Rope is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most macabre and daring films. It is best remembered today as the director’s experimental film that was seemingly shot all in one take. It wasn’t well received upon release and it is still considered a somewhat weaker Hitchcock film by some fans and critics. I’ve never been of this opinion myself and instead consider Rope to be one of Hitch’s darkest and most interesting films.
I especially love the hilarious nods to other Hitchcock actors and films in the party scene where Mrs. Atwater, Janet and Rupert discuss various films and actors that they adore – including Ingrid Bergman and James Mason- and a few others that they can’t quite remember the names and titles of.
Rope is based upon the 1929 British play of the same name(renamed Rope’s End when the play was performed over in America) written by Patrick Hamilton. Actor and writer Hume Cronyn was invited by Hitch to work with him on putting together the treatment for a screen adaptation of Hamilton’s play. Once the treatment was complete, playwright and screenwriter Arthur Laurents(Bonjour Trieste and The Way We Were) was hired to write the screenplay.
Rope was produced by Hitch and Sidney Bernstein and was the first feature film to come from their newly formed production company Transatlantic Pictures. It was the first Hitchcock film to be shot in colour and the second of Hitch’s “limited settings” films – the first of which had been Lifeboat in 1944.
Making the film was a complicated process. It was shot in real time with a very small number of edits done in such a way as to make it appear as though the whole thing was one continuous take. Hitch shot the film a reel at a time which gave him ten minute segments of film shot in one take which he could then edit together with other reels later to give the impression that the footage was uninterrupted. Of course it’s more obvious to those of us watching today exactly where the edits are, but I don’t think it takes anything away from the film when we notice those zooms into peoples backs or onto objects. It was an interesting experiment and the unbroken takes are impressive to watch.
During filming parts of the set(including pieces of furniture) were moved around in order to make room for the massive Technicolor cameras to be able to move around freely following the actors, and then everything was put back in its correct position when required to be in shot again. My hat goes off to the actors, who not only had to memorise large amounts of dialogue, but also had to stay completely in character and try to ignore the rearranging going on around them as they performed.
The film mostly takes place in one room of an apartment set. There is a cyclorama of the New York skyline outside of the apartment window. This skyline backdrop is a highlight of the film and we see it begin to slowly change as the afternoon light grows dimmer and begins the transition into the darkness of evening. As night falls many of the windows in the other buildings begin to light up and the skyline eventually becomes ablaze with neon light. It’s really remarkable to look at, even if those clouds do look rather fake and immobile.
Both the play and the film are inspired by the real life Leopold and Loeb case – which saw nineteen year old Nathan Leopold, and eighteen year old Richard Loeb, murder fourteen year old Bobby Franks in Chicago, Illinois, in 1924. The pair murdered the boy solely in order to prove their supposed superior intellects and get away with his murder. The film Compulsion(1959) is directly based upon this appalling case.
One of the most interesting things about Rope is the subtext that Brandon and Philip are a homosexual couple. Watching with this in mind reveals another film entirely.The clues and hints are staring us right in the face and couldn’t be more obvious if they tried. Brandon is the confident one and fully accepts his sexuality, whereas Philip on the other hand is closeted and struggling to embrace his feelings for Brandon, whilst being riddled with self-loathing on account of being too afraid to accept his sexuality.
Brandon is the dominant partner in that relationship and Philip clearly doesn’t like how he is recklessly(given that homosexuality was illegal at the time) taking steps to bring their relationship out into the open. The secret waiting to be discovered by the party guests is the couple’s hidden sexuality and relationship. It’s also implied that Rupert Cadell was Brandon’s lover while he was his tutor at college. Note also the frequent mention of the three spending time together at Brandon’s farmhouse.
These elements caused the film censors to clutch their pearls and demand parts of the dialogue be omitted because it made it abundantly clear that Philip and Brandon were a couple. Despite changes to the script it remains obvious that these men are a couple. It is a credit to both John Dall and Farley Granger that the relationship between their characters is so strongly evident, despite us never seeing them share a kiss or verbally declare their love and desire for one another. Interestingly John Dall is believed to have been gay, while Farley Granger, who was bisexual, was in a relationship with the film’s screenwriter Arthur Laurents during filming.
