Although movie gearheads might remember Rope as the first Hitchcock film shot in Technicolor, its more important contribution to the director’s oeuvre stems from the nature of the murder it depicts. The strangulation of David Kentley (Dick Hogan) at the hands of two university chums, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), has no motive. This killing is fundamentally unlike, say, the crime of passion in The Paradine Case or even the Freudian murder swapping in Strangers on a Train. The young men in Rope are driven to the act not by greed, lust, ambition, anger, or insanity, but by mere pleasure-seeking. To them, murder is an aesthetic end in itself.
We feel suffocated by the ghoulishly evil ambience inside the film’s claustrophobic setting. After the rolling of the opening credits, the camera zooms in to the upper-story window of an apartment. Before we’re taken inside, a scream emanates from within. Beyond the threshold, we see that the deed is done. Our eyes are trapped. The room in which the entire rest of the film takes place becomes like a crypt in which two vampires have shielded themselves from the dawning truth of the outside world. As the finishing touch on the little party they’re planning for that evening, Brandon dumps the body in a coffin-shaped chest on which he equidistantly places two candelabra. This is to be the table for the “sacrificial feast” he lays out.
Arthur Laurents, who penned the film’s darkly satirical screenplay, was at odds with the director over whether David’s body should be revealed to the audience from the outset. To Laurents, it would have been more convincing if our unawareness of the chest’s contents were what held us enthralled. A fair point, but I’m glad Hitchcock disagreed. The suspense in Rope rests less with the chest’s contents than with the psychological symbiosis between Brandon and Phillip that manifests itself in their different responses to the fear of detection.
Although films of the 1940s dare not explicitly speak its name, the homosexuality of the pair is evident the moment Brandon lights his first cigarette upon the completion of their dirty work, their climax vicariously reached through David’s scream. While Brandon, as the masculine aggressor, is already planning the evening’s pièce de résistance, the effete Phillip hunches over in exhaustion, his face glazed over with uncomprehending remorse. How can he have been so weak as to have been coerced into such horror against his will? And how can he face the evening’s guests without spilling his guilty guts before them? Especially now that Brandon has invited the savvy Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), their former tutor from their prep school days, to attend? Surely Rupert’s ever-suspicious nose will sniff fresh blood.
Rupert becomes the central figure in the drama, a proxy for the spectator’s own wildest imagination that Hitch has already disappointed. Similarly to Herbie in Hitch’s earlier masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt, Rupert engages the other attendees in a jocular discussion of murder and those who are worthy of committing it—superior beings who satisfy the Nietzchean ideal of the superman. Huddled around Rupert on the sectional and lending him their rapt attention are David’s own father (Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt (Constance Collier) as well as David’s current girlfriend (Joan Chandler) and her former flame Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick). Rupert’s sleuthing instincts are aroused as much by Brandon’s passionate defense of a subject that the former had broached only in jest as he is by Phillip’s rash reaction at being teased about murdering chickens in the triumvirate’s days of yore. Phillip, a budding concert pianist who is soon to have his New York debut, tries to forget his pursuer by tinkering out an innocuous little Poulenc tune. But once on a case, Detective Cadell never lets up.
As our eyes pursue Rupert, helping him search for clues, we feel as though we are following the characters around a stage rather than watching a movie. Which makes sense: Rope, like Dial M for Murder, is based on a play (by Patrick Hamilton). Unlike Dial M, however, the action in Rope takes place within a continuous series of long takes that were later joined together. This, along with Rupert’s obsessional minute-to-minute probing, reinforces the fact that this event—from perpetration to discovery—is occurring in real time.
Rope really is a film of firsts, a worthy springboard for the string of 50s films that ensured Hitch’s filmic immortality—universally revered titles like Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Vertigo. As the title suggests, perhaps even more important than its Technicolor debut, continuity, and thematic audacity is its use of a murder weapon as a unifying motif. Rope is just a common household item, as Brandon notes, so why should Phillip get his underpants in a bunch when it’s left in plain view? Because Brandon won’t let us forget about it, that’s why. One minute he’s sporting a wickedly gleeful smile and dropping it into a kitchen drawer. The next minute, he’s using it to tie up a stack of rare books to give to, of all people, David’s father. He’s the apotheosis of the murderer who gets his jollies out of taunting fate.
As perfectly cast as Dall and Granger are in their queer dynamic (the two actors were both homosexuals themselves), it’s a shame that the clean-cropped Stewart, a golden boy of such idealistic Capra family classics as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, sticks out more awkwardly than a priest in a drug dealer’s lair. Rupert’s supposed to be sly, urbane, and insinuating—a latent moralist, not one who raves and foams at the mouth. Had Cary Grant (Hitch’s first choice for Rupert) accepted the role, it could have been the perfect movie to celebrate the almost-perfect murder. Grant understandably didn’t want his ladies-man reputation tainted by association with the film’s man-love overtones.
Nevertheless, even a goody-goody like Stewart can’t crash such a wonderfully twisted party. Rope laid the groundwork for Hitchcock’s movie MO, a film that so signified a mastermind at work that to not watch it would be criminal.
Joe’s Grade: A