Rope (1948) / Thriller-Mystery
MPAA Rated: PG for a scene of violence and mature subject matter
Running Time: 80 min.
Cast: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Joan Chandler, Douglas Dick, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Constance Collier, Edith Evanson, Dick Hogan
Cameo: Alfred Hitchcock
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Hume Cronyn, Arthur Laurents (based on the play, "Rope's End", by Patrick Hamilton)
Hitchcock's (Suspicion, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) first color film is also one of his most renown. It is one of his most experimental films, as he decides to try to tell this tale from beginning to end in one continuous shot. It's not quite accurate to state that there are no cuts. Due to the limitations of film reels at the time, he could shoot for no longer than ten minutes before he needed to change film. To get around the limitation, he cleverly manages to make most of his cuts seamless by getting in close to the back of someone's suit jacket, cutting, and continuing.
Even with the effort at a virtually continuous shot, there are a few moments where there is a cut where it is not continuous, but by the time they occur late in the film, you may be too enrapt with the story to care or notice. In this fashion, it very much is like being in the middle of a Patrick Hamilton's staged play, adapted by Arthur Laurents (Anastasia, The Way We Were) and actor Hume Cronyn (Under Capricorn, The Dollmaker) to pepper up the in-jokes and ironies that Hitch so very much enjoyed.
The story begins with the murder of a man named David at the hands of two of his associates, Brandon (Dall, Spartacus) and Phillip (Granger, Strangers on a Train), strangled by a small length of rope. Their belief stems from the philosophical notion that there are some people of such superiority that normal morality doesn't apply, fostered by the writings of their quasi-mentor, an author named Rupert (Stewart, Rear Window). The gentlemen decide to have fun with their murder by inviting David's family and friends to the occasion, even dressing up the large chest David's body lays in so that they can dine over it, with none of them ever knowing where David is. However, Brandon is a bit too cavalier about his choice of words on occasion, while Phillip looks like he's going to crack under the pressure that they might get caught, which catches the eye of none other than Rupert himself.
One element of Rope that is never stated but frequently assumed is that Brandon and Phillip are a gay couple. You do get the feeling the men live together, and they talk of going away on a trip together. There is a casual reference that Brandon has once courted Janet (Chandler) prior to Kenneth (Dick, The Red Badge of Courage) and David, but given that many gay men have heterosexual relationships (some even marry) before entering homosexual ones, and given that Brandon hardly seems jealous or interested in receiving Janet's affections any longer (in fact, he practically pushes her on Kenneth), one can still make assumptions as to the sexuality of the men. Further adding to the subtext, the actors that portrayed the men, Dall and Granger, were gay, as were the murderous men to whom Hamilton's play is inspired by, Leopold and Loeb. It should also be noted that Hamilton's play is much more overt in its homoeroticism, most of which was stripped away due to censorship issues in the film industry at the time.
Although not generally considered one of Hitchcock's masterpieces, it remains today a surprisingly effective and absorbing film, despite the awkwardness that accompanies such an ambitious presentation. Sometimes the long takes work surprisingly well, such as a scene where all of the party guests are out of frame and engaged in conversation, oblivious to the fact that, slowly, the maid is about to store some books into the chest. Though limited by movement, the claustrophobic style works well when dealing with a film that has a man stuffed into a small box, compounded with the fact that there are several people within feet of it who could open it at any time.
Also commendable is the way that Hitchcock is able to still maintain the semblance of a passage of great time, despite it all taking place in real time. The dinner party itself lasts under an hour, and while everyone comes and goes, it never seems like it's been abridged in any way. Hitchcock also utilizes the one window to the outside world that we see, the large city skyline in the back of the living room, to mark passage of time. We start the film in broad daylight, only to see the view get progressively darker, until we see the night sky toward the end of the film. It's a subtle trick, but it works, as it feels like a great deal more time has passed naturally. In this way, Hitchcock benefited from having to change reels, as he could make subtle changes to the backdrop between takes. Hitch placed so much importance to this element, he even redid the bulk of the second half of the film afterward because he didn't like the color he was seeing in the sunset.
With some very good performances, a script that's smart and often amusing (always dripping with irony), and Hitchcock's singular vision for suspense, it ranks as a standout work. Stewart, in his first of several roles for Hitchcock, proves once again why he's such a talent, as we can always sense there's more going on underneath his gaze than he ever utters aloud. At only 80 minutes, it gives a lot of bang for the buck in the world of suspenseful, psychological thrillers, decades after its initial release.
-- The play was first adapted into a film in a 1939 television production. The Leopold-Loeb case would be made into the movies Compulsion (1959) and Swoon (1992).
©2008 Vince Leo