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Non-Review Review: Rope

Rope occupies an interesting place in Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography. The director himself was less than fond of it, allegedly quite happy that it remained out of circulation for some time after its initial release. Jimmy Stewart has apparently been critical of his own performance in the film, although I think it’s a wonderful example of a beloved actor playing against type. In the years since, however, it has been somewhat re-evaluated. While most film fans would be hesitant to describe it as an unqualified success, it’s certainly a technically ambitious little film, and the tight script and set-up allow Hitchcock to indulge his knack for creating suspense.

I hope nobody choked with all those ten-minute takes…

Hitchcock famously wanted to film Rope as one take. It is, after all, filmed in a single location with a manageable cast. The story unfolds in something resembling real time (even if dinner is eaten rather quickly and the sun seems to set a little too fast). The director had the tremendously ambitious idea to film the entire movie with a single cut, weaving the camera through the action and following the drama as it developed. It’s certainly an interesting experiment, and I can’t fault the director’s willingness to push his medium a little further.

Of course, it was technically impossible. At the time, it was only possible to film takes of approximately ten minutes. This means that the film is made up of several very long takes running up to about ten minutes. While it might not be as noteworthy as it would have been had Hitchcock accomplished his original goal, I’d be lying if I wasn’t impressed. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to stage a film with a camera dancing between cast members for so extended a period. I know it isn’t how Hitchcock envisioned it, but I’d argue that he accomplishes some measure of the effect he wanted.

Two of a kind…

That said, I can’t help but wonder if it might have worked better had Hitchcock been a bit more accepting of the limitations of the format. As it stands, Hitchcock tries (relatively elegantly, to be fair) to conceal the transition between takes. The camera arcs around an actor, fading out of view behind their back and then fading back in out the other side. It’s certainly less than fluid, and can’t help but feel rather clunky.

That said, the idea actually fits the film quite well. Adapted from the stage play of the same name, the whole point of the film is how disconnected the two murderers – Brandon and Phillip are from humanity. Living in their penthouse apartment, drinking expensive drinks and smoking fine cigarettes, the prospect of murder is a purely intellectual one – the world outside their window might as well be a matte painting and cardboard cutouts. It is quite clever that the film ends with another character opening the window and bringing the outside world in to breach the academic bubble in which the pair have been working.

Pulling at dangling threads…

And, to be honest, I actually enjoy Rope quite a bit for its suspense and its writing more than for any gimmick about the length of the shots. Rope is, of course, based on the play Rope, which was itself (allegedly) inspired by the case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Indeed, the film was famously banned in some areas for fear of awakening awkward memories of the two scholars who had attempted to commit the hypothetical “perfect crime.”

Brandon, the leader of the pair, is an absolutely fascinating creation. He might be the most deliciously evil villain in the Hitchcock canon. Not only does he murder David just because he wants to murder somebody, and not only does he bully timid Phillip into going along with the plan, Brandon actually invites several of his victim’s friends and families over to dine literally over David’s dead body.

Guess who has already come to dinner?

John Dall perfectly bring Brandon to life, a character who is engaged with the prospect of murder as some sort of “life experience” or “experiment”, rather than anything with real ramifications. For Brandon, murder is reserved for “the few are those men of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they’re above the traditional moral concepts. Good and evil, right and wrong, were invented for the ordinary, average man, the inferior man, because he needs them.”

Brandon talks about it as an “artistic” accomplishment and seems to relish the grotesque nature of it all. “Now the fun begins,” Brandon boasts as the party begins. Indeed, he seems to invite Rupert, his former professor, just to appreciate the deft artistry of it all. He seems to have inherited his teacher’s “impatience with social conventions.”Fascinatingly, Rope explores the sort of social environment that could produce such a disconnected and disengaged killer, as he freely discusses Nietzsche’s philosophy with the guests.

