“The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create.” – Brandon (John Dall)
It is funny that Alfred Hitchcock dismissed his 1948 film Rope in his interviews with filmmaker Francois Truffaut, since the taut, dark comedy keeps being rediscovered as one of his unsung classics. Hitchcock derided the film for being little more than an audacious stunt, but what an incredible gimmick it is. In trying to film a movie to make it feel like a play that an audience can watch unfold without any cuts interrupting its flow, he shot Rope in ten long takes. Even if it is just a stunt, it is still a stunning and effective way to build suspense and detach the audience from the emotional malice of the characters.
Based loosely on the Leopold-Loeb case, Rope begins with a man’s scream. Two friends and suggested gay lovers – the sneering, flamboyant, talkative Brandon (John Dall) and the withdrawn, erect, nervous Philip (Farley Granger) – strangle that screaming man with a rope and carry the corpse into an antique chest in their living room. They have gotten away with murder. Philip is quite ashamed at getting caught up in the crime, while Brandon relishes the superiority and is still animated from the thrill of the kill. However, the two friends have a party to host any minute. They place a tablecloth and two candlesticks above the chest, and insist on serving a buffet style meal from atop the place where their dead friend lies.
The guests at that party mostly have a connection to the corpse in the antique chest: David’s father and aunt, his friend Kenneth, his fiancée Janet. All of them expect David to be there in living colour and start to worry when the usually punctual young man does not show up. Another invited guest is Rupert Cadell, a philosophy professor of Brandon and David’s, with some macabre thoughts about violence and death. The iconoclastic and high-minded Cadell is played by James Stewart, about as much an everyman an actor as there has ever been. However, compared to the wily criminals whose deed we follow with dread and the director’s dedicated, mostly continuous camera, Stewart’s professor is a man of virtue and reason.
Adapted from a play by Patrick Hamilton, Rope was shot on a soundstage and with the exception of an opening shot from the apartment balcony overlooking the street, spends the entirety of the 80-minute running time in the living room and front hallway of Brandon and Philip’s penthouse. They open the windows to the New York skyline, which is clearly a backdrop made for a backlot set; however, given the changing colours of the sky at dusk and into the evening, we get the sense of a darkening city and a more ominous mood as time moves forward.
Rope is especially notable for two elements that remain pivotal to the filmmaker’s styles and themes. Hitchcock experiments with telling much of the story in a seemingly continuous take. When the reel, which could only last around 10 minutes, was due to run out, Hitchcock (and the four people credited as “operators of camera movement”) came close into the dark fabrics of a character’s suit and then stepped out, with the scene continuing just as it had been. The actors are strong enough that they guide the movement of the camera with enough confidence that we do not often notice for how long the takes have been going on for.
The 80-minute running time seems to comprise the actual time of the story, although the gradual darkening of the world outside seems to hint that time is moving faster in the filmic world than real time. Meanwhile, Hitchcock’s camera becomes like a weapon, swooping around the penthouse to show how the characters are reacting to the strange, often morbid dialogue from Brandon and Rupert. We observe whether the criminals are becoming more or less suspect.
The other element, something common among Hitchcock’s more daring films, is a connection to the vile and malicious. We do not hesitate to root for the bad guys or the troubled characters who do immoral things in the director’s most controversial films. Every time the camera returns to its base area, near that chest, we plead that the two murderers still get away with the ordeal. Hitchcock’s decision to tell a story without resorting to fast edits or close-ups also creates an environment where, like watching a play, we are detached observers, watching all the morbid talk and meandering conversation. There is no real character to identify with or root for: it may be one of the director’s most dispassionate film, apt for one about the coldness of the human psyche, the emptiness of violence and its meaninglessness.
The Davids of the world are a waste of space, Brandon insists, explaining in a conversation with Rupert among the dinner guests that murder is akin to an art. The sly villain always seems giddy at the chance that he will be caught and always makes snide remarks that hint of David’s existence in the apartment. Brandon is eager to share his “artistic” behaviour with his professor; for instance, he swings around the titular rope ostentatiously. He is like a naughty boy who prides at being the centre of attention. Meanwhile, Philip regrets his role in the crime immediately and begins drinking too quickly and sputtering drivel that could be circumstantial evidence – Granger, in the process, nearly steals the film. Of course, the intuitive Rupert catches on to the charade, although still has doubts lingering about the reason David is missing from the party.
Rope is more than just a stylish, suspenseful exercise. It is a dark, bruisingly funny film that turns its audience into an accomplice to murder. The last ten minutes of the film, where Rupert faces his responsibility as a teacher of dark philosophy may have fallen on the wrong ears, is chilling and compelling. “You’ve given my words a meaning that I never dreamt of,” he tells his students. It may be a self-indulgent thriller-comedy, but it is an easy and exceptional one for a Hitchcock-adoring audience to indulge in.