On the extras on my DVD of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope screenwriter Arthur Laurents nails several of the reasons why this adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play (based on the Leopold/Loeb case in which a couple of students felt entitled to kill a 14 year old boy because they considered themselves ‘beyond good and evil’) fails.
Watching it, however, I was moved to wonder whether it really needed to succeed when failure becomes it so well.
A curious compromise between the cinematic and the theatrical, this is like a stage play in which the camera roams among the performers, like a character who is undoubtedly present (the camera was a bulky presence and keeping out of its way something of a challenge for the actors) but which cannot be acknowledged.
This mixture of presence and absence makes it analogous to David, the victim, whose dead body is seen at the beginning, and which then spends the film languishing in a chest atop which the food for a dinner party is laid out. The film traces the course of the dinner party, to which David has been invited, and its aftermath, in which Rupert (James Stewart), the former teacher of killers Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger), uncovers the body, and the crime.
You could see the camera as it flits about as the spirit of David, desperately trying to work out what has happened to it, or seeking revenge – this would explain why it keeps diving into the backs of characters, trying and failing to secure a new home in an available body. (Though in fact, this camera movement was Hitchcock’s way of covering up the cuts and trying – failing – to preserve the illusion of a one-take movie.)
It’s interesting that towards the end the cut is covered by the lid of the chest concealing David’s corpse as Rupert opens it – as if the spirit finally ‘comes home’ as the murder is brought to light.
However, if that were the case it ought to be the last shot in the film I suppose – instead the camera goes on to record Rupert’s appalled reaction, a struggle with Philip, his firing a gun out of the window to bring the police, and so on.
Finally, in place of the scene where the police turn up and ‘justice is done’, we get the characters subsiding into outwardly casual postures – Rupert sprawls on a chair, Philip plays the piano, Brandon fixes a drink. The camera then pans out to take the viewpoint of a traditional stage audience, as if the ‘play’ has resumed rather than finished.
The ‘spirit’ has not quite been laid to rest, then. There is something that has not been dealt with – could it be the gay thing?
The assumption is that Brandon and Philip, who live together in the apartment in which the film is set, are a couple, yet this cannot be acknowledged because Hollywood at the time could barely deal with straight sex between married couples, let alone homosexuality.
Rupert, it may also be assumed, is gay too. Rupert never takes any responsibility for the murder, even though it is his ideas about the essential superiority of certain individuals that have inspired the murderers – ‘I’m not like you!’, he tells them, which works just as well as a refusal to acknowledge a shared sexuality.
This is a film that is very much ‘about the body’, a problem it can never solve*. We could see that flitting camera as disavowed sexuality itself, trying to ground itself in a body, but we also have to accept that the camera is us, the audience; it is our ‘way in’ to the drama.
But if our idea of a satisfactory filmic experience is to identify with a character or characters and go on an ’emotional journey’ with them – a journey which will hopefully end in catharsis – we are disappointed. Although we may be inclined to identify with some of the minor characters, like David’s father (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) the three protagonists frustrate us in that respect – two are killers and the third – and most likely – candidate, Rupert, is compromised.
In fact, Rupert’s disavowal of his guilt is like a false catharsis, conspicuously failing to resolve the film’s ‘issues’ – which might on one level be the fundamental inescapability of our bodies, left sitting in our seats while we try to involve ourselves in these images.
The elements singled out by Laurents as reasons for the film’s failure include Hitchcock’s insistence on showing the body of David at the beginning – had we been left uncertain as to whether there really was a body in the chest, it would have generated some fruitful ambiguity. He also says that James Stewart was too strait-laced to work as Rupert – the part needed someone who could muster up some sinister undertones (James Mason for example).
Then there is the camera itself: the emphasis on its movements is distracting, particularly the way Hitchcock tries to disguise the cuts.
Right on all three counts I think, but this ‘successful’ version of Rope, playing out in a blackly comic way perhaps, didn’t happen and the errors indicated by Laurents prove to be key elements in creating a film where failure has (arguably) more resonance than success, and which ultimately reveals that the only real ‘superior being’ – existing outside the limitations of morality and physicality – is the camera.
Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor would have been the last film I saw at the BFI, a pre-Christmas 2020 showing that was of course canceled. As I write, the BFI is still a bunker of COVID security – you can’t just turn up expecting them to let you buy a ticket – and the film has long been available on DVD for £6.00 in Fopp so I saw it where lately I have been spending so much of my life: in my bedroom.
Working from home might also be a possibility for our heroine, hired assassin Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), since she isn’t using her own body to do the job, but rather taking over the bodies of other individuals and using them as vehicles to get close enough to her targets to kill them.
Still, it’s the kind of job that takes it out of you, and doesn’t always give it back, and where is home anyway? Tasya lives alone but increasingly inclined to spend more time with her son and estranged husband, though her boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) discourages such sentimental tendencies in her star employee.