Setting themselves apart(ment)…

Brandon is merely putting into practice the glib moral philosophy of his teacher, Rupert who seems to mock standards of decency with a wry smirk. Rupert only really seems likeable because he’s a nicer person than Brandon, and because he’s played by Jimmy Stewart. I can honestly think that Tom Hanks is the only other actor who is as innately likeable as Stewart. Throughout the party, he takes a great deal of personal pleasure in talking down to his guests, and subtly mocking their more conventional – and, as he probably sees it, unquestioning – moral values. “And personally,” Rupert explains, “I think a chicken is about as good a reason for murder as a blonde, a mattress full of dollar bills or any of the customary unimaginative reasons.”

Such talk is scandalous, and it’s heavily implied that Rupert enjoys the attention his radical world view garners him. “Now, you don’t really approve of murder do you, Rupert? If I may?” Janet asks him. Ever debonair, Rupert responds with typical James Stewart charm, “You may, and I do.”Naturally, the movie pushes the character to the edge, and we determine that his aloofness is just a front – as much as it might excite him to play with these academic ideas, he is at least human enough to recognise the act itself as abhorrent. He is not that far disconnected from the world, unlike his students.

A buddy’s body…

Of course, the fact that there’s a dead body in the room adds a delightful dramatic irony to the seemingly playful conversation. Rather than engaging with it in the playful intellectual fashion that Rupert does, we are genuinely uncomfortable. “After all, murder is – or should be – an art,” Rupert explains, beaming. “Not one of the ‘seven lively’, perhaps, but an art nevertheless. And, as such, the privilege of committing it should be reserved for those few who are really superior individuals.” Just in case anybody in the audience isn’t squirming yet, it’s at that point Brandon joins the conversation, replying, “And the victims: inferior beings whose lives are unimportant anyway.”

It’s interesting to note the different historical context of the film as opposed to the play. Indeed, David’s father explicitly brings up the holocaust, which is precisely the result of such thinking – the idea that there are inherently superior and inferior individuals and that the strong have absolute moral authority to do what they deem to be necessary. It’s hard not to watch the film and think about the implications of Brandon’s thoughts outside an individual murder case – it expands the scope of the drama beyond even the Loeb and Leopold case.

A farewell party, indeed!

Unfortunately, of course, the movie is somewhat undermined by the somewhat homophobic subtext. It is implied, fairly heavily, that Phillip and Brandon are lovers, but it’s also suggested that this is somehow related to their “amoral” attitudes. Because the pair have opted to engage in a loving same-sex relationship, murder is the next social taboo they wish to break. Indeed, Brandon’s opening lines compare the murder to their love affair. “What a lovely evening,” Brandon reflects. “Pity we couldn’t have done it with the curtains open, in bright sunlight.” Brandon seems to see his sexuality in the same light of his murder, something that society just won’t let him do in the open.

Brandon and Phillip are the most stereotypically gay couple imaginable. They take care of one another, with Brandon carefully tending to Phillip after the deed, “All right now, Phillip?” Later, his hand is subtly around Phillip’s waist as Phillip seems to come apart. Once they get through the night, Brandon suggests, “I’ve been thinking, we deserve a real holiday, after it’s all over.”The pair are always talking about Brandon’s mother, playing into another awkward stereotype.

And they would have gotten away with it, too…

Brandon is even a bit of a camp gay, as Phillip accuses him, “You’ll ruin everything with your neat little touches!” It’s clear that Phillip is somewhat sexually frustrated, even if it’s never explicit. “I never strangled a chicken in my life,” Phillip angrily shouts, to laughs from Janet. It don’t care how old the film is, there’s a clear subtext. It’s implied that Brandon has ‘corrupted’ Phillip, first by sleeping with him and then by involving him in the murder. Their relationship seems less than healthy, to say the least. “Take your hand off my arm,” Phillip warns Brandon. “Don’t you ever again tell me what to do and what not to do. I don’t like it, Brandon.”

Brandon is portrayed as at least bisexual, as he did hook up with Janet, and there’s a clear deviance to their sexuality – which feels just a little uncomfortable. The movie seems to connect their homosexuality with their other urges. As with a lot of Hitchcock’s work, there’s a strong link between sex and violence. Brandon is introduced smoking a cigarette after the murder confessing to being “tremendously exhilarated”by the act itself – clearly sexual.

