Cast: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Joan Chandler, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Constance Collier, Douglas Dick, Edith Evanson
SUMMARY: Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) are two young men recently graduated from Harvard University. They believe (Brandon in particular) that they have far superior intelligence to virtually everybody, and decide to prove it by committing the perfect murder. They choose former classmate and friend David Kentley as their victim, and strangle him in Brandon’s apartment. They then put the body in a large wooden chest, and prepare to host a dinner party. Phillip is extremely uneasy about what they have done, and the prospect of having guests in the apartment with the body, but Brandon is sure that nobody will suspect anything. He sees the entire event as a tremendous joke, and has even picked the party guests to further the irony. He has invited David’s parents, his fiancée, David’s former best friend, and their old housemaster from prep school. David’s mother is unable to attend, due to a cold, but his father Mr. Kentley (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) attends, and brings his sister, Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier). The fiancée, Janet (Joan Chandler), comes, though she is uneasy when she learns that her former boyfriend/David’s former best friend Kenneth (Douglas Dick) is also at the party. The last to arrive is Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the former housemaster. To add to the suspense, Brandon insists on serving food from the chest containing the body, rather than the table.
During the party, talk turns to Rupert’s belief that murder is an art form, and acceptable in certain instances. He believes that “superior” individuals should be allowed to kill “inferior” individuals when circumstances warrant it, a theory which Brandon wholeheartedly agrees with. Brandon’s enthusiasm, along with Phillip’s obvious discomfort with the topic, start to make Rupert suspicious. As the evening continues, Phillip continues to act strangely. He also drinks heavily, which is noticed by most of the guests. However, their main concern is David’s absence. David had also been invited to the party, and is known for being prompt and responsible. His failure to appear or to call either the party or his own house makes both Mr. Kentley and Janet very worried. Janet is even more incensed when she learns that Brandon has been trying to set her up with Kenneth: when she talks about it with Kenneth, she learns that Brandon has been misleading both of them. Mr. Kentley, his sister, Janet and Kenneth eventually decide to leave to look for David, and Rupert decides to leave as well. On his way out, the housekeeper hands him the wrong hat — which is monogrammed with David’s initials. After the guests leave, Brandon believes he and Phillip have pulled off a huge coup. Phillip, however, is sure that Rupert is on to them. He seems to be vindicated when Rupert soon reappears, claiming to have left his cigarette case behind. He begins to speculate about what could have happened to David, using clues he picked up during the evening. When states that the body could be hidden in the wooden chest — then opens it to find David’s actual body. Rupert is horrified; this feeling only multiplies when he realizes that it was his own theories about murder that encouraged Brandon and Phillip. Brandon expects Rupert to side with them, but Rupert sees that his ideas about superiority and inferiority have been completely false all along. He uses Brandon’s gun to fire shots out the window, attracting police attention, then holds the two murderers at gunpoint until the police arrive.
MY TAKE: This is a Hitchcock movie, which means it’s got terrific suspense throughout. This one is a little different, though, in that the crime is the very first thing that happens in the film. There isn’t a buildup of tension: things are immediately very tense, and that feeling is maintained until the end. In case you’re wondering, Hitchcock’s appearance also comes at the very beginning, when a couple of people are shown walking down the street. You can’t see their faces, but I actually did peg the guy as Hitchcock — I couldn’t figure out any other reason for these people to be shown. In addition, it’s the only scene that takes place outside the apartment, so there’s really no other place for him to show up. That’s another interesting thing about the movie, and something that probably helps sustain that tension: the entire thing happens in one apartment, and basically in one room. It also happens in real time, as we see everything Brandon and Phillip do from the time of the murder until they are found out. I didn’t really notice, because I tend not to notice things like this, but there aren’t very many camera cuts, either, which Hitchcock did on purpose. This story was based on the real-life crime of Bobby Franks, committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The two thought that they were so smart they could commit the perfect murder, which obviously didn’t happen. Before it was a movie, it was a play, which makes sense when you think about the one-room thing. Personally, I’m astounded that anybody thinks they could commit the perfect murder. Granted, this movie is set in a time before DNA played such a huge role, but even then, it seems pretty audacious. If you were really so smart, you think you’d be smart enough to realize that murdering somebody is a pretty bad idea. I got the sense that Brandon was really the driving force behind the crime, and that Phillip kinda got dragged along for the ride. He seemed to realize, after the crime if not before it, that what they did was wrong. I’ve never heard of John Dall before, but he did a terrific job of playing Brandon Shaw as a narcissistic, smug rich boy who thinks he’s above everybody else. I just wanted to smack him every time he did that cocky little grin thing. It was odd to see Jimmy Stewart in a rather ambivalent role: he’s not the bad guy, but his ideas sort of inspired the crime. It’s just hard to think of Jimmy Stewart saying that murder is okay in certain cases. He definitely has an earth-shattering moment when he realizes what all his talk has led to. Clearly, he was living in a world of academia and supposition, rather than reality.
RATING: Pretty good.