Tasya’s next job involves killing CEO John Parse (Sean Bean) and daughter Ava (Tuppence Middleton) from the body of Ava’s prospective, though unsuitable in John’s eyes, husband Colin (Christopher Abbott). It is during this that Tasya’s world unravels, as Colin, though he does the job, proves resistant in the aftermath, making difficulties around Tasya’s attempt to exit her unwilling host. Soon he is to be found hanging around the house of Tasya’s ex.
Or at least his body is, and initially we can’t quite tell if this is Tasya – stuck in Colin’s body and feeling, as it were, homesick – or Colin, seeking vengeance, or at least answers.
Tasya’s job allows her to do what Rope‘s camera fails to do: penetrate bodies. We can it as an analogy for the audience’s identification with a character, but in fact it muddies the water. At the start, Tasya is introduced via a test that Girder performs to determine that she still retains a sense of herself as a concrete individual. During this she expresses some lingering childhood guilt at killing a butterfly, which allows us a glimpse of her humanity.
However, when Tasya ‘becomes’ Colin we lose any sense of both as individuals: as if the very process of ‘identification’ renders them opaque.
In the end Colin kills both Tasya’s ex-husband and her own son, but there is more than a suggestion that Tasya’s finger is on the trigger, that this is a way of drastically simplifying her existence, made easier by the distance gained from occupying another body. Like the film itself, Tasya lingers over the grisly results of her handiwork, fascinated by the gore, suggesting that this might be the closest someone who routinely uses bodies as vehicles gets to intimacy.
Brandon has been described as a chip off the old block but he’s more like a whole new block that looks identical to the old one, perhaps the beginning of a whole body-horror chain. That isn’t to say that Possessor comes across as an inferior version of the original – rather it would be one of David’s better offerings, had he been responsible for it. Riseborough and Abbott make for perfect Cronenberg protagonists – they have that penetrable air, like people who haven’t quite set.
Finally, back in her body, Tasya passes the test again, but while she remembers killing the butterfly, she no longer says that she still feels guilty. As an indicator of her character arc – one in which she shrinks as a person – this might seem a bit obvious, but that very mechanical obviousness is the point I suppose.
A bottle of J&B whiskey turns up in one scene, drink of choice in innumerable gialli.
Possessor doesn’t look much like a giallo – style is less important here than substance, even if the substance here comes largely in the form of bodily fluids.
Dazzling style was one way the gialli had of distracting us from plots that were often mechanical and reliant on gruesome killings. Brandon C doesn’t dazzle, he prefers, like his dad, to dwell, staring hard at queasy spectacles. Because of this there is no layer of artistry to protect us from the disturbing aspects of the scenario.
In Blood And Black Lace, for example, the colourful surface kept us out, even as it made the content more alluring. Here we are already in, but our identification with the characters, as represented by Tasya’s body-hopping, doesn’t bring us closer to them. Though it does induce catharsis of a kind – and not a false one, as in Rope.
Tasya’s ‘catharsis’ in enacted in reality. Instead of exorcising her demons in a symbolic way, Tasya actually kills her loved ones, but the result still fulfils a basic requirement of the psychoanalytic cure: she ‘resolves her issues’ and becomes a functioning member of society, at least in the sense that she can now do her job more efficiently. But it certainly doesn’t make her a whole person – instead, it diminishes her humanity.**
The idea that we can empathize with someone, that we can ‘walk a mile in their shoes’, is undercut here, though ambiguity lingers – to what extent have Tasya and Colin merged? This is oddly reminiscent of Argento’s Bird With The Crystal Plumage where penetrating the surface of the film leads us into a world of unstable identities, where male and female are hard to distinguish.
But Possessor is colder – precisely because, on one level, it satisfies.
We are encouraged to identify with a character who achieves catharsis and becomes her ‘best’ (or most effective) self – all of this happens, but in a grimly parodic, posthuman way that still (superficially) ‘works’. The film is, unlike Rope, a success, though one that might well make us wonder whether success is something to be desired after all.
*It is probably worth mentioning another of Hitchcock’s failures here: 1955’s The Trouble With Harry, in which the entire film – supposedly a comedy – revolves around the corpse of the titular Harry. Hitchcock’s inability to find the right tone leads to some odd effects, without generating much in the way of laughter.
The corpse certainly lends queasy undertones to the flirtation between Mildred Natwick’s ‘well-preserved’ spinster and grizzled old sailor Edmund Gwenn (who at one point resolves to ‘open’ her, like a jar of preserves), particularly in the light of Natwick’s earlier reference to Harry as ‘my body’.
Psycho (1960) was to be Hitch’s most successful ‘corpseploitation’ picture – here the late Mrs. Bates secretly enjoys an active participation in events through her son Norman, then gets to make a big dramatic entrance at the end.
** Perhaps it has been self-consciously ‘built in’ to this, but it does occur to me that the explosive interfamilial resentment on display here, and the theme of being dominated by another personality, might indicate that Cronenberg Sr. ought to be looking over his shoulder.