Alfred Hitchcock, 1948
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Joan Chandler, Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Rope is Hitchcock's most experimental film and allegedly one he hated, calling it a "failed experiment." Based on the 1929 play Rope by Patrick Hamilton, this was inspired by the Leopold and Loeb trial, where two upper middle class college students of above-average intelligence killed a teenaged boy in 1924 in order to see if they could commit the perfect crime. The film is shot in such a way that it appears to be almost a single, continuous take and is captured in real time. It is also the first film where Hitchcock used Technicolor, which he does with surgical precision.
Two young men, Brandon and Phillip, calmly strangle their friend David to death with a rope in the parlor of their apartment. They are attempting to commit the perfect murder in order to prove their superior intellects, inspired by the concept of Nietzsche's Superman, something they learned from an old favorite teacher, Rupert Cadell. They stash the body in a wooden chest just before a dinner party. David was supposed to be a guest at the party and his father, aunt and fiancee Janet are all present, as well as Janet's ex-boyfriend Kenneth, another close friend of David's. Their teacher Cadell is also invited, because they think he will appreciate the artistry of their crime. Brandon, who is clearly the dominant member of the pair, has the idea to use the wooden chest as a table for the dinner buffet, hoping to up the stakes and continues to mention David's absence throughout the party, inspiring an increasing amount of panic in the guests.
The most important element of ROPE is the impressive level of experimentation Hitchcock was able to achieve with a major studio film. Shot in nine takes, each roughly ten minutes, the sequences were carefully planned and almost completely eliminated editing. Hitchcock's constant use of long shots and panning allowed him to make some of the cuts invisible, so the film appears to be almost continuous. Like a theatrical stage, there was a single mobile set, most of it on wheels, that could move in and out to allow for the cameras to have unparalleled freedom. The actors and microphone techs were given specifically choreographed cues.
This dazzling technological prowess allows the camera to be come a character of its own. It literally acts as the roving eye of the spectator, moving back and forth between characters and shots of the wooden chest that we know contains David's body. This is a film concerned supremely with visual spectacle and the cinematography is only interested in how the physical actions of suspense unfolds. As a result, the camera provides most of the emotional impact in the film, which is a truly stunning achievement considering the confining set and mostly undeveloped characters. This is probably Hitchcock's smallest scale film with the exception of Lifeboat. Though Hitch considered it a failure, Truffaut correctly called Rope a "painstaking quest for realism." This also explains some of the film's flaws -- wooden acting and a slow pace -- but it is an inspiring work worth watching for anyone interested in filmmaking or classic cinema.
Rope is also a difficult film because of its icy premise. The script is concerned with a moral lack, with a character who is interested in the art of murder and in proving his intellectual superiority above all else. Brandon, who believes himself to be a sort of philosophical Superman, is half Nietzsche and half Wilde, because of his foppish, effeminate behavior and need for wit and word play. He is also intellectually related to Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, another man who murders just to see if he can. Brandon's lines in the film are rich with macabre humor, which is really quite repulsive if you think about it carefully. He has killed his friend and is now serving dinner on top of the body to his friend's loves ones.
Phillip's character unfortunately pales in comparison, but he provides necessary dramatic tension as he begins to hysterically come undone throughout the course of the film. Much has been written about the homosexual subtext of the relationship between Brandon and Phillip, ostensibly based on the gay Leopold and Loeb, and if there ever was an ambiguously gay duo, it is Brandon and Phillip. Though there are no direct references to their sexual relationship, the film hints at it so strongly that the poor box office reception was supposedly because of the gay subtext. There is also an undeniable connection between things hidden and secret: the secret sexual relationship and the secret murder. Brandon is desperate to flaunt his secret and repeatedly admits to having a passionate hatred for anything normal or ordinary. He mocks David and Janet's conventional heterosexual relationship and tries to stir trouble by involving Kenneth in the mix.
Ultimately Rope is a parlor room melodrama and should be approach with caution by film newbies. On the surface level, it immediately kicks off with a graphic murder and has trouble focusing and maintaining tension throughout the rest of the film. The character we are the most drawn to, David, never appears after his murder, though he is central to the film. Instead, we have to suffer through a slew of mostly flat, uninteresting characters. Jimmy Stewart, in his first starring role for Hitchcock, is sub-par, falling prey to some unfortunate philosophical musings throughout the film.
Regardless of these minor flaws, the film comes highly recommended. It is truly a turning point in Hitchcock's career as a major filmmaker and technical innovator, even if it is a more underrated effort. Rope is available as a single disc DVD from Warner Bros. or as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection, which is the version I am reviewing.