never do get into Phillip’s head, while we, perversely, understand Brandon’s motivations, and his curious vanities.

The guests file in and the “fun begins,” to quote Brandon. He wants to make this a mad experiment. Perhaps he wants clinicians and psychologists to analyze this moment until the end of time, even as he rots away in a jail cell or a padded room. He wants to know why his victim, David, was so important to all of the invited guests: a young lady engaged to David, a former suitor to David’s betrothed, the victim’s parents, and the victim’s teacher. This creates a drama in Brandon’s head, and he enjoys it. This is like a dry-run of American Psycho, wherein we see these respected, wealthy socialites conferring with one another as despicable acts are committed. Strangely enough, the tone of the movie suggests black comedy, while the abbreviated sets and long takes suggest theater, at it’s broadest. It makes you wonder what other horrid acts Brandon and Phillip are capable of.

Jimmy Stewart acts as the anger and the conscience of the audience. Since the remainder of the guests are blissfully ignorant, Stewart’s character (who had previously speculated with the young killers on the nature of evil and the imposed eugenics of murder in a socialized structure) easily comes to the conclusion. He suspects Brandon and Phillip have done something terrible, unforgivable. He chastises his young charges, repudiates their callous indifference, and sentences them to death in his eyes for their misdeeds, and you’re damned if you’re not with him as he destroys them with his words. He has such power in his words that he owns the movie for as long as he’s in it. Stewart plays games with the attendees, questions them, and makes dubious statements, but what it all comes down to is watching Brandon and Phillip collapse under his interrogations. Rope is a powerful statement.

I received a very nice message from the administrator at the Vintage HBO Guides Facebook group, and I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of my readers.  I’m forever grateful my work is being enjoyed.  Thanks!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

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Vintage Cable Box: “Unfaithfully Yours, 1984”

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“My name is Claude Eastman. As you probably guessed, I’m a symphony conductor. You may have heard of me. I didn’t always possess this uniform. For twenty-odd years, I ate, drank, and dreamt music. I became a – oh what the hell, I’ll say it – great conductor and simultaneously, a lonely man. I wanted more … love, probably. Be careful what you wish, you just might get it. I met her on tour in Venice. She was acting in a film and we fell in love and married almost immediately. She made me young. She gave me life and it was great while it lasted, but tonight it will all cease to exist for me, because tonight … I’m going to … kill her.”

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Unfaithfully Yours, 1984 (Dudley Moore), 20th Century Fox

There’s a George Carlin joke (George Carlin: Again!, 1978) wherein he describes the “perfect murder”. “You pick one guy up by the ankles, and then you beat another person to death with him. That way, they’re both dead, and there’s no murder weapon!!!” A little more than halfway through Unfaithfully Yours, Dudley Moore believes he has concocted the perfect murder, and the whole thing plays out in his head as he maniacally conducts Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto”. This is the main take-away from Howard Zieff’s 1984 remake of Preston Sturges’ 1948 original.

It’s beautiful. He will establish an alibi by wearing a Halloween mask. He will use two micro-cassette tape machines to record and mix conversations that suggest his lead violinist (hunky Armand Assante) is murdering his cheating wife (gorgeous Nastassja Kinski) when in reality, the violinist will be up-ended by a combination of sedatives and champagne. He will wear the violinist’s mask and play back his wife’s screams while stabbing her to death as security cameras record the whole thing. With his wife dead, and his violinist sentenced to death by hanging, famed conductor Claude Eastman (Dudley Moore) can go about his life unfettered by the infidelity of others. Of course, it doesn’t turn out quite so perfect.

Right after the opening credits, Dudley tells us he’s going to kill his wife, and the bulk of the film is told in flashback. Claude’s suspicions are built completely around a gold jack o’ lantern pendant he purchases (at agent/friend Albert Brooks’ suggestion) for his very young wife. Brooks had purchased the same pendant for his own wife (The Osterman Weekend’s Cassie Yates). Brooks seems to only exist in the narrative to wind up and aggravate Moore with thoughts of infidelity, because he reasons Kinski is too young and beautiful to want to be married to an aging elf like Claude. Brooks hires a private detective who produces a security video-tape of someone entering and exiting Claude’s apartment in the middle of the night, but the person’s face is obscured, and the only thing we see are a pair of very nice argyle socks. Claude spends a great deal of time lifting the cuffs of people’s trousers to see what kind of socks they wear. He begins to suspect Assante.

As it happens, Assante is having an affair, but not with Kinski. He is using Claude’s apartment to meet with Cassie Yates. Dudley, however, is convinced of his own wife’s adultery because of the gold jack o’ lantern pendant he finds on the floor leading to his bedroom. Assante thinks Dudley is calling him out on his affair with Yates and asks him to keep it on the down-low, which further enrages Dudley. After a conversation with his fiery, vengeful Italian butler (Richard Libertini) in which he demonstrates what he would do to his wife if she cheated on him – involving the destruction of an effigy-eggplant, he resigns himself to murder. Interestingly, the script was written by Valerie Curtin, Barry Levinson (the real-life couple who wrote Best Friends for Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn) and Robert Klane (who would go on to make the Weekend At Bernie’s movies).

As I said, it doesn’t go down quite the way Claude planned it. For one, he can’t find any micro-cassette recorders. He doesn’t have any masks. He accidentally drugs himself, intending to drug Assante. He can’t get to his wife in time to kill her, so he rewrites his scheme on the spot, trying to make it look like Assante is killing him instead, all of this while Moore is tipsy with sedatives. I think the whole point of this movie is to get Dudley Moore positively silly on sedatives while orchestrating an elaborate plan to murder his wife. This is Dudley’s wheel-house! The movie ends with a completely inebriated, apologetic Moore being carried home over Kinski’s shoulder. I suppose the movie’s ultimate moral is that we’re all powerless in the arms of love, or something to that effect. If I were Kinski, I’d be a little more than pissed at Dudley, but … that’s amore!

This is my final installment of Dudley Moore Month here at Vintage Cable Box, and I want to say I really enjoyed watching his movies and writing about them. I never realized how many Dudley Moore movies I’ve seen, and as a result of his exposure via cable television in those years, I saw the ill-fated Best Defense that year. I was under the impression he would be sharing the screen with Eddie Murphy, but I was disappointed (at the time) to find that it was kind-of a time travel story, a time-jumping narrative wherein Dudley played a tank designer. His latest creation is piloted by Murphy two years into the future.

He made Micki and Maude with Blake Edwards. This was a favorite of mine, but it didn’t premiere on cable television for a couple of years. He appeared in Santa Claus: The Movie perfectly cast as an elf, and later Like Father, Like Son with teen heart-throb (and now loopy born-again Christian) Kirk Cameron as his son (in a body-swapping comedy – a popular sub-genre in comedy at the time). After an inferior sequel to Arthur, he would be reunited with his Six Weeks director Tony Bill for Crazy People in 1990 and appear in a pair of unsuccessful television sitcoms. Health problems forced his retreat from the spotlight, and Dudley died March 27th in the year 2002 of complications from pneumonia as a result of a brain disorder known as progressive supranuclear palsy.

Let’s forget about that for a moment and remember, just remember that laugh, that Dudley Moore cackle. Remember that top hat and the Rolls Royce, and performing the magic trick with the tablecloth. Remember the screaming, hysterical tirades, and the wild hair, and the sarcasm. Remember his fantasy of Bo Derek running on the beach toward his waiting arms. Remember him holding a dying girl on a New York City subway train. Remember him being carried away like a petulant child by Nastassja Kinki. Remember the great Dudley Moore.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.