Format: VHS from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on big ol’ television.
I like Hitchcock in general, although there’s a lot of his filmography I haven’t seen yet. Still, in many ways he was a one-trick pony. He liked a particular type of story, and with a few exceptions, he made that same story over and over. Other directors of the era were far more versatile in what they produced, but Hitchcock produced Hitchcock films. I’m happy to call him a genius, but in general, you know what you’re going to get with Hitch.
Rope is a film created more or less to explore camera trickery. The film unfolds like a one-act play (and was in fact based on a stage play). The plot is pure Hitchcock. Here’s the elevator pitch—two men kill a former classmate for intellectual thrills, then hide the body in a trunk and serve dinner off it to the friends and family of the victim. There, in fewer than 30 words, is the essence of Hitchcock’s high concept film, a simple story simply told.
Our killers are the effete Brandon (John Dall) and the equally effete Phillip (Farley Granger), a pair of former schoolmates who evidently live together. It’s been suggested over and over that Brandon and Phillip are a couple, and while there is a certain level of homosexual subtext, it’s certainly not played up at all. If they are or are not, it doesn’t affect the plot in any respect. As the film begins, they are strangling David Kentley (Dick Hogan), another former classmate.
What happens next is described in that high concept sentence above—they hide the body in a trunk, then move their dinner service into the living room. This entire event was planned through and through—Phillip has a piano performance soon, and they had a planned meeting with their victim’s father (Cedric Hardwicke), so they turn the evening into a party. The trunk, which has a broken lock, is placed under a tablecloth and plates and food, so the party guests will be literally getting their food off the coffin of the murdered victim. For Brandon, this is all wonderfully exciting, but Phillip immediately has regrets.
And then the guests arrive. The housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson), brings in the food and busies herself. We then meet Kenneth (Douglas Dick), another former classmate. Following him is Janet (Joan Chandler), the murder victim’s fiancée and the former romantic partner of Kenneth. Next come the victim’s father and his sister (Constance Collier). The final guest of the evening is the killers’ former teacher, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart).
And here’s where things start to get interesting. Cadell, we learn, is very much a fan of the philosophy of Nietzsche, particularly the idea of the superman. At school, he preached the idea as an intellectual puzzle to his students—do superior men have not only the ability but the right to commit murder based strictly on their status as superior men? This, we learn, is the motive for the act at the beginning of the film. Phillip and especially Brandon hold themselves as superior, thus the murder of David Kentley is justified. As the evening wears on, Brandon drops more and more hints to his actions and Phillip becomes more and more nervous. Most critically, Rupert becomes more and more suspicious of David’s absence from the party and precisely what might have happened before the party started.
Rope is filmed in real time—the film runs a sparse 80 minutes, and the actions of the film encompass that same amount of time. From the opening murder to the final resolution, there are no seams, no jump cuts, no flash forwards or flash backs. More impressively, the film is made in eight or nine total takes, each running roughly 7-10 minutes (the maximum time for filming in cameras of the day). Many cuts are masked by moving the camera into something black and out again, so the only real evident cuts are those that come when the projectors of the day switched reels.
As an experiment, Rope is an unqualified success. It watches almost exactly like a one-act play, seamlessly moving from event to event. I can only imagine the amount of dedication and skill necessary to pull off these long takes without a hitch from as many as eight actors at a time in front of a single camera. The film is all about timing. Deciding to simply put the rope—the murder weapon—back in a kitchen drawer, Brandon walks through the swinging door. As the door swings back, we see evidence of this timing. Just as the door has swung back open, we see him drop the rope into the drawer and close it.
As a filmed narrative, Rope is perhaps too simple. It is the length it is because it simply could not be any longer. Hitchcock manages a few good moments of tension—as Mrs. Wilson goes to put something back into the trunk that holds the body, for instance, there are lingering shots over the trunk. We know what will happen if the trunk is opened, and keeping it shut is necessary for the story to keep playing out.
Simplicity isn’t a terrible thing, though. Rope manages to remain taut and terrifying on an intellectual level. The idea of killing for its own sake, killing for the intellectual challenge of creating the perfect crime, is a scary one. Still, the plot here is very much secondary to the camera experiment at the heart of the film. Rope is very much worth seeing and studying, but mostly on the level of seeing how Hitchcock did what he did and not for the intricacies of the story it tells.
Why to watch Rope: Hitchcock pared down to the bare essentials.
Why not to watch: It’s all based on a camera gimmick.
