US (1948) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
In an act of intellectual arrogance two smart ex-graduates, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), strangle former classmate, David Kentley (Dick Hogan) to death in order to prove it is possible to commit the perfect murder. To complete the exercise they throw a party in the very room they killed David in, with his body being present in a chest, the surface of which is being used as a table for the food. The guests include David’s father (Cedric Hardwicke), his aunt Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier), his fiancé Janet (Joan Chandler), Janet’s ex and David friend Kenneth (Douglas Dick) and their old prep school housemaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), all of whom are expecting to see David and are curious by his absence.
A rather curious entry in the extensive and hugely influential canon of the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, Rope stands out for a number of reasons, largely for the technical firsts employed by everyone’s favourite master of suspense. Along with being the first Hitchcock film shot in colour, it is made up entirely of long single takes, often running to ten minutes in length, filmed entirely on one moveable set. This stage like setting reflects the influence of the original 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton upon which this is based, while the long takes were inspired by a 1939 TV production of the play. For some critics it was an ambition that didn’t pay of while others revelled in it, applauding Hitchcock for taking such as a risk most established directors wouldn’t.
Naturally the simplicity of the story and the concept is its beauty and how Hitchcock (and Hamilton) is able to get 80 minutes out of such a rudimentary premise. The audience know what crime has been committed and the two men know what they’ve done, the drama comes from if and when they are to be exposed. The sheer brazenness of Brandon to invite a group of people all with some connection to the victim and lie to their faces about his whereabouts literally moments after the murder was committed will astound many, as it should. Serving food off the chest in which David’s body lies is just part of the arrogance – he even walks about with part of the (titular) rope that he strangled David with, using it to bind some books he was giving to Mr. Kentley!
Phillip is less assured – always fidgety, hiding his nerves through drink and practically displaying a neon sign alerting everyone to the secret of their dastardly deed. When Cadell arrives the conversation eventually turns to the philosophical suggestion of murder as an art which Cadell supports, as does Brandon (naturally) although he brashly gets carried away, again almost revealing himself in the process. Later, Cadell confronts Phillip alone with some acute questioning about the discussion unnerving the young killer even more.
The story is loosely inspired by a real life incident that occurred in 1924 known as the Leopold and Loeb Case, in which two students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, killed a 14 year-old boy named Bobby Franks hoping to satisfy the perfect murder theory as proposed by Nietzsche. As such the script contains many moments of prolix philosophical discussions about murder being art and the idea that it is the privilege of the superior to murder the inferior. How one is able to decide who is inferior and superior is of course a conceit of the plot which Hitchcock doesn’t answer but certainly gives us food for thought. But don’t expect to feel any sympathy or understanding for the two murderers, especially Brandon; he in particular is painted in the broadest strokes of darkness, his arrogance and knife edge playing of his guests knowing no boundaries.
Complaints were made upon the film’s initial release of the lack of tension present but this is unfounded. It is subtly built up and with the absence of a musical soundtrack to lead the audience towards a precarious moment, it comes out of the blue, grabbing one’s attention like an electric shock. In one scene where housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) is tidying up she actually lifts the lid of the chest to put the books away inside it. This happened so naturally and without any force build up that its effect is remarkable knowing what we the audience know. Its little touches like this that makes this such a canny little joy to watch.
In the of first of his many noted collaborations with Hitchcock James Stewart manages to display all of his established charm as the astute Rupert Candell whilst creating an entirely new character for himself. As the two murderers John Dall and Farley Granger, both acquit themselves suitably to their roles, although time has made Dall’s performance seem a little too hammy in places, though he is instantly and consistently dislikeable. Interestingly, the original killers Leopold and Loeb were said to be gay lovers, something which the Hollywood censors wouldn’t have allowed back then although a subtle undercurrent is sometimes present; the irony is that Dall and Granger were actually gay themselves, as was the film’s screenwriter Arthur Laurents. Whether they killed anyone in the name of philosophy has never been disclosed.
It seems that Rope is a polarising film in Hitchcock’s catalogue due to the technical experiments and simple story not being to everyone’s tastes; for cineastes and those interested in filmmaking technique and story telling, this is one of the more interesting of his films to investigate and learn from.