Rope (1948)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Arthur Laurents

Rope works not only as a very unique entry into Hitchcock’s filmography, but also as a very clear turning point I think, for multiple reasons. For one, it’s his first film in Technicolor, which is a big deal if you know how he goes on to use the medium to enhance his films. Hitchcock is very clearly an extremely talented visual story teller, and images have everything to do with that he does. This change to color is a big move, and while he will return to Black & White in future, it’s hard to imagine classics like Vertigo or North by Northwest without that pop of color. But other than color, which was becoming more commonplace at the time, Rope is also an extremely experimental film for the time. It’s a single setting film, a la Lifeboat, but it also takes place essentially in real time, with no jumps in time. On top of this, it also has an appearance of a “one-er” to coincide with the real time presentation. “One-er”s have gained notoriety recently thanks to the success of 1917 last year. It’s a technique that seems to bring on a certain amount of debate in terms of its validity as an artistic choice, but for Hitchcock to pull it out 70 years ago, is a bold damn choice.

Rope, as a single setting, “single take” film, opens in a New York apartment of students Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger), where Brandon and Phillip are in the process of strangling their classmate David (Dick Hogan) to death with a small piece of rope. We soon learn that this is part of their sadistic plan to host a dinner party minutes later with all of David’s family and friends, with David’s dead body casually placed in a chest in the middle of the living room. As the guests begin to arrive (Cedric Hardwicke, Constance Collier, Joan Chandler, James Stewart), Phillip grows increasingly weary about their “perfect murder”, worried they will be found out. But the brazen Brandon continues to flaunt his genius execution right in front of the guests. But their old professor (Stewart) begins to suspect foul play between the actions of Brandon and Phillip and the odd absence of honored guest David.

There are a ton of really compelling elements at play in this film, least of which is the idea that Hitchcock decided to take experimental filmmaking decisions to make a film about a social experiment. This level of meta works just right, especially with the conversations in the film between principally Brandon and Rupert. I think by flipping the script on Rupert’s opinion is a clever way to make you question everything. There are biases and opinions we form throughout our life, but in a theoretical sense it is much easier to side with those prejudices and opinions than to enact them in real life. On top of that, framing it in a single setting, in real time, in the appearance of a single take allows Hitchcock to build the tension and suspense thoughout, as we worry whether the perpetrators will be caught. And from a psychological sense, the question arises, are we rooting for them to get away with it, or for them to get caught? I think introducing them up front begins the game of seeing how long they can go before getting caught, but as the film progresses as we see more and more of how vile these two characters are, especially Brandon, we clearly then start rooting for their discovery at the hands of Rupert.

As a result of this experiment, Hicthcock also seems to redeem a certain pitfall from his previous, unsuccessful film The Paradine Case. But making it a “one-er” set in real time, the runtime is rather concise at just 80 minutes. As a result the film does not drag as the camera spins around the room from character to character and conversation to conversation. This film also marks the first collaboration between Hitchcock and James Stewart, one of my favorite actors of all time. He doesn’t disappoint here either. The rest of the ensemble I can generally take or leave. John Dall is deliciously psychotic as Brandon, but Farley Granger is a bit of an oddball. I’ve seen a little of him, but he seems so over-matched each time I see him. His nervous energy seems to annoy me, even if it works well with the character of Phillip. Overall the ensemble works.

I think what’s remarkable about this film is that its surprisingly intellectual. In just the process of considering the film for this review, and thinking through which topics to discuss and explore, and the conclusions I have come to, have made me appreciate the film that much more. The actual experience of watching the film was enjoyable but it rarely if ever knocked me out. It worked as a slow burn that by the end appeared more than the sum of its parts. I would be curious to revisit the film to see if after contemplating the film at length after my initial viewing would bring new angles of experience to a repeat attempt. As it stands, my rating of the film has been enhanced by talking through it, and while that doesn’t happen very often, I do think it is a legitimate experience I’ve had before. And it happens both ways, with some films folding under closer examination. That is why I love writing about movies, as it helps me process them, and Rope is certainly a film that grew in my estimation to being a very fascinating, unique and indeed great film from Alfred Hitchcock.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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