Then Playing — A Woman Rebels; Caged; Rope

A Woman Rebels (Mark Sandrich, 1936). This period drama, set predominantly in Victorian-era London, isn’t considered a vital entry in Katharine Hepburn’s filmography, likely because it was part of the string of bombs that almost sunk her Hollywood career right at the outset. Although definitely imperfect, especially as it slides further into melodrama as it goes along, A Woman Rebels is emblematic of the forward-thinking feminism Hepburn imbued into her roles. She plays Pamela Thistlewaite, a headstrong young woman who chafes at the control of her imperious father. Hepburn manages to make the era incongruity — for both when the film was made and when it’s set — feel utterly natural, the frothy certainty of a intelligent soul. The film is more convincing in its depictions of Pamela’s unlikely professional progress at a early women’s magazine than in the familial and relationship dramas. Hepburn is predictably engaged more by the former plot thread, but so to is director Mark Sandich. There’s simply a different energy to those scenes, which gives even the predictable turns a jolt of excitement.

Caged (John Cromwell, 1950). At the start of Caged, Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is a nineteen-year-old naif, sentenced to a one-to-fifteen year hitch in a women’s prison for being accessory an army robbery perpetrated by her husband. By the end of the picture, the compounding injustices and brutalities within the penitentiary have transformed her into a jaded, ruthless opportunist. Parker plays the full arc with impressive ingenuity. If there are more broad strokes than nuance to the performance, very much in keeping with the style of the era, Parker still makes the transformation gradual and fully believable. Director John Cromwell allows the film to be suitably rough and raw in its depictions of prison life, yet he never lets the film lapse into pure sensationalism. He’s clearly committed to making salient points about the counterproductive cruelty of systems of incarceration, points that remain sadly pertinent seven decades after the film’s release. The screenplay, credited to Bernard C. Schoenfeld and Virginia Kellogg, booms with crackling dialogue, and the actors make a feast of it, with standout supporting turns by Agnes Moorehead, Betty Garde, and Ellen Corby.

Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948). Alfred Hitchcock famously staged this adaption of Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 stage play to seem as though it is taking place almost entirely as a single, continuous shot, a feat far trickier in the late nineteen-forties than it with the modern cinematic trickery employed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Sam Mendes for the same narrative effect. The film’s story centers on a pair of budding sociopaths (John Dall and Farley Granger) who murder a former college classmate and stash him in a hefty chest that sits right in the middle of a dinner party filled with shared acquaintances. There’s no denying the technical acumen that went into the film, but Rope is a flat, unsatisfying film. It might have worked with more intricate performances that brought emotional astuteness to the suspense. Instead, Dall and Granger are overly broad, with the latter especially prone to actorly histrionics that are almost comic in their intensity. The film is almost rescued by James Stewart, who brings a seasoned professional ease to the role of a party attendee who susses out that ill doings are afoot.

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