Rope begins with a close up of David Kentley(Dick Hogan)being strangled to death by his friends Brandon Shaw(John Dall in a role originally intended for Montgomery Clift)and Philip Morgan(Farley Granger). The murder takes place in Brandon and Philip’s apartment. We later learn the pair have planned and committed this murder in order to prove their supposed superior intellects by committing the “perfect murder” of someone who they consider to be a lesser being.
The opening titles of Rope run over footage of a sunny and idyllic looking residential street with people going about their business. Then the camera slowly pans up the side of a building and into the window of an apartment. Unbeknown to everyone else in the street something truly horrific is taking place inside an apartment and they will never be able to rush to the aid of David and rescue him.This opening scene of murder is not only shocking, but also brings to mind this Joseph Cotton speech from Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt: “The world is a foul sty. Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine?”
After killing David, Brandon and Philip then place his body in a big antique chest. A few hours after the murder they go ahead and host a prearranged party at their shared apartment – a party to which David’s father(Cedric Hardwicke),David’s fiance Janet(Joan Chandler), David’s aunt Mrs. Atwater(Constance Collier) and mutual friend Kenneth Lawrence(Douglas Dick) have all been invited.David was supposed to attend the party too, so when he doesn’t arrive the others start to worry. Brandon and Philip lay out a buffet on top of the very same chest in which David’s body lies. This is a sick joke dreamt up by Brandon to ensure the loved ones of the dead man will in effect be collecting food off of his corpse, while being oblivious to the fact that he is inside.
Also invited to the party is Brandon and Philip’s friend/mentor/former teacher, Rupert Cadell(James Stewart in a role originally intended for Cary Grant).Rupert knows the pair very well and can read them both like books. As the night wears on and there is no sign of David, Rupert starts to become convinced that something is not quite right.Rupert becomes more convinced of this after Philip grows more and more on edge and nervous as the night goes on. When the other guests leave to go and be with David’s mother and wait for news of him, Rupert sets about uncovering the dark secret his friends are hiding.
Philip is freaking out because some part of him feels remorse and guilt for what he has been a part of. He is also afraid of getting found out and is shocked at how callous and casual Brandon is behaving about what they’ve done. It’s worth noting that it was Philip who actually strangled David, while Brandon held David in place and had conceived the overall plan for his murder and the disposal of his body. Philip is easily controlled and dominated by Brandon and Philip’s resentment of this fact also plays into his emotional unravelling at the party. It is Philip’s emotional state that alerts Rupert to the fact that something isn’t right here.
Later in the film Rupert seems disgusted when he learns how his own words have so influenced Brandon, and he fully disowns what he has said before and is appalled at what Brandon and Philip have done. Some have said they don’t buy that complete change of attitude and heart and that it seems out of character for him to disown what he said he was so serious about, but they obviously think Rupert was always as serious as Brandon was about murder, whereas I think it’s clear that just isn’t the case at all.
Earlier at the party Rupert greatly amused David’s aunt, Janet and Kenneth, with his funny musings about using murder to solve problems such as getting theatre tickets or booking tables at top restaurants. The conversation quickly takes a darker turn and Mr. Kentley grows distressed by this flippant conservation and has a go at Brandon who seems to really approve of the idea of casual murder whenever someone feels like it. When Mr. Kentley asks him “who decides who is inferior, and therefore a suitable victim for murder?”, Brandon coldly replies “the few who are privileged to commit murder. The few are those men of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they are above the traditional moral concepts.” It’s chilling to listen to.
Although Rupert claims to be serious in what he’s saying when questioned by some of the guests, his tone and the ridiculous scenarios he describes clearly prove that the opposite is true. It’s far more likely that he says these things as an unusual talking point to amuse and shake things up at parties and gatherings. If he was truly a psychopath with no regard for human life as Brandon is, wouldn’t his described scenarios be far darker and omit the humour? Wouldn’t he too go out and actually commit murder himself to put his thoughts and supposed desires into practice? Wouldn’t he help Brandon and Philip get away with their crime rather than being appalled and ensuring they face justice?
It seems to me that Brandon was born a psychopath and was inspired by what Rupert said and went and built his life around those words and began to see himself as being more important than others. Of course Rupert was appalled by that and shocked that his words and silliness clearly had such an impact on Brandon’s psyche. All of this just goes to show the power that words can have, sometimes without the speaker or writer even realising the full implications of what they’re saying.
