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Rope is Alfred Hitchcock's most extreme experiment, one of his biggest flops, and a film that gives ammunition to the hecklers who like to characterize him as a technician seeking a new cinematic gimmick instead of telling a story. The documentary on Universal's DVD quotes star James Stewart (who would later become one of Hitch's most notable collaborators) as complaining that Hitch rehearsed his camera but never his actors. The truth is that if Hitchcock stumbled with Rope, it was not just because of the radicalism of his approach, but also because the production code wouldn't let him make the film about its own subject.
Wealthy young New Yorkers, the domineering Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and the nervous Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) are sociopaths who have taken the Nietzschean teachings of their prep school mentor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) to heart. They murder friend David Kentley (Dick Hogan) in cold blood to prove their existential superiority, referring to their victim as an inferior being 'just taking up space in the world.' Then, to celebrate their triumph over common morality, they hold a party with a buffet served from atop the very cabinet concealing the body. The victim's parents and fiancee (Joan Chandler) are invited, along with Rupert Cadell himself, whom the megalomanic Brandon would like to bring into their confidence about the murder. After all, they're carrying out his theories in the real world. But after all their talk about supermen, Brandon and Phillip's nerve begins to fail as the party goes on and Rupert becomes suspicious ...
Everyone should see Rope who wants to admire Hitchcock as a technician; this was one tough assignment carried off with a little imagination and a lot of dogged work. The idea was to shoot a play as an ubroken series of uncut takes, thereby capturing it intact and allowing the actors' work to flow without the unnatural and sometimes destructive interruptions of camera angles and editing. Whether Hitchcock got the idea from watching plays or from other Hollywood experiments, like Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake, hasn't been discussed much. That Raymond Chandler adaptation was filmed almost completely from the point of view of its main character, an interesting experiment that was fatally disruptive to its story. Hitchcock had his own theories about the subjective / objective point of view in cinema, that he later developed to their limit in Rear Window. He knew that film could be manipulated to make audiences identify with characters. But be them?
Film directors associated with unbroken long takes were usually one-shots like Joseph H. Lewis with his robbery scene in Gun Crazy, or the occasional artist who attempted to overwhelm the viewer with flowing circus-like imagery, such as Max Ophuls or Federico Fellini. Lately it's Martin Scorsese who impresses with the bravura of elaborate lengthy mastershots that can be very effective, as in Goodfellas. It's presently the fashion among certain showoff directors to garner attention with elaborate long moving masters, that impress the film school crowd with 'style', especially if set to rock music. A cynic might say Hitchcock was the original showboat director, but it seems more accurate that he simply wanted to make the 'cinema' in Rope invisible, by eliminating cutting altogether.
I don't know what audiences were told in 1948; the trailer makes no attempt to let people know that Hitch was attempting a filmic experiment. But when we film students of the '70s finally saw Rope, it was kind of a letdown. We read that the movie was shot in only ten takes of ten minutes' duration each, invisibly joined. In truth, six of the reel changes or cuts are disguised with (sometimes deft, sometimes clumsy) truck ins and truck outs to people's backs. Three of the cuts are just ordinary cuts as in any movie, and one is a not-very-well disguised jump cut.1
Maybe in 1948 the movie played normally, but for us whose innocence was ruined by the Hitchcock: Truffaut interview book, it's almost impossible to watch Rope as anything but a stunt. As the camera zooms around the penthouse apartment, we imagine unseen grips silently moving furniture, walls, and cables to clear the way for the giant Technicolor camera. The acting under the circumstances is more remarkable for its professionalism rather than any finesse or sensitivity. It's a live, unbroken set of performances, perhaps, but one with more tension and rigidity than anything on the stage. One flub and another seven or eight-minute take is sunk. One real result of all the effort is the elimination of the need for an editor. Rope bills an editor; I'll bet he did a careful job assembling all thirteen pieces of film that make up the movie!
In the end, at least to Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock admitted that movies must be CUT, that it's the cinematic tool that adds grammar and expresses the necessary elements of point of view, timing, emphasis, and juxtaposition.
Universal's DVD of Rope has a very informative documentary by Laurent Bouzereau with nice interviews with Farley Granger and Hume Cronyn. The most provocative comments are from screenwriter Arthur Laurents, who tangentially reveals that the theme of homosexuality in the film crippled and perhaps doomed it from the start. Since the production code wouldn't allow any explicit mention of the characters' sexual preferences, the full weight of the source play was blunted. Although alert viewers surely picked up on the relationship between Granger and Dall, they never knew that the James Stewart teacher character, whose ideas inspired the killing, was originally written to also be gay, and a past lover of one of his pupils. Laurents said the obvious homosexual theme was never even discussed in connection with the movie, and James Stewart of course played the character not only straight but from a righteous moral position. After preaching an unbroken line of morbid Nietzsche nihilism to the party guests, Rupert manages to be shocked when he finds his disciples have 'warped' his teachings. This makes the provocative original play into yet another conservative Holly-phobic movie where gay characters are by definition sociopath killers; and where liberals who play around with controversial philosophies are the stooges of moral disaster.
Finally, Laurents makes one point that you'd think Hitchcock would have picked up on. Hitchcock made a big deal about believing in suspense and tension, as opposed to the average whodunnit. He usually follows through by not making the point of his thrillers identifying the killers, but indentifying with them as well as with the heroes. He's sometimes taken for task for spilling the beans early about what exactly's going on. But here he encountered a play with a third alternative. Rope's End didn't hide who did it, but instead transcended the issue by letting the murder be an ambiguous event until the finale: the tension being whether the killers' murder talk was a sick game or a sick reality. So the play would presumably be more centered on the strange game-playing tension between the two lovers. This is more in line with later Hitchcock narrative experiments, like the shaggy-dog The Birds where we constantly expect the rug to be pulled out from under our assumptions about the story being told. Hitchcock either didn't like the ambiguity idea or didn't think his audience was mature enough to 'get' it: as shot, Rope isn't an ordinary whodunnit, it's an ordinary willtheygetcaught?2
Savant saw some fluttering color and damaged moments in this Universal DVD, but mostly the picture is clean and true, looking far better than older vhs and laserdiscs. This is a great way to examine the technical details of the film, such as the giant NYC backdrop out the windows that slowly turns from day to night, with moving clouds.
Rope is a fascinating picture, no doubt, and proof positive that inside commercial crowdpleaser Alfred Hitchcock breathed the soul of a cinema theoretician, whether he'd admit it or not.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Rope rates:
Supplements: Docu, Trailer, still and info archives
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 18, 2001
1. Here's the entire Rope cutting breakdown (with spoilers, mind you) as read from the counter on Savant's DVD machine:
00.00 Start Titles
02:30 CUT to the strangling in progress
12:05 PUSH IN AND OUT to Dall's back as he picks up books from the buffet
19:55 CUT from profile Kenneth to entrance of Janet
27:13 PUSH IN AND OUT on Kenneth's back as he takes a drink into bedroom for Janet (this one is very smooth)
34:22 CUT from cu Granger to ms Stewart on "That's a Lie!"
44:14 PUSH IN AND OUT Dall as Stewart crosses with ice cream (bad match)
51:54 CUT to Maid from Stewart as he harasses both young men.
55:00 (note) here's where you can see the Hitchcock silhouette neon sign out the window!
59:40 PUSH IN AND OUT Dall's back as he sends for his car
69:57 JUMP CUT on empty hallway view (and it does jump) as Rupert enters talking about hiding the body.
74:26 PUSH IN AND OUT dark lid of the chest as Rupert opens it.
80:04 dissolve to end credits. Return
2. Rope might play much better simply leaving off the opening murder, thus forcing us to decipher all of the murder talk between Dall and Granger, which admittedly doesn't leave much room for ambiguity. On the other hand, leaving out the CIA explanation in North by NorthWest definitely helps that film's center section play far better (opinion). Then when Leo G. Carroll shows up at the auction, we think, who the heck is this guy? Yet Savant thinks the 'write a letter / tear it up' non-confession in Vertigo is almost essential so as to not lose EVERYONE trying to understand that story. Return
Other Alfred Hitchcock - oriented Savant articles and reviews:
The missing shot from Psycho ...
Review: Shadow of a Doubt ...
Review: Saboteur ...
Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much