This is a very strange film, even for Hitchcock. It’s an adaptation of a stage play that Hitchcock turns into a claustrophobic one set crime drama. Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan (played by John Dall and Farley Granger) are upper class New Yorkers living together in an East Side apartment with a panoramic view of the city. They are the products of a prep school and Ivy League education and are convinced that they are Nietzschean supermen who thereby have the right to murder ordinary men with impunity. As the movie opens, they are seen strangling one of their school chums David Kentley with a piece of rope in their apartment. After hiding the body in an antique wooden chest, they go about setting up their apartment for a dinner party that will feature David’s father (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt and David’s fiancée Janet. The other cast in the play and party attendees are Mrs. Wilson who is Brandon’s housekeeper, Kenneth Lawrence who is another school friend and also a former boyfriend of Janet’s and Rupert Cadell (played by Jimmy Stewart) who was Brandon and Phillip’s prep school housemaster and the inspiration for their Nietzschean philosophical justification for murder.
Brandon brazenly uses the chest that David’s body is hidden in as the buffet table for the dinner that the guests feed on during the party. Brandon makes several sly allusions to Kenneth that maybe Janet may be available again for his romantic interest. All the guests are acutely aware that David is unexpectedly late for the party and unaccounted for. Phillip from the start of the movie is extremely nervous about the prospect of being caught. And as the party proceeds, he becomes more and more agitated and begins drinking heavily. In the middle of the proceedings Brandon steers the conversation to his Nietzschean theory of the superman and his right to kill with impunity. When Rupert agrees with this logic at least theoretically Brandon gets heatedly enthusiastic about its validity and this elicits a response from Mr. Kentley to the effect that he is offended by the disrespect for human decency and morality. This snaps Brandon back into a more normal mode and alerts Rupert that something very strange is going on at the party. Rupert starts to put together the various threads of the scene. He recognizes that Brandon is trying to bring Janet and Kenneth together romantically in David’s absence. He recognizes the anxiety in David’s friends and family at his very unusual disappearance and he keys in on Phillip’s anxiety, anger and drunkenness as the way to pry into what was going on below the surface of the gathering.
Rupert corners Phillip as he is playing the piano to cross-examine him about David’s absence, Brandon’s strange behavior and Phillip’s own anxiety. And as the climax of his investigation he witnesses Phillip’s panic when he sees that Brandon has used the murder weapon, the piece of rope to tie up some old books that Brandon is giving as a gift to Mr Kentley as the old man is leaving to go home to his panicked wife. Right before everyone leaves, Rupert has a talk with Mrs. Wilson, who is an old friend of his. She tells Rupert about the fact that her employer told her to take the afternoon off and then decided at the last minute to serve the dinner off of the chest instead of the dining room table. As Mrs. Wilson is cleaning up and about to open the chest to put some books back into it, Brandon hurriedly stops her from opening it and tells her to hold off her cleaning until the next day. And finally, as Rupert is leaving, he takes the wrong hat from the closet and looking into it he sees a monogram DK (David Kentley).
Once the guests and Mrs. Wilson have left Brandon and Phillip have an argument. Brandon upbraids Phillip for getting drunk and about his fear over being caught. Phillip angrily blames Brandon for risking discovery by throwing out hints that Rupert was able pick up on. Suddenly the phone rings and Phillip panics when he finds it’s Rupert returning to find his cigarette case. Brandon tells Phillip to get ahold of himself and before Rupert arrives Brandon puts a revolver in his jacket pocket. When Rupert comes in, we find out he hasn’t misplaced his case but instead hides it behind some books on the chest and “discovers” it. He takes the excuse of a drink to continue his questioning of Brandon and Phillip. He shows pretty quickly that he thinks they are responsible for David’s disappearance and reasons how they could have knocked out David and hidden him. When Rupert confronts Brandon with the fact that he has a gun in his jacket, Brandon laughs it off as just the protection he will be taking with him to his house in the country. Brandon throws the gun on the piano and Rupert continues his cross-examination and suddenly takes the piece of rope out of his pocket. Phillip screams out that Rupert knows everything and grabs the pistol. Rupert and Phillip fight over the gun. The gun goes off and grazes Rupert’s hand but he gets control of it and takes control of Brandon and Phillip. He opens up the chest and finds David’s body. Brandon tries to justify the murder by virtue of their mutually acknowledged Nietzschean philosophy. Rupert rejects Brandon’s justification and reviles as a monster whose inhumanity would ensure that he and Phillip would both be executed by the law. Rupert goes over to the window and opens it. He fires three rounds into the air and all three wait for the police to arrive. Rupert moves a chair next to the chest and places his arm and the gun on it as if to protect David from his killers.
As I stated at the beginning, this is a very strange movie. The only character that I found altogether admirable is Mr. Kentley. He represents normal human feelings and ordinary sensibilities. The worst characters are of course Brandon and Phillip. But only slightly less objectionable is Rupert. His elitist attitude toward his supposed superior intelligence is contemptible. The rest of the characters are shallow characters with various foibles and ticks. During the argument over Nietzschean superiority only Mr. Kentley displays the strength of character and humanity to revolt at the cruel indifference displayed by Brandon, Phillip and Rupert.
With respect to the success of the movie as entertainment I’ll have to say I can only watch this movie every few years. It’s a fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb “thrill killing” from the 1920s. From that point of view, it holds interest as an almost sociological and psychological statement. It’s depressing, annoying and as noted above claustrophobic. One of the more annoying aspects of the film is the tune that Phillip plays almost endlessly on the piano. I grew to really hate that tune rather quickly. Another annoying aspect of the movie is the homosexuality of Brandon and Phillip. It’s never mentioned, of course because this movie was made in 1948. But the dialog between them makes it clear that they don’t have a normal friendship. And their personalities, especially Brandon’s are extremely unpleasant in a catty womanish way. It’s not fun to see. I would have to say I would only recommend this movie for a fan of Hitchcock who is interested in his technical skill. The way the scenes are melded together at the film cuts is interesting but the story as I’ve described is a mess.