ROPE, Alfred Hitchcock’s “experiment” project from 1948 kept the detail-dominated director fascinated during pre-production and in the laborious, technically tricky shoot, but the clinical end result displeased him enough that after its initial run, he withdrew it from circulation. He later told Francois Truffaut “I undertook Rope as a stunt. That’s the only way I can describe it. I don’t know how I came to indulge in it.”
“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.”
“Close friends” ‘Brandon Shaw’ (John Dall) and ‘Philip Morgan’ (Farley Granger) strangle former prep school classmate ‘David’ in their Manhattan penthouse apartment. Their thrill-kill is an intellectual exercise, and the tres arrogant Brandon insists they further indulge themselves by hosting a party with David’s fiancée, his father and other friends, with the victim’s body stashed in a chest they sadistically use as a serving table. Brandon’s having a gay old time baiting the uneasy group, but when ‘Rupert Cadwell’ (James Stewart), their former housemaster, now a publisher, arrives, he begins to put one and one together. *
After the opening credits establish locale, all the action is confined to one interior set; the plot begins with the finish to David’s murder, a brazen bit of business that gives actor Dick Hogan just a few seconds on screen. For the rest of the running time, the gimmick deployed is in using ten unbroken takes, with the camera following the actors around until an edit (switch to a new roll of film) is accomplished using blackout closeups, usually the back of someone’s suit. **
Hume Cronyn adapted a play written by Patrick Hamilton in 1929, then Arthur Laurents put it into screenplay form, but the resemblance to the infamous Leopold-Loeb murder-for-kicks is a given. Though the homosexual angle was toned enough to slip by the Production Code, coding is present for anyone with an ounce of ‘gaydar’, since the affected killers are obviously more than badminton partners. Brandon’s not the most endearing dear, given to flashing patently insincere and patronizing smiles between snide pronouncements like “The good Americans usually die young on the battlefield, don’t they? Well, the David’s of this world merely occupy space, which is why he was the perfect victim for the perfect murder. Course he, uh, he was a Harvard undergraduate. That might make it justifiable homicide.”
The effusively preening Dall comes off better than the rest (an uncomfortable Stewart’s not in his element), the fluid camera moves are more fun than the arch bitchy interplay of a group of unlikeable snobs. With suspense eliminated from the start, what’s left amounts to an exercise in technique; you care less how it will turn out than wondering when the next twinkling light or cloud effect will show up in the cyclorama created for the background view of the city. Though the $5,800,000 gross took care of the $1,510,000 invested, placing 50th for the year at the box office was less than ideal. Still, a daring foray.
80 minutes, with Joan Chandler (bland), Cedric Hardwicke (calm), Constance Collier (chatterbox), Douglas Dick (effective) and Edith Evanson (there to putt & flutter).
* Stewart, though star-billed (his salary of $300,000 a good 20% of the budget), doesn’t appear until 28 minutes, more than a third of the brief running time. He kidded Hitchcock during the shoot, telling him “You’re really missing out on a wonderful opportunity here. You ought to charge people five bucks to come in and see the set rather than the movie, because the movements of the camera and walls and everything is much more interesting that what we’re saying.” While he wasn’t happy with his performance, he was impressed enough with the maestro of the macabre to work with him thrice again, to much greater effect: Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. Granger’s conveyance of unease suited Hitchcock enough to cast him in his next “perfect murder” plot, the superb Strangers On A Train.
** Biographer Donald Spoto noted Sir Alfred’s fascination with strangulation, in his films and in private life jokes. Going that hideous way is described or implied in The Lodger, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent, Shadow Of A Doubt, Notorious, Stage Fright, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo and North By Northwest. Along with the handful of seconds in Rope it’s shown to one degree or another in The Lady Vanishes, Jamaica Inn, Strangers On A Train, Dial “M” for Murder, Rear Window, Torn Curtain, and—most ghoulishly—Frenzy.