Farley Granger and John Dall are both superb, with John Dall delivering the standout performance. Farley captures Philip’s growing distress, desperation and rage perfectly. John is calm and collected and perfectly captures Brandon’s coldness and smugness. Constance Collier is hilarious as Mrs. Atwater and steals all the scenes she’s in. Cedric Hardwicke is heartbreaking as the worried father desperate to find out where his son is. Edith Evanson is great as Philip and Brandon’s long suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson, and I especially love her scenes with James Stewart.
Joan Chandler and Douglas Dick don’t have as much to do as the rest of the cast, but they try their best with the smaller roles they have and make an impression. I love the subplot of their characters being brought together again through Brandon’s machinations.
Some think James Stewart is miscast as Rupert. While actors such as James Mason or Claude Rains would undoubtedly have been a more perfect fit for the character, I think they would have both played Rupert with an air of malevolence which would have made him too much a villain. I like that James Stewart makes the character naive in that he doesn’t think about what others could read into what he says. This character trait makes Rupert far more interesting and complicated than would be case if he’d been an outright villain like Brandon. While it’s not one of his best performances I do like him in the role.
While it’s true the film is very talky and certainly doesn’t have the level of suspense many expect from a Hitchcock film, it is so much better than its reputation might suggest. I often go back and forth on whether or not us knowing from the beginning what Brandon and Philip have done takes away a lot of the suspense. Perhaps it would have been more shocking if we had discovered what they had done at the same moment as Rupert does, but most of the tension lies in them betraying themselves as their jitteriness and almost manic levels of excitement increase as the night goes on.
Rope remains a very unique part of Hitchcock’s filmography. It also proves he wasn’t afraid to tackle taboo subjects or to shake things up and try something new – both in terms of content and the actual filmmaking process.
This is my first entry for my Master Of Suspense Blogathon being held this coming weekend.
6 thoughts on “Rope(1948)”
“The opening titles of Rope run over footage of a sunny and idyllic looking residential street with people going about their business. Then the camera slowly pans up the side of a building and into the window of an apartment. Unbeknown to everyone else in the street something truly horrific is taking place inside an apartment and they will never be able to rush to the aid of David and rescue him.This opening scene of murder is not only shocking, but also brings to mind this Joseph Cotton speech from Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt: “The world is a foul sty. Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine?””
This is a great observation! I’ve noticed similar techniques in other Hitchcock movies, that contrast between a domestic facade and the violence it hides. Dial M for Murder opens with an emphasis on the outside of the apartment where the wife’s an adulteress and the husband is a sociopathic would-be murderer. Frenzy has the famous backwards tracking shot following Babs’ being lured into the murderer’s apartment, retreating into the noisy street right as this woman is about to be brutalized and killed. And then of course, there’s the entire heart of Rear Window.
Anyways, I adore this movie. Hitchcock called it a failed experiment, but I think it’s among his most enjoyable and creative movies. It gets better every time I see it and the suspense never lets up. I also love James Stewart as the teacher– his casting is brilliant, I think, because his affability contrasts so much with his cold philosophy. And he also makes the character’s shock at seeing his ideas actually carried out on actual people feel believable in a way a more “malevolent” performance couldn’t have pulled off without being contrived.
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Thank you so much! Yes that technique is definitely a running presence through Hitch’s work.
I agree with you about James Stewart’s performance. He does capture that dawning horror of Rupert’s very well.
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Like you said, this film is really impressive. I doubt anyone but Hitchcock could have filmed this play in one take as successfully. (And I do think it’s a success.) It must have been a nightmare for the cast and crew, but well worth the effort. It also shows Hitchcock’s bravery in dealing with subject matter and experimental cinematography.
I’ve seen this film multiple times, but your review inspires me to watch it again with your excellent observations in mind.
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Rope has always been a so-called ‘guilty pleasure’ for me. I love the theatre feel to it. Another brilliant post.
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Very cool! It would be interesting to compare the play and the movie and see how much Hitch changed. Thanks again for hosting this blogathon–it’s nice to get to hang out with Hitch again. 🙂