First Picture Show: Rope

jason stives looks at the Hitchock classic …

Rope (1948)

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock

Written by: Patrick Hamilton

Starring: Jimmy Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger

Plot: Two young men strangle their “inferior” classmate, hide his body in their apartment, and invite his friends and family to a dinner party as a means to challenge the “perfection” of their crime.

What’s Been Said: “The novelty of the picture is not in the drama itself, it being a plainly deliberate and rather thin exercise in suspense, but merely in the method which Mr. Hitchcock has used to stretch the intended tension for the length of the little stunt”
— Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (1948)

Upon First Viewing: So not all the films I have posted in this column have been cinematic gems (looking back, I struggled mid=way on my Beneath The Planet Of The Apes post), but like most things, it’s all in the eye of the beholder or my grubby narcissistic mindset for that matter. Needless to say, some films are given a shine for their creativity more than their actual substance, which is ultimately what Rope is all about. One of Hitchcock’s more noted films but not considered a classic compared to Notorious, Rear Window, or even the 39 Steps, it is noted simply for its composition. That doesn’t mean Rope doesn’t have a high degree of ingenuity on psychological level and in fact, I feel it goes beyond the comfort zone of most noir/ crime dramas of the day.

The infamous "rope" in question

It’s important to point out that Rope was a play first, and many of the film’s criticisms are because of the theatrical element taken out of it. Hitchcock tried to counter that with the moveable sets which allowed the camera to move in and out of shot for ten minutes continuously without any noticeable scene cuts but the wide world of the Hollywood sound stage is a far cry from the theater. For someone who read his fair share of plays in high school English classes (a penchant I mentioned once before), it’s understandable to believe how important it is not to break tension. Having a play be a continuous thread of actors going in and out of a plain bit of scenery is important and easily done in a theater. On film, especially when you have someone like Hitchcock who aced in editing, making the tension stay put with continuous camera movement and no cuts is jarringly difficult. For the viewer, it does weigh heavy upon viewing Rope for the first time, but in repeat viewings, I have never wanted to see it shot otherwise, preferring the real time atmosphere.

While Hitchcock viewed Rope as a failed experiment, and indeed many critics are quick to point that out, I have reasoned that the actual effort is a beautiful disaster. While it may have been a mess to make, and indeed difficult to view if aware of the importance of drama in the theatrical format, Rope at its center focuses on the behavioral science of man and his lust for violence and blood. The opening scene started with a swift panoramic shot of New York before focusing on the apartment of our story is suddenly broken with the sounds of struggle and the alarming strangulation of David, the centerpiece and corpse of the chest in the middle of the room. For 1948, even I find it very shocking to watch and it’s merely seconds before it’s all over and the strangulation is nothing but a brief disturbing opening to the film.

Phillip (Granger), Rupert (Stewart) and Brandon (Dall)

There also the risky undertones of the film, which for the 1940s, I’m baffled it even made past the strict production code. The two main leads of Brandon Shaw and Philip Morgan are implied in both the play and the film of being lovers and there are many who believe the film is ladened in homoeroticism. It is passably believable considering some of Hitchcock’s most famous films like Rear Window and Vertigo deal with hidden themes of voyeurism, so if this was one of his earliest attempts at sprinkling such ideas, it no doubt can be seen.

For me, Rope deals with heavy moral dilemmas and the mind of man and its pension for doing terrible things out of curiosity. The best kind of films tend to deal with the mind of the well established individual. Television shows like Mad Men greatly work with these ideas by having these issues masked by prim and proper members of society. Here its two aesthetes and taking their college professors discussion to heart. Now, it’s not so much that they kill anyone, they kill a former college friend named Dave who really has never been a threat other than being the perfect specimen for their insane plan. The fact that it’s more to prove their Professor’s worth of being special enough to kill someone that makes Phillip and Brandon truly despicable, enacting the most dangerous game element of man as sport, even if it’s for the selfless act of being different from everyone else.

John Dall as party host and murder instigator Brandon is refined and yet so smugly vindictive, playing up the lack of Dave’s presence while dropping subtle hints to their Professor of the act he and Phillip have just performed.

Farley Granger’s Phillip is that paranoid voice of reason, but of course, it’s after the fact. Engaged greatly in the idea, having his own hand on the bind that helps strangle Dave, he suddenly rushes back to the reality of being caught and suddenly, the special nature of killing someone is gone within a flash.

But more than anything this film is about Jimmy Stewart’s Rupert Cadell, the Professor who created the idea in his former pupils’ heads of being capable of killing a person. Stewart was no doubt the definitive leading man of his time, a man who could play a detective, a teacher, a musician, and a cowboy under the guise of an almost timid and at times gullible man. Here, Stewart feigns fake detective under his professorial knowledge but when it is finally revealed by his former students what they have done, credibility as someone of a higher learning and status comes crashing down. Cadell is suddenly ridden with guilt he should never be held responsible for but takes the blame for riddling two very unstable and immature people with ideas they couldn’t conceivably know how to handle, even from a philosophical standpoint.

The film may not be rich with the grandest progression of a satisfying thriller, and indeed, two thirds of the film is just waiting for the elephant in the room to be acknowledge by the A-lister on the screen. But the actions of two deranged simpletons acting as scholars is what makes Rope an engaging farce all to itself.