Alfred Hitchcock’s first colour feature. His first collaboration with James Stewart. Massiveley innovate and influential – being created from only 10 shots. There is much to recommend in ‘Rope’ and very much to admire.
Phillip Morgan (the all too twitchy Farley Granger) and Brandon Shaw (the keeping a lid on it John Dall) have strangled their ‘inferior’ ex-classmate, David Kently (briefly played by Dick Hogan) and shoved him in a large wooden chest in their apartment. To push the danger level to its limit, they invite a bunch of guests around for a polite cocktail party. Their effrontery is scuppered by the arrival of James Stewart’s Rupert Cadell, their former tutor, who smells a corpse…*
The strangling of David is very brief, Brandon shivering in a post orgasmic manner, sparking up a cigarette to calm his tattered feelings. He has just the right amount of intellectual snobbery in his performance, he appears as someone who actually believes he’s a part of some kind of Nietzchean super-race and coldly justifying the pair’s actions. Phillip, on the other hand, is an absolute liability in a murder team – shaky, sweating and all over the place emotionally, Granger’s performance is overcooked and if you were asked whether there was a guilty party in the house all eyes would be on the wobbling jelly that is Phillip. I don’t really buy that Phillip is quite so terrified of what they have done – literally straight after the killing he is all over the place – how did he ever agree to what they have done?
When David’s mother mistakes Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick) for her now dead son, Phillip actually breaks a champagne glass in his own hand with visible blood – he’s cracking up in the same fragile manner.
The film is a strange experience, it has to be said. Obviously going into it knowing it has been shot in loooong takes** you can’t help bearing this in mind – but I would think a casual viewer would not pick up on this and the film would then appear very much like a shot stage play, however much the director moves the camera and flies walls out of the way to let it pass. There are, it is worth pointing out, actually a few intentional and there-for-effect cuts in the film that break from the ‘feeling of one take’.
James Stewart is top drawer in a role that he later stated was the only one for Hitchcock that he didn’t feel suited to play. He has that marvellous Stewart hesitancy, the pausing in the middle of dialogue as if he is thinking about how to phrase something or what to say – when all the time you know damn well he is in control of not only himself but the whole situation. Rupert is in control of the situation from his first appearance, clocking the champagne (‘what’s the occasion?’) and gently and continuously sniffing out clues that come tumbling at him pretty easily. The denouement shocks him to the core, he stunned and horrified that anyone would take any of his teachings seriously. Once Rupert converses with Phillip all bets are off as the trembling jelly mountain fairly glows with guilt. The story relating his ringing the necks of farm chickens gets Phillip’s goat badly and he blurts out ‘that’s a lie!’ – Hitchcock backing up the shock factor by introducing one of the movies’ only actual visual cuts, in this case to the attentive Rupert who stares interestedly.
Joan Chandler plays Janet Walker and is pretty lovely with just the right amount of charm and interest in what is going on. She’s pretty tough as well – ‘I could really strangle you, Brandon’ she scolds for inviting her ex-boyfriend Kenneth to the shindig, Brandon already having commented to Kenneth that his chances of getting back with her may be better than he thinks. When Brandon intimates she is after David’s money Janet gets serious as hell: ‘that’s a new low even for you chum’ through gritted teeth.
There’s a good old load of drinking that goes on throughout the film but (unlike Ingrid Bergman in ‘Notorious’) no-one seems to get any further the worse for wear. Phillip himself seems to chuck down endless brandies – I would actually be paralytic half way through the party and blurting out all the gory details, but he manages to play some rather charming tinkly piano music to keep the guests entertained (this by the way is the only music in the film barring the opening and closing – following Hitchcock’s oft rejected use of any extra diegetic music in his more experimental forays).
Phillip tinkling piano theme cycles along as Rupert speaks to him and there’s that wonderful ‘hitting a few wrong notes’ schtik (a la Les Dawson, or Tom Waits on ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking’) that always works a treat when suggesting building nerves, Rupert leaning over the piano to further interrogate the nervous musician. It’s a wonderful moment in a film that’s full of this kind of playful inventiveness.
