“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. 

“Sudden Impact, 1983”

“Go ahead, make my day.”

Sudden Impact, 1983 (Clint Eastwood), Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood returns as “Dirty” Harry Callahan in this, the fourth installment of the popular crime/drama franchise. While negotiating punks and malcontents, he stumbles upon a series of vigilante misadventures all involving men shot once in the groin and once in the head. He very quickly figures out these murders are being perpetrated by one person or group. After causing collateral damage (this happens in every movie) during a botched diner hold-up, Harry is put on vacation by his superiors so he takes up residence in idyllic coastal town, Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, the vigilante murders are occurring with greater dispatch in this town. It seems trouble follows Harry wherever he goes.

We’re introduced to the hauntingly beautiful Sondra Locke, a successful artist who has also moved into the town under the pretense of restoring a carousel for the local amusement park, but what she really wants is revenge for her sister and herself. All of the murdered men were involved in a brutal gangrape of Locke and her sibling, which left her sister catatonic and unresponsive. Locke isn’t finished marking names off her list, so she visits the remainder of the men (and their lesbian cohort, played with appropriate sleaze by Audrie Neenan) one by one. Her flashback to the rape is one of the most terrifying and seemingly accurate depictions I’ve ever seen.

The avenging angel.

Though officially “on vacation,” Harry conducts his own investigation into the killings, runs afoul of Police Chief Pat Hingle (who has a personal stake-by-proxy of his traumatized son), and makes time with a surprisingly soliticous Locke.  The “foreplay” of their conversation telegraphs a mutual understanding of the failings of law enforcement and the hypocrisy of the justice system.  As Locke airs her grievances, Harry becomes more interested in her.  It’s a fascinating scene.  Eventually Harry puts the pieces together.  When the other rapists catch on to Locke’s activities (rather than turning tail and running off into the night), they abduct her.  Harry rescues her (in a famous “resurrection” bit evocative of his old westerns), and then covers for her.

Sudden Impact is a fun and atypical Dirty Harry movie that places our sympathies with the “bad guy” (Locke) and transforms her into a reluctant hero because we relate to her and her sister’s  victimization.  Clint Eastwood directs this installment with remarkable assurance.  He had already established himself as an excellent filmmaker, and had a hand in directing sequences from Magnum Force after a falling out with original director, Ted Post.  He’s fascinated and invested in Locke’s character, and uses effective close-ups of her wounded eyes.  According to Locke’s memoir, the film originated as a separate script with no connection to Dirty Harry.  Eastwood would return to the role in 1988 with the inferior follow-up, The Dead Pool.

“Go ahead, make my day.”

Sourced from both the original 1984 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release and the Dirty Harry Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray box set. The movie continued to receive different format releases, and is available in Beta, DVD, Laserdisc (using the same art design as the clamshell release) and Blu Ray formats. As with most (if not all) WEA VIDEO CANADA clamshell releases of Warner properties, the paper is flimsier than U.S.A. releases. The paper also has wax stains, and the label on the tape appears to have been printed for Beta tape (as with my previous review of Swing Shift). “Two killers are at large. One of them is Dirty Harry.” The essay on the back of the box reminds us of the previous three movies: Dirty Harry (1971), Magnum Force (1973), and The Enforcer (1976). Clint himself gives us a blurb: “People are a little edgy about the rights of criminals taking precedence over the rights of victims,” Eastwood says, “I think the public is interested in justice, and that’s what Harry stands for. He’s unique because he stood for the same principles from the beginning, when it wasn’t terribly fashionable.”

Be sure to catch the latest Extreme Cinema: Action and Exploitation Movies with Andrew La Ganke and David Lawler podcast, in which we discuss the Dirty Harry franchise in honor of Clint Eastwood’s birthday! You can also find the original, unaltered episode at BlissVille.

Special thanks to Bethany Robertson Heinlen for the Blu-Ray box set.

