Alfred Hitchcock crossed the pond to Hollywood in 1940 and consistently stretched the boundaries of genre filmmaking during that decade. Shadow of a Doubt brought a shocking personal element to a small-town mystery, and Notorious took the spy caper to greater heights. While those pictures took chances, he went a step further with Rope in 1948. Comprised of a series of long takes and set in a single location, it boils down the story to its barest essentials. A dinner party has seven attendees, but there’s an eighth participant that’s only known to two of them. While his dead body rests inside a wooden chest in the center of the room, the unsuspecting guests don’t realize they’re celebrating a murder. They’re even being served food from the coffin itself — a cruel joke from a devious killer.
The murderous duo is Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger), who share the apartment where the party takes place. Earlier that day, David Kentley (Dick Hogan) arrived at their home with no idea he was the subject of a horrid experiment. Could they perform the perfect murder? We learn the specifics of the killing from the start, so there’s no mystery about that feat. Instead, the suspense comes from wondering if anyone will discover their secret. Brandon is the mastermind and believes he’s left nothing to chance, but he can’t resist taking risks. It wouldn’t be any fun if there wasn’t some danger. Phillip is the reluctant accomplice who loses his nerve after the murder. When their sharp former headmaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) starts asking questions, even Brandon’s clever plans might not be enough to hide their dastardly deeds.
While Rope’s unconventional style earns the headlines, it’s also a landmark in its depiction of homosexuality. Brandon and Phillip’s relationship is never clarified during the story, but they’re obviously a couple. Arthur Laurents’ screenplay deftly sidesteps an issue that wouldn’t have passed the censors. The writer and both actors were homosexuals, and their characters’ interactions feel like the squabbles of an involved couple. Their relationship is treated like it’s no big deal, an impressive feat for a movie that’s more than 60 years old. When comedies like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry represent our modern culture’s look at homosexuality, we might not be any further along. Brandon and Phillip are murderers, but their sexual preference doesn’t play a role in their evil deeds.
Adapted from the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton (Gaslight), this film resembles a one-act stage play in style and content. The source material was inspired by the infamous Leopold and Loeb case, and some towns banned the movie because of that connection. An intriguing discussion during the party outlines Brandon’s feelings about the superior man having the right to commit murder. While Rupert considers this issue from a philosophical perspective, it’s clear that Brandon takes it seriously. These concepts spring from Nietzsche and Rupert’s teachings as their headmaster. He doesn’t realize that his pupils have taken the intellectual discussions to the extreme. Brandon exudes confidence and acts sinister all the time, so his behavior doesn’t immediately signify a change. Phillip seems angry and frightened, however, so it’s clear that something’s afoot beyond the typical dinner-party shenanigans.
The shooting technique might seem rudimentary today, but it was monumental for the time. The technical precision required to maneuver the camera through the cramped apartment is remarkable. Late ‘40s technology prevented shots from lasting much longer than 10 minutes, so Hitchcock uses interesting ways to hide the cuts. He zooms into suit jackets or furniture to disguise the switch to a new take. There are a few examples of direct cuts, but they’re barely noticeable because we’re engaged in the plot. It’s an intriguing experiment, but does it enhance the story? That is the pivotal question. I believe this style works and increases the suspense as Rupert starts discovering the truth. The final showdown between the headmaster and his pupils is considerably more powerful because of the lack of cuts. Hitchcock’s approach might feel simple when compared to innovative recent attempts like Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark or Mike Figgis’ Timecode, but it remains effective.
There are some problems that arise with this approach, however. The 80-minute running time feels strangely long for such a brief film. The story functions like a play and works in that framework, yet it also leads to some tedious moments. The middle segment drags and gets sidetracked by an uninteresting romantic subplot with David’s buddy Kenneth (Douglas Dick) and girlfriend Janet (Joan Chandler). When viewed today, we’re also focusing more on Hitchcock’s tactics than the actual plot. This isn’t his fault, but it makes for a much different experience than audiences had during the original screenings. The film’s experimental reputation makes it difficult to view it from any other perspective.
There’s still plenty to like about Rope, which gets unfairly labeled as a failed experiment. Several performances are excellent, particularly John Dall (Gun Crazy) as the arrogant Brandon. He leaps into the over-the-top role and makes him a believably deranged guy. It’s a theatrical performance that may turn off some viewers, but it works for the material. Stewart is also excellent as the shrewd guy who quickly recognizes something is amiss. Rupert doesn’t fathom the depths of their devilish act but has a curious hunch. Stewart feels he was miscast for the part, and the studio pushed for Cary Grant. I disagree and think he’s the right choice because he conveys smarts with just a glance. You can see the gears churning in his head during each successive misstep from Brandon and Philip. Less successful is Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train), who has the thankless role of playing the weaker part of the duo. He tries his best with the limited role, but we never care about his moral quandaries. The rest of the supporting cast is capable but mostly exist to set up the conflict between Rupert and the killers.
Looking beyond the basic style, Hitchcock finds clever ways to arrange the characters within the frame. He sets up groups in a triangle to convey their thematic relationships. The most prominent example is Rupert standing between Brandon and Phillip while he tries to discover the truth. During the final scene, they hover closely around him and enhance the claustrophobic feeling. While it might seem like Brandon and Phillip are in control, Rupert knows what he’s doing. Hitchcock also uses the triangle set-up to show the ways Brandon tries to manipulate the party guests. He’s like a conductor managing an orchestra, but there’s one player who keeps deviating from the sheet music. When you combine the inventive set-ups of the frame with the capable technical expertise, it makes for a compelling movie. Rope falls short of Hitchcock’s best work but remains must-see viewing for movie fans delving into the master’s deeper cuts.