I loved this movie. It was actually my first Hitchcock, last year. I particularly love the scene where the camera is just sitting down and you hear talking off the side. But what you're watching is the maid clean off the "table" and take stuff into the kitchen. Only about halfway through the scene do you realize what's going on and that she's eventually going to be putting those books back into the chest. Such a fantastic moment.ReplyDelete
I've also read elsewhere it might have been even better had they not shown the murder at the start, so it left you guessing throughout the film whether or not there was a body inside. I'm not sure how much I agree with that, but it would certainly be an interesting take on it.
It is a good moment, and the one of (for me) the highest tension of the film. It's the first time that Brandon and Phillip truly come close to being discovered, and that tension gets spun up so quickly that the scene becomes a nail-biter in under a minute.Delete
I'm not sure the film would work as well without the audience knowing what is in the chest for real. If we don't know what opening the chest reveals, would we care that much if someone opened the chest?
This is another one of those "I saw it five years ago once so I can't be too detailed in my comments on it" but I do remember enjoying it very much. I also remember it feeling incredibly like a play, but it also feeling simple.ReplyDelete
I really enjoyed Jimmy Stewart in this movie. It had to be one of the first movies he did with Hitchcock - this was 1948, right? - I can see why Hitch went back to him several times.
It's not my favorite Hitchcock, but it ranks pretty highly for me (he made some stinkers - "I Confess" is stupidly silly), and it's interesting from an experimental film vantage point. He managed to make a thoroughly commercial avant garde film for the time. Based on simplicity of technique, yes, but it required a great deal of chutzpah.
It's a ballsy film if for no other reason than it takes a lot of its story from the Leopold and Loeb case. Admittedly, it was hardly a new case, but morality and propriety being what it was, 24 years might still have been "too soon."Delete
Not my favorite Hitchcock film, but I like the idea of his doing a simpler type of movie. It's like watching a stage play, but better. I don't think I've ever heard anyone refer to Hitch as a one trick pony before...still you do have a point. He liked a certain genre and stuck with it for the most part.ReplyDelete
I think Hitchcock has mastered the act of making simple films look brilliant with his compelling storytelling. Rope was like 80 minutes of minute-to-minute tension builder. I loved the investigative type of role Stewart essayed. Overall, one of the best underrated films of HitchcockReplyDelete
"One-trick pony" is probably overstating it, but Hitchcock rarely strayed from murder and mistaken identity. I look at others of the time, like Billy Wilder, who made great films in multiple genres and think it's only fair to mention that Hitchcock essentially told the same basic story over and over.ReplyDelete
"Compelling" is a good word for Hitch's films. When he was firing on all cylinders, it's hard to top him, and Rope fires on at least most of them.
SJHoneywell, show some respect to a director that has created the most icon cinematic moments of all time. You talk like a half educated film student. Hitchcock movie Rope is a masterpiece and you show it a 10th of the respect it deserves.ReplyDelete
Well, I guess this means I won't ask you to advertise on my website then.Delete
I'm trying to see where I gave it 1/10 of the respect it deserves, though. I said it was an unqualified success as an experiment. I said it contained moments of real tension and that it was both "taut" and "terrifying."
Perhaps I should have publicly masturbated to it. Would that have done it justice?
And...maybe you shouldn't read my reviews of Fellini's work.
@SJHoneywell - Please don't feed the trolls. I recently got an anonymous Nolan fanboy comment "Chip is a douche" to my positive, but not glowing, review of The Dark Knight Rises. I didn't repond to him or her.Delete
I know I shouldn't, but sometimes I just can't help it. I think this actually stems from me calling Hitchcock a one-trick pony, which he sort of was.Delete
Rope is a masterpiece of cinema and my god, what a f$cking start. Am i right or am i right?ReplyDelete
Good review. I liked this film, although I wouldn't put it at the top of Hitchcock's output.ReplyDelete
I agree. I think the Hitchcock Penthalon is Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds.Delete
Love, love, love this film.ReplyDelete
Gotta challenge your Why Not To Watch (though I don't think this is quite what you meant): Don't you think this movie would still work if it was shot in a traditional manner?
The why to watch/why not to watch gimmick hems me in sometimes. This was a moment when I really couldn't think of a good reason to skip this film.Delete
Yes, this film would work filmed traditionally, and it would be a good (but not noteworthy) little murder film. It's the long takes that make it worth seeing in my opinion--or at least the long takes that make it really special instead of just a good film.
I think I found Rope a bit deeper than you did and I rather enjoyed that depth. If this was just about killing somebody it would be rather thin albeit unusually macabre and casual. But the movie is also both an interesting comment on Nietzsches superhuman, responsibility of authorities and a homosexual lovestory. It is a movie I find that I like more the more I think about it.ReplyDelete
You're right--I don't see a lot of depth here. I see Hitchcock trying out some new camera tricks and making it work, and pairing that with a solid thriller with some weird implications.Delete