A psychological crime thriller set in an upscale living room, this film is nothing less than a work of art. A dinner party that prides itself on grace and grandeur in the company of elegance and dignity, serves beauty and charm as orderves with a surprise for it’s main course, as the hosts feel compelled to showcase their own excellence by dishing out the perfect murder.
Loosely based on true events known as the Leopold and Loeb case that involved the murder of a student by his own contemporaries, the plot embodies that same theme of supremacy over others, and how dangerous a superiority complex can be when those thoughts turn into action. John Dall and Farley Granger play our egocentric aristocrats who seemingly working off divine intervention decide to murder a good friend simply because they find him uninspiring. The method they use is strangulation and if taking a man’s life isn’t merciless enough, they hide the body inside a chest used for the buffet, allowing the victim’s family to rejoice as they wine and dine with their loved one right under their very noses. While Dall is clearly the ringleader and Granger is a reluctant participant, they both have their fingerprints on the ceremony as well as the murder weapon; thus setting in motion an evening full of tension so thick, that even a butter knife could cut through it.
Invited to the party is our victim’s father, fiance, former friend (and previous lover of fiancee), and a gossiping aunt that is sure to provide some comic relief unintentionally. Along with a nosy housekeeper this supporting cast is a wonderful addition to the film, as they all play their roles gracefully while being unwilling participants in Dall and Granger’s ruse. Joan Chandler is particularly memorable in her role as the fiance considering her looks and demeanor are unmistakably reminiscent of Audrey Heburn, perhaps the one brunette Hitchcock had an admiration for. Nonetheless there is one late addition to the party consisting of a former teacher, a mentor to all the young men in the room (breathing or not), and likely the only man in the world that could untangle the menacing truth. Jimmy Stewart takes on this lead role and is excellent while balancing out a steady dose of humor and intrigue as he senses something is awry without being able to put his finger on it. It becomes evident that Stewart shares a liking for dry sarcasm that has made an impression on Dall, and during one sequence they take turns rationalizing the extinction of inferiors for the betterment of society, naturally to the displeasure of the missing boy’s father. While Stewart has a morbid sense of humor, Dall comes off as disturbingly convinced of such a narcissistic theory, while Granger throughout the night looks as distraught as a chicken with his head cut off. It is Dall’s uneasy exuberance met with Granger’s jittery inebriation that leaves Stewart to wonder if there’s a reason to why their former classmate hasn’t arrived, as clues begin to illustrate that in fact he’s been there all along.
I can write for days about all the memorable scenes in this film, and in fact every single scene blends perfectly into the next from not only the perspective of the storyline but from a technical standpoint as well. It’s well known that Hitchcock directed this film in ten minute long continuous takes with hardly any cuts or edits, allowing the interactions to feel authentic while giving the audience an impression that events were being taken place in real time. Not only did it compliment the story but Hitchcock’s crafty camera work would be considered innovative to this very day, and to pull it off with such decorated actors would be considered even more ambitious. Ultimately this “limited setting” framework that had been previously tested on Lifeboat a few years prior was proven to be mastered by now, as in this film Hitchcock created a new blueprint to his own formula. It was clear that by this time in his career Hitchcock would be able to make a spy thriller with his eyes closed, yet the ability to make the more cerebral films on top of that put him into a category of his own. Therefore in regards to his legacy I hope it is not as much his taste for thrills but his touch for subtlety and style that he is most remembered for today.