FIVE STAR FILM: Rope (1948)

Rope (USA, 1948)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Grainger, Joan Chandler

One of the dilemmas which confronts any film reviewer is how much attention to pay to a director's opinions about their own films. A director's opinion of their work can change drastically over time and very seldom lines up with critical or popular opinion. Robert Altman went so far in an interview with The Onion to say that "you tend to love your least successful children the most", arguing that he felt more affection for his much-maligned Popeye than films like MASH, Nashville and Short Cuts which had been universally embraced.
We find ourselves in this position when approaching Rope, Alfred Hitchcock's first film since his escape from the clutches of uber-producer David O. Selznick. Coming just before his rich run of form in the 1950s, it finds him in a wildly experimental mood, with long takes, small sets and the action playing out in real time. Hitchcock was less than satisfied with the finished film (calling it "an experiment that didn't work out"), it made little money in its day and remains somewhat overlooked in retrospectives. All of which is a shame - because it's a tense and terrifying masterpiece, and one of his very best films.
Even if you don't quite go along with this assessment, there can be no denying Rope's interest from a technical perspective. This was the first time that Hitchcock had used long, uninterrupted takes; he eschews much of the conventional editing language of Hollywood, filming in ten-minute takes and finding clever ways to hide the joins (panning behind people's backs or past items of furniture, for instance). The walls of the set were on rollers and stagehands had to constantly move the furniture around as the actors performed to make room for the large Technicolor camera. Such was Hitchcock's commitment to the technique that he had a camera operator gagged to stop his screams being caught on film after his foot was broken during a dolly shot.
Given that Hitchcock had earned his reputation through his impressive coverage and editing decisions, you would naturally expect that discarding these techniques would lead to the scales falling from the eyes of the audience. While the setting and character names are changed, the film is structurally very faithful to Patrick Hamilton's 1929 stage play. Both are essentially chamber pieces with little or no scope for taking the audience outside to broaden things out (as in the film version of The Odd Couple). Hitchcock famously disliked filmed versions of theatre productions, branding them "photographs of people talking", which makes his creative decisions here seem all the more curious.
The great miracle of Rope is that it is incredibly cinematic. It's an immensely claustrophobic work, every bit as pressurised and intimidating as Roman Polanski's apartment trilogy. Hitchcock's carefully chosen camera movements remove any stagey quality from the piece, turning the audience from a passive, disinterested spectator into a helpless, mesmerised observer. Just as in Rear Window, our part in the drama is established from the outset - we are given no means of escape, and yet as much as we wish to leave we cannot look away.
In an interview with the AFI in the 1970s, Hitchcock talked about his method of creating tension, citing the example of having a bomb under a table and detailing how to put an audience through the mill and provide relief. In Rope the 'bomb' is present from the beginning, and the small amount of dramatic irony it provides slowly builds until both characters and audience are at breaking point. Hitchcock keeps reminding us of the chest wherein the body lies, and we become wound like a tight spring in fear that it will be discovered. In the sequence where Mrs Wilson keeps moving back and forth from it, our heart is our mouth that she will find out what is inside.
Aside from being masterfully executed (no pun intended), Rope is also a deeply subversive work in this regard. We know that Brandon and Phillip are guilty as hell right from the start, but as the film winds on we find ourselves perversely growing to like them; we almost admire them for both the audacity of their scheme and their sheer nerve of covering it up in such a way. The film presents us with fantastically dark dialogue and amoral, black-hearted characters who wouldn't seem out of place in Heathers, mixing psychological thriller with black comedy to astonishing effect.
The dialogue in Rope is absolutely brazen about its subject matter. It gives us characters from respectable, well-mannered backgrounds and have them wax lyrical about murder and Aryan principles without any hint of self-consciousness. It's like The Tell-Tale Heart re-imagined as a dinner party, pointing forward in equal measure to Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth and Moira Buffini's Dinner. Brandon relishes the attention and sees the situation as a welcome challenge; he talks about planning a death in order to deflect suspicion and lampshade the crime he has committed. Amongst his indulgence, Phillip's torment and remorse gradually break through, as the mask slips on both his own guilt and the hypocrisy of the society he inhabits.
Rope is also extremely effective in its deconstruction of academia - specifically how ideas which appear to have merit on paper become monstrous when acted upon. Jimmy Stewart's character is like the evil flip-side of his character in Mr Smith Goes to Washington: both are principled, educated men who want the best for society, but their notices of justice and their bases for law and order are very different. Stewart uses philosophy to justify murder as an abstract concept and argues the benefits which such an approach could bring to society. At the end of the film he is confronted with the endpoint of his intellectual labours; a broken man, he leans back on the traditional morality he claimed to have surpassed and calls the police.
Rope is also interesting for its approach to true crime. The play was inspired by the infamous Leopold and Leob case which rocked America in the 1920s and centred around the notion of two young men attempting to commit the perfect crime. The case has inspired a range of subsequent films, which have all taken different approaches; where Compulsion focused on the court case and the public outcry, this is closer in tone to Tom Kalin's Swoon, insofar as it is interested in the mental state and relationship between the two young murderers.
The sexual politics of Rope are a real bone of contention. The film is a product of more conservative times, when homosexuality was still a major social taboo (and a crime), and Hitchcock was always more interested in how to present a given story than he was in the story itself. The film never argues that Brandon and Phillip were driven to kill David because of their (implied) homosexuality, or that their sexual preferences clouded their moral judgement. On the other hand, given how daring the rest of the film is, one might argue that it should have been as upfront with this aspect as it is with everything else: is denying that something could exist just as offensive as presenting it as a negative stereotype?
The film's main defence in this regard would be that it isn't all that interested in sexuality, of any description. Like The Vanishing four decades after it, it's a broader study about the amount of evil people are capable of committing, as well as how said evil is rationalised to excuse or justify it, and what the consequences are for the innocent parties. You can read into some of the imagery if you please - seeing the chest as 'the closet' into which Stewart's straight character peers - but the drama is not dependent on you forming an opinion on this matter one way or another.
Rope is a terrific film which deserves to be ranked alongside Rear Window and Vertigo as one of Hitchcock's finest works. He wrings every last drop of tension out of a very self-contained, self-limiting premise, ably assisted by a trio of great performances from John Dall, Farley Grainger and Jimmy Stewart. Whatever one's feelings on its sexual politics (or lack thereof), there can be little denying its effectiveness as a thriller, which even 70 years on can leave an audience with shredded nerves and shattered hearts.

NEXT REVIEW: Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)