Home free?

Hitchcock’s fixation on strangulation permeates the film, perhaps the perfect expression of the link between sex and violence. “I could really strangle you sometimes,” Janet playfully warns Brandon, her ex-boyfriend. After witnessing a tense disagreement between Phillip and Brandon, Rupert states, “In another moment, you might have been strangling each other.” It’s all very fascinating stuff, brought to life by a wonderful cast.

Aside from the long shots, there’s some wonderful Hitchcock tension here, as we wonder whether the guests will discover the body. One particularly effective sequence sees James Stewart interrogating Phillip as the latter plays the piano. Adjusting a metronome, the scene is wonderful, the pace speeding up as the questions become increasingly tense. It’s a lovely and effective little sequence that manages to become almost unbearably tense despite the fact that nothing is actually happening.

Keeping time…

I like Rope a lot, a lot more than most Hitchcock fans and critics do. I think it’s a light enough film, but it’s also a well-constructed and clever one. The homophobic undertones are just a little too heavy, but – if you can look past them – there’s an interesting exploration of human morality to be found.

10 Responses

  1. Actually the gay subtext of “Rope” is far more pronounced than you indicate in thei otherwise excellent review. The original play by Patrick Hamilton was British set. Hitchcock had Arthur Laurents do a page one rewirte. It’s entirely about New York in the immediae postwar period, and is as precise a picture of gay life as was ever seen until “The Boys in the Band.” Brandon is clealry in love with Rupert and wants this murder to “out” his professor. Phillip is the discarded ex-boyfriend who can’t find his feet again alone. Janet is a “beard” that the men pass around. Nothing more. That David plans to marry Janet — as upper class gay men did in those days — enrages Brandon and is the partial inspiration for murderering him. Arthur Laurents and Farley Granegr were in the midst of their affir when “Rope” was made and according to Laurents, Hitch knew about it.

    • Thanks Mr. Ehrenstein. It’s a pleasure to have you comment on the blog.

      I did not know any of that – I can’t believe I missed it. I’ll admit that I’m at a massive disadvantage when it comes to classic cinema. I’m a weak and ill-informed-enough writer when it coems to modern films, but that tends get amplified the further back you go.

      I’ll have to make a point to watch it again.

  2. I loved Rope so much when I saw it on TCM that I immediately bought the DVD online. I mostly loved the visual and technical aspects of it. It’s the only Hitchcock film I like, and I’ve seen around ten so far.

    Have you ever seen the trailer for Rope? It’s pretty cool what they did with that.

  3. I need to see “Rope” again. It’s interesting what you say about the homosexual subtext. When I first saw the film years ago, that aspect went completely over my head. I guess it says a lot about how naive I once was. I’ve recently watched a lot of Hitch’s old films and picked up on quite a lot of implied gay characters (of course during that time period, that could not be obvious). Odd how Hitch would have those elements, given how obsessive he was about blonde women. Also, strangulation is a common thread in a lot of his films, so I wonder what that says about him as well.

    By the way, I thing I remember is being jarred about 3/4 of the way through the film by an obvious cut to a completely different angle. There are actually several different “shots” rather than the film composed of one long (though stitched-together) shot. After the gimmick wears off and you forget to look for the hidden cuts, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a real-time story because it’s so absorbing (as opposed to absorbent).

    • Yep. I actually think that the performances and the script are solid enough that the gimmick shouldn’t matter. I think the long takes work well to build suspense, but the attempt to cover them feels more than a littele clumsy. As you said, once you get past that, it’s a much stronger film than its reputation would suggest – if only because it seems to get discussed more as an “experiment” than as a film in its own right.

      • And the reason why it’s discussed as an “experiment” rather than a film in its own right is because of Teh Ghey! Only in very recent years has the screamingly obvious gayness of “Rope’ been dealt with in any way. It’s gay from stem to stern. Even the music! (Poulenc was gay)

        Someday someone should arrange a triple feature screening of “Rope,” “Compulsion” and “Swoon.”

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