Rupert ramps up the pressure by setting up a metronome to further stress Phillip out, slowly increasing the pace of its tick tocking. Brandon then appearing carrying the old books (the starting point for the party in the first place, David’s father Henry – played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke – had expressed interest in these volumes) bound in the very rope they bumped off David with! Phillip by this point is absolutely beside himself, Rupert fascinated by what on earth is going on.
Hitchcock can’t resist a little self reference and as the ladies chat to a bemused Rupert over the death chest they reference Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in ‘Notorious’ as they conversationally flit around about their favourite films stars.
Suspense is built beautifully as the main characters speak offscreen, enquiring as to David’s whereabouts, the camera staying on the trunk as Mrs. Wilson (their housekeeper played by Edith Evanson) slowly clears it and even nearly opens it…just in time stopped by Brandon but noticed by Rupert. On leaving, Rupert is handed David’s hat by mistake and the tension is peaking. Phillip is barely containing himself, Brandon relishing the whole thing. When Rupert returns, you know it’s all going to go completely off the rails, Phillip losing it and Brandon’s steely side coming to the fore. Armed with a pocketed revolver, Brandon is ready to attack.
Rupert explains what he thinks may have happened to David and Hitchcock pulls out a Rebecca-like sequence with the camera panning around the room showing where the action could have taken place (Olivier did this speech to Joan Fontaine in the 1940 film). This tips Phillip over the edge and he smashes a glass in anger : ‘cat and mouse, but which is the cat and which is the mouse?!’
Rupert’s final dialogue is electrifying and delivered beautifully by Stewart:
‘…you’ve given my words a meaning I never dreamed of. And you’ve tried to twist them into a cold, logical excuse for your ugly murder! …tonight you’ve made me ashamed of every concept I ever had of superior of inferior beings. Did you think you were God, Brandon? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him?’
Hume Cronyn (acting in ‘Lifeboat’ and ‘Shadow of a Doubt’) adapted the play ‘Rope’s End’ by Patrick Hamilton for the movie and he does a great job here, climaxing in this impassioned speech that shames the two killers and exposes their cowardice. (He’ll go on to adapt Hitchcock’s next film ‘Under Capricorn’ but with somewhat less success).
The film has a wonderful Technicolor look to it under the aegis of D.P. Joseph Valentine and William V. Skall***. It’s the start of a new phase in Hitchcock’s career that will take in the jaw dropping classics of ‘Vertigo’, ‘Rear Window’ and ‘North by Northwest’. The colours feel lush and sumptuous – they must have been astonishingly vivid in their original Technicolor form. The credits list a whole bunch of camera operators and it shows, it moving at times beautifully around the flat, through doorways and into other rooms – graceful and sleek. Easy to do in these post-Steadicam times but in the 1940’s this is some achievement, wielding the ungainly camera kit in such a seemingly effortless way.
It’s completely admirable that Hitchcock has the power, ingenuity and sheer gumption to come up with this very technical exercise. As noted before (going way back to the glass ceiling effect in ‘The Lodger’) it’s an absolute inspiration that someone who by this point had the power to do pretty much anything he wanted should push things in such an experimental way. ‘Rope’ is superb entertainment and, although undeniably an odd viewing experience, is fantastic. It entertains, philosophises and thrills and does it all with great characters and an innovatory technique never seen before to the same extent. What more does a movie need?
*The premise is based on the real life murder of Bobby Franks in 1924 by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. ‘Rope’ was banned in certain U.S. cities as it was seen as a homosexual subject – Leopold and Loeb were lovers and the film has obvious homoerotic overtones throughout.
**check on Wikipedia for a pretty accurate list of the length of shots and where transitions/cuts occur: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rope_%28film%29
***Technicolor was pretty new at the time and Natalie Kalmus from the company is credited on a lot of films from this era.
Hitchcock himself pops up walking along the street in the opening credits in a long/high shot and also in a repeat of the reference to ‘Reduco’ weight loss, briefly seen in a neon advert outside the flat window, again in the distance.
There’s a really interesting trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCFP6vDkSUE&feature=related which shows a whole exterior dialogue scene between David and Janet in a park which is not in the film, and then goes into that classic old style trailer ‘the lead actor talks to camera’ thing they never seem to do nowadays.