Should I Watch..? Rope
What's the big deal?
Rope is a psychological thriller film released in 1948 and was directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. Based on the 1929 play of the same name, the film is partially inspired by real events and sees two men attempt to commit the perfect murder in order to prove their intellectual superiority. It was the first film Hitchcock made in Technicolour and is also notable for being shot in real-time using as few takes as possible but edited to appear as one continuous shot. It was also considered controversial at the time for its alluded homosexual subtext rather than its gruesome subject matter. Reviews at the time were mixed and Hitchcock himself called the film "an experiment that didn't work". Nevertheless, the film remains an interesting watch for both film students and Hitchcock devotees.
What's it about?
Two young men, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, strangle a former classmate - David Kentley - to death in their apartment. Dumping the body in a chest, they believe that they have committed the crime as an intellectual exercise to prove their superiority to others. Hosting a dinner party that evening, Brandon uses the chest to host the buffet while their guests arrive - none of whom have any idea what has recently happened.
The guests include poor David's father Henry and his aunt Mrs Anita Atwater, David's fiancée Janet Walker and David's once close friend Kenneth Lawrence, who was once Janet's lover. Along with their housekeeper Mrs Wilson, Brandon continually toys with the guests while Phillip's guilt begins to get the better of him. And when their former school-master and publisher Rupert Cadell arrives, it doesn't take long for people to notice David's strange absence...
Arthur Laurents *
Release Date (US)
28th August, 1948
Crime, Drama, Thriller
What's to like?
Despite the unnecessary limitations he placed on himself, Hitchcock proves once again why he's the master of suspense with Rope. With each passing minute, you feel closer and closer to seeing the characters discover the grim truth behind the whole façade - not just through Phillip's increasingly strange behaviour but also through Brandon's sick games that he plays with his guests, even waving the murder weapon under their very noses. The dialogue flirts with the crime as well, especially Cadell's supposed belief in Nietzsche's Übermensch concept which Phillip and Brandon took a little too closely to heart.
The entire cast deserve credit for the long takes which must have been nerve-wracking to shoot as well as rehearse. Stewart plays off well against Dall and Granger but the surprise comes from Collier who provides welcome comic relief in the form of David's larger-than-life aunt. But the film's true star is Hitchcock whose innovative direction and editing reinforces the stage origins of the film. Watching Rope, you realise that you watch proceedings as if from the perspective of David waiting for the truth to come out. I actually found myself willing for some slip-up or mistake by the killers so that David's death would not be meaningless. The stage craft is also first-class as the city beyond the apartment's window feels like a genuine city, sinking into shadow as the dawn slowly rises.
- Due to the length of each take, efforts were made to keep mistakes to a minimum. During one take, the camera dolly ran over a cameraman's foot and broke it but in order to keep shooting, he was instantly gagged and dragged off. That take was included in the final film.
- The trailer includes a little prelude to the story not featured in the finished film featuring David (played by Dick Hogan) meeting with Janet on a park bench, talking about meeting Brandon and Phillip. Stewart then narrates that it would be the last time Janet would see him alive.
- Hogan's brief appearance as the murdered David Kentley would also be his final appearance in a film - Hogan quit the movies and returned to Arkansas to become an insurance agent.
What's not to like?
Compared to more classic Hitchcock fare like Vertigo or The Birds, the film lacks a little of the frisson that Hitch usually provides - there's no real great shocks in the film nor any mystery, seeing as the film opens with the actual murder. The story seems to get bogged down the longer it goes on and it does feel like a filmed theatrical performance instead of a real movie. It doesn't engage with you as much as you might expect and has a cold, detached feel to it as if it wants us to sympathise with the killers.
It also feels extremely dated, which sounds harsh given the film's age. It's natural for it to feel old but Rope feels dated in almost every respect - the story, direction and performances all gave me the impression that Hitch had seen the play in 1929 and simply wanted to make a film version. It would be churlish of me to call the direction "lazy" because it's anything but - the rising levels of tension are still there and Hitch even manages to make his trademark cameo, albeit in a rather atypical fashion. It might be interesting to study but I can't feel that the film would have worked better if shot in a more conventional manner.
Should I watch it?
Hitchcock veterans might disagree but I found the film to be an intriguing thriller with a simple premise, an experienced and able cast and a master of the craft behind the camera. It might lack the excitement or power of some of his better-known films but the film offers an insight into a director confident enough to experiment in this manner in what was his first colour film. Rope is a tight and taunt thriller that may have stood head-and-shoulders above the competition at the time but these days, looks rather old-fashioned.
Great For: film studies students, Hitchcock aficionados, regular theatre-goers
Not So Great For: action fans, horror fans, anyone born after 1990
What else should I watch?
Hitchcock's career is the stuff of legend, spanning more than fifty years from silent movies to the golden era of Hollywood. He had his most successful period in the 1950's with films like Strangers On A Train, Rear Window, the brilliant Vertigo and the classic chase thriller North By Northwest.
But it's a film from the Sixties which is arguably his best known - Psycho broke the mould when it came to portraying violence, sexuality and disturbing behaviour on screen. It was also a huge success with audiences around the world and many claim it to be Hitchcock's best film as well as possibly the first ever slasher movie, influencing dozens of imitators in the Seventies and Eighties.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox