Wednesday, October 31, 2012

#807. Rope (1948)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger

Tag line: "The guest who's dead on time"

Trivia: During filming, the cast had to avoid tripping on cables that laid over the floor, because of the moving cameras and lighting

The release of Rope in 1948 marked a number of “firsts” in the career of Alfred Hitchcock. Aside from being his first color movie, it was also the director’s first collaboration with Jimmy Stewart, who would  go on to appear in a couple of Hitch's finest pictures, Rear Window and Vertigo

Yet, despite all this, Rope is perhaps most notable for its daring experiment. Based on a 1929 play written by Patrick Hamilton, Hitchcock shot Rope as if it were being performed on-stage, with uninterrupted takes lasting as long as 10 minutes at a time. And while the movie does occasionally come across as “stage-bound”, the demands of this experiment on the actors (one mistake meant re-shooting the entire scene) resulted in an intensity that, at times, is all-consuming.

Inspired by the real-life Leopold-Loeb case, Rope stars John Dall and Farley Granger as a couple of friends who plan, then carry out, what they believe to be the perfect murder, perpetrated simply for the thrill of having killed someone. Once the deed is done, the two stuff their victim, a classmate named David (Dick Hogan), into a trunk. 

Not content with simple murder, the two then host a dinner party at their swanky New York apartment, invite several guests including the dead man’s father (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and fiancé (Joan Chandler), and serve refreshments laid out on the very chest that houses the body! 

Also attending the party is Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), a University professor whose belief that murder could, and should, be used as a tool to weed out society’s undesirables inspired their deed. But what they didn’t bank on was Rupert’s keen eye for treachery, and it isn’t long before he is putting two and two together.

With an entire story set in a single location, Hitchcock never attempts to hide the fact that Rope was based on a play; by the time the film ends, we are as familiar with that apartment as we are our own home. Some might consider such a limited setting a drawback, but the performances more than make up for any shortcomings. Dall and Granger are solid as the two killers, and play off one another perfectly, with Dall’s cocky self-assuredness countered at every turn by Granger’s anxiety, a bundle of nerves because he is convinced, unlike Dall, that their deed will soon be discovered. 

Yet outshining them both is James Stewart as Rupert, the professor whose philosophical teachings have made him an unwitting accomplice to murder. Over the course of the film, Stewart brings his character full-circle, from preaching how systematic killings could benefit society to regretting those very words when he sees the effect they've had on his star pupils.

Though lacking many basic cinematic elements, Rope manages, with the help of its cast, to overcome its inherent staginess and relate a tale that oozes suspense. It may not be Hitchcock’s most artistic picture, but Rope is certainly one of his most fascinating.


Unknown said...

Excellent discussion of Rope. It is certainly one of Hitchcock sleeper hits. In fact, if it were not for Spellbound I would easily pick this as my favorite Hitchcock film.

Tommy Ross said...

Excellent review and although people think I'm nuts, this IS my favorite Hitchcock. Probably cause I always put acting and casting before everything else and as you said the two leads as well as Stewart totally nail it in this one. The last 20 minutes in particular are excellent as the suspense builds to them getting caught. Great movie!

Joshua Paul said...

Great review! I actually think it's a beautiful film, but Hitch put his eye more to what was happening off-screen. The lighting, as evening falls, sort of reflects that emotional journey of Brandon and Phillip (by the end, unnatural and internalized). It does have a stage-like feel (of course), but that supports the antagonists' worldview - to them, this is a performance, a staged pursuance of a greater idea. Here also is one of the most effective uses of telling-not-showing I can think of; so much backstory is only spoken, but never tedious. So much more ... a masterpiece!