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Rope (1948)

October 18th, 2007 · 4 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Synopsis
Brandon (John Dall) and roommate Phillip (Farley Granger) strangle a former classmate and mutual friend named David with a rope in their New York apartment. They then prepare a dinner party in which David’s father (Cedric Hardwicke) and fiancee (Joan Chandler) are guests. Brandon is a smug intellectual who believes his superiority entitles him to commit murder. Phillip is a pianist who can’t shed his guilt over taking part in the crime.

With David’s body hidden inside an unlocked chest in the middle of the apartment, Brandon takes pleasure in welcoming their former prep school headmaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), their philosophical mentor of sorts. Rupert theorizes that murder can be an art when practiced by the intellectually superior. As the party continues, and guests question the whereabouts of David, Rupert observes tension between the roommates. Upon leaving, he discovers David’s hat.

Brandon has planned to drive to Connecticut to dispose of the body, but before he can remove the corpse, Rupert returns to the apartment under the guise of searching for a cigarette case. He theorizes what might have happened to David, mimicking the murder almost to the letter. Phillip cracks, but Brandon has a .38 in his jacket pocket he intends to use if anyone gets in his way.

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Production history 
Searching for projects he could develop at his newly bannered production company Transatlantic Pictures, director Alfred Hitchcock considered a retelling of Hamlet, to be set in the U.S. and star Cary Grant. Legal issues ensued when a novelist surfaced who claimed he had come up with that idea first. Eager to find another vehicle he could make with Grant, Hitchcock arrived on a 1929 British play by Patrick Hamilton called Rope.

Loosely based on the Leopold & Loeb case, the play chronicled two students who murder a male classmate to demonstrate their intellectual prowess. They stuff the body in a trunk in their London flat, then invite the victim’s friends and family over for a party. Its content had made Hollywood run the other way, so rights to the play were easy to obtain, while the public’s familiarity with the title would theoretically be good for box office.

Hamilton turned down the opportunity to adapt his play to film. In March 1947, Hitchcock offered the job to actor Hume Cronyn, who got to work on a treatment. Playwright Arthur Laurents was hired to adapt a script separately. Hitchcock wanted Montgomery Clift and Farley Granger to play the murderers, with Cary Grant as their mentor. But the homosexual subtext hit too close to home for Grant and Clift, and they dropped out. James Stewart and John Dall were cast instead.

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In addition to making Rope his first film in color, Hitchcock intended to shoot it in long, uninterrupted takes. His discussions on technique had managed to overshadow what the movie was about, but when studio executives got a look at it, they were mortified. Its resemblance to the lurid Leopold & Loeb case outraged civic groups across the U.S. Released September 1948, Warner Bros. dumped the film and it sank at the box office.

Opinion 
While it would have qualified as an instant classic with Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift squaring off against each other, Rope is highly entertaining, technically audacious and filled with the morbid humor Hitchcock is renowned for. Though bloodless, the plot is devilishly gruesome, even by today’s standards. It’s easy to overlook how shocked audiences must have been by this movie, and how far ahead of its time it was.

John Dall – who Ben Affleck is a splitting image of, down to some of his acting mannerisms – makes for a malicious dandy of a villain. I was aware of the uninterrupted takes (there are a total of only ten in the 80 minute film), but the action moves at a clip. The cast is fine and the fiberglass set looks sharp, particularly shot in Technicolor. In the category of “lesser Hitchcock,” Rope may actually be my favorite. It doesn’t pull any punches.

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Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema writes, “The continuous takes lends a hypnotic feel to the proceedings, but it’s more likely to put one to sleep than to excite the senses. The only way I can recommend sitting through this film is if you’re watching it for free and you’re a huge, huge, huge Hitchcock fan.”

“This Alfred Hitchcock experiment remains important as that: an experiment. It is a reasonably good film, but not up to his usual standards,” writes Michael W. Phillips Jr. at goatdog’s movies. He gives it three goats out of five.

Christopher Null at Filmcritic.com writes, “More macabre writing you aren’t likely to find, and a more interesting way to tell the tale you won’t likely see.”

“I’ll see you tonight at Brandon’s party.” View the theatrical trailer for Rope, which includes the film’s deleted prologue.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Based on play · Interrogation · Master and pupil · Paranoia · Psycho killer

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // Oct 18, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    One of the things I’ve always admired about Hitchcock was his willingness to experiment with the mechanics of cinema. In today’s digital age an extended single-take feature film (like Russian Ark or Timecode), while still difficult to accomplish smoothly is actually conceivable. In Hitch’s day, when film reels came in sections no longer than 10 minutes each, such a thing would be not only be extremely difficult to achieve, it would be technically impossible. Thus, Hitch’s ability to even think in such terms is remarkable.

    Why Hitch wanted to attempt that with the film I’m not sure. Maybe he wanted to sustain the “real-time” theatrical nature of the original play. Maybe not. I don’t know. At any rate, it has become known more or less the “gimmick” of Rope, but aside from its innovative technique, I still find the film an intriguing and engaging work; in fact, one of the director’s most–Oh God, how I hate this word–underrated efforts.

    At the very least, the theme of an individual actually living by his/her bizarre philosophical inclinations (making him/her, in a sense, more “honest” than those who don’t really practice what they preach) has always been interesting to me.

    Good piece, Joe. :)

  • 2 Hedwig // Oct 19, 2007 at 12:58 am

    I also like this film a lot, because of the experimentation but also because it’s the best film made based on the Leopold & Loeb story: Hitchcock understands that more than being about bloodlust or even the homoerotic subtext (though it is definitely present), the scary part is that John Dall’s character in particular is feeling by a feeling of intellectual superiority.

    It plugs into the danger of the ubermensch thinking, and that’s what makes it so shocking: their not psychopathic monsters, they’re not motivated by things we can understand like jealousy or anger: they’re the kind of people we generally trust to run companies and countries, the kind of people we like to trust our civilization to.

  • 3 Piper // Oct 21, 2007 at 9:47 am

    Joe,

    I can tell you that I have seen this once and it was in my film class. Much like you reported our talk was mostly centered around the long takes. I do however remember my film professor being very upset with the homosexual undertones (saying that they were unfair) and the arrogance of John Dall and how sinister it was that they killed this man and then were gloating over it. He was a bit emotional at times and although I don’t remember a lot of this, I remember it being classic Hitchcock.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Oct 21, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    Damian: Thanks! I appreciate you mentioning Timecode. That was a fascinating experiment as well, but a failure because Mike Figgis essentially let his cast improvise the entire movie, from what I recall. If a director ever uses the single-take technique to shoot a good script, we’re in for a masterpiece.

    Hedwig: I agree with you, the John Dall character is a top notch villain who like any terrorist, has given himself the moral authority to kill anyone he deems inferior. Maybe I am a willy-nilly critic, but I like Rope the more comments I get praising it. Thanks!

    Pat: Rope is classic Hitchcock and that’s great that your professor became upset over this. There’s no violence in the film at all. What’s disturbing is the moral superiority projected by this good looking, wholesome American lad that seems inspired by Hitler or Stalin.

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