As to the inevitable comparisons between the original VHS tape and the Blu-Ray, the differences are staggering.  This is a discreetly clean-up transfer from original negatives that preserves the clarity of cinematographer Bruce Surtees’ compositions without the need to “improve” the visual quality by artificially brightening the image.  The Panavision process is staggering in four of the five Dirty Harry movies on the set.  As for the VHS videotape – other than myself and curious cinephiles, I don’t see any reason to watch the movie in standard (read: low) resolution, panned-and-scanned to 4:3 for televisions.  Here’s a good overview of the Blu-Ray box set.  

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.

“Swing Shift, 1984”

“Blame it on the war – it’s everybody’s excuse.”

Swing Shift, 1984 (Goldie Hawn), Warner Bros.

Goldie Hawn’s husband (Ed Harris) leaves for war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and rather than wait for him to return, she takes a job as a riveter in a munitions factory. Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film, Swing Shift, brings to the forefront the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter: a call to arms for women who were not required to serve in the Armed Forces but, nevertheless, wanted to help the war effort. The Government, at that time, launched enormous promotional campaigns on the home-front, including victory gardens, rationing stamps, and war bonds. It was a way of not only boosting confidence stateside but also reducing waste and bolstering local resources.

Goldie, while initially loyal and devoted, begins to see the War taking a toll on her fellow employees. Co-worker Holly Hunter receives news that her husband has died. This is when she begins to spend more time with leadman on the line, “Lucky” (Kurt Russell) and eventually has an affair with him. Unfortunately, the way the film is edited, there is very little remorse for her actions. I assume women at the time of the movie’s release saw Goldie’s irresponsible attitude regarding her infidelity as a ticket to enlightenment and self-reliance. Audiences would probably assume Ed Harris is dead, thus leaving her free to pursue her romantic entanglements. It doesn’t happen that way.

Ed Harris does indeed return home in one piece and very quickly figures out his wife has been unfaithful. Because of various issues with the editing of the film (according to lore, Hawn and Demme fought over the tone, where she wanted Swing Shift to be a light romantic comedy), another clandestine affair conducted between “Lucky” and Goldie’s friend, lovelorn Hazel (excellent Christine Lahti), is virtually swept under the rug. As a result, “Lucky” comes over like an asshole, which is an interesting choice for a movie like this. There is a fascinating character piece hidden inside this expensive period costume drama, and while I have no doubt Demme envisioned a smaller drama, he simply didn’t have the clout he would ferment in later years to effectively see his ideas come alive.

Sourced from the original 1984 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release. The movie continued to receive different format releases, and is available in Beta, DVD, Laserdisc (using the same art design as the clamshell release) and Blu Ray formats.  As with most (if not all) WEA VIDEO CANADA clamshell releases of Warner properties, the paper is flimsier than U.S.A. releases.  The paper also has wax stains, and the label on the tape appears to have been printed for Beta tape.  The accompanying essay takes great pains to promote Swing Shift’s cinematography, production design, and costumes, as well as Jonathan Demme’s interesting vision of film.  “But perhaps the most moving thing about Swing Shift is its unique tone — the same gently ironic affection Demme displayed in his earlier hit Melvin and Howard.  ‘I’m after a reflection of life,’ Demme explains, ‘which is not exactly comedy and not exactly drama, but a blend of both.'”

Perhaps that’s my central complaint in the majority of Demme’s work.  His films shift uneasily from comedy to drama to horror to psychological terror, and while I understand that life is often a mixture of these conditions, it makes for an unnerving cinematic experience. Something Wild springs to mind  as another example of this problem, as Andrew and I noted on our podcast Extreme Cinema when we discussed Demme’s films.  Demme’s is a career interrupted by mass appeal and pop culture distraction. Those who create the work do not succumb to that work. They simply continue until they die. I always felt Demme had a masterpiece in him, but he never had the chance to realize it.

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.