Rope is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most daring and macabre films. It is best remembered today as the experimental film seemingly shot all in one take.
It wasn’t well received upon release and is considered by many fans and critics to be a weaker Hitchcock film, a view I’ve never gone along with. Although I do concede that many of the actors deliver very theatrical performances and it feels as though you’re watching a live stage play at times rather than a film.
I consider Rope to be one of Hitch’s darkest and most interesting films, as well as being a brilliant character study. The film is also a great example of how to slowly build suspense and tension. I also love the hilarious nods to other Hitchcock actors and films in the scene where Mrs. Atwater, Janet and Rupert, discuss films and actors they adore but can’t remember the names of.
The film is based upon the 1929 British play of the same name(renamed Rope’s End when the play was performed over in America), which was written by Patrick Hamilton. Actor and writer Hume Cronyn was invited by Hitch to work with him on putting together the treatment for a screen adaptation of Hamilton’s play. Once the treatment was complete, playwright Arthur Laurents was then hired to write the screenplay.
Rope was a film of firsts. It was produced by Hitch and Sidney Bernstein and was the first feature film to come from their newly formed production company Transatlantic Pictures. Rope would also become the first of Hitch’s films to be shot in colour
Making the film was a complicated process. Rope was shot in real time with a very small number of edits done in a way to make the film seem as if it was actually shot in one continuous take. Hitch shot the film a reel at a time, which gave him 10 minute segments of film shot all in one take, which he could then edit together with other reels later to give the impression that all the footage was uninterrupted. Of course it’s more apparent to audiences today where the edits are, but I don’t think it takes anything away from the film that we notice those zooms into peoples backs or objects. It was an interesting experiment and the unbroken takes are impressive.
During filming parts of the set, along with bits of furniture and props, were moved around during takes in order to make room for the massive Technicolor cameras to be able to move around following the actors, and they were then put back in the correct position when required to be back in shot again. In addition to having to get used to the unbroken takes required on the film, my hat goes off to the actors who also had to stay in character and manage to ignore all of what was going on around them as they performed their scenes.
The film mostly takes place in one room of an apartment set. There is a cyclorama of the New York skyline outside the apartment window. This skyline is a highlight of the film, and we see it begin to slowly change as the afternoon light grows dimmer and begins to transition into the darkness of evening. As night falls, many of the windows in the other buildings begin to light up, and the skyline eventually becomes ablaze with neon light. It’s really remarkable to look at, even if the clouds do look rather fake.
One of the most interesting things about this film is how it strongly implies that Brandon and Philip are a couple.It’s also hinted that Rupert Cadell may have possibly once been in a relationship with Brandon. This element of the film caused the film censors to clutch their pearls and demand that parts of the dialogue be omitted because it made it abundantly clear that Philip and Brandon were gay. Despite the changes to the script it is obvious that these men are a couple.
Philip and Brandon. Screenshots by me.
It is a credit to both John and Farley that the relationship between their characters is so strongly evident, despite us never seeing them share a kiss, or verbally declare their desire for one another. Interestingly Farley was himself gay and had had a relationship with the film’s screenwriter, Arthur Laurents.
It’s strange to me how what is in the film as it stands got past the censor at all, because the characters sexuality is staring us right in the face. For example, notice Brandon and Philip’s sexually charged behaviour and body language after they kill David and then share a cigarette and a drink. I also always get a good laugh at the very suggestive way in which Brandon and Philip handle that bottle of champagne as well.
Both the play and the film are inspired by the real life Leopold and Loeb case, which saw nineteen year old Nathan Leopold and eighteen year old Richard Loeb, murder fourteen year old Bobby Franks in 1924. They murdered the boy in order to prove their supposed superior intellects and get away with murder. The film Compulsion(1959) is directly based upon this case.
Rope begins with a close up of David Kentley(Dick Hogan)being strangled to death by his friends Brandon Shaw(John Dall)and Phillip Morgan(Farley Granger). The murder takes place in Brandon and Philip’s apartment. We later learn the pair have planned and committed this murder in order to prove their supposed superior intellects by committing the “perfect murder” of someone they consider to be a lesser being.
The sunny opening of the film soon gives way to darkness and horror. Screenshots by me.
This opening scene of murder is not only shocking and very much in your face, but it also brings to mind this Joseph Cotton speech from Shadow Of A Doubt: “The world is a foul sty. Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine?” The opening titles of Rope run over footage of a sunny and idyllic looking residential street where everything seems normal and pleasant. Then the camera slowly pans up the side of a building and into the window of an apartment. Unbeknown to everyone else in the street something horrific is taking place in there.
After killing David, Brandon and Philip then place his body in a big antique chest. A few hours after the murder they go ahead and host a prearranged party at their shared apartment, a party to which David’s father(Cedric Hardwicke); David’s fiance, Janet(Joan Chandler); David’s aunt, Mrs. Atwater(Constance Collier); and mutual friend Kenneth Lawrence(Douglas Dick) have all been invited.David was supposed to attend the party too, so when he doesn’t arrive the others start to worry.
Brandon and Philip lay out a delicious buffet on top of the very same chest in which David’s body lies. This is a sick joke dreamt up by Brandon to ensure the loved ones of the dead man will in effect be collecting food off of his corpse.Also invited to the party is Brandon and Philip’s friend/mentor/former teacher, Rupert Cadell(James Stewart).
Rupert knows the pair very well and can read them like books. As the night wears on and there is no sign of David, Rupert starts to become convinced that something is not right.Rupert becomes more convinced of this after Philip grows more and more on edge and nervous as the night goes on. When the other guests leave to go and be with David’s mother and wait for news of him, Rupert sets about uncovering the dark secret his friends are hiding.
Philip is freaking out because some part of him feels remorse for what he has been a part of. He is also afraid of getting found out and is shocked at how callous and casual Brandon is behaving. What’s worth noting is that it was Philip who actually strangled David, while Brandon held David in place and had the overall plan for his murder and for the disposal of his body. Philip is easily controlled and dominated by Brandon and Philip’s resentment of this fact also plays into his emotional unravelling at the party. It is Philip’s emotional state that really indicates to Rupert that something is going on.
Later in the film Rupert seems disgusted when he learns how his own words have so influenced Brandon, and he fully disowns what he has said before and is appalled at what Brandon and Philip have done. Some viewers have said they don’t buy that complete change of attitude and heart and that it seems out of character for him to disown what he said he was serious about, but they obviously think Rupert was always as serious as Brandon was about murder whereas I think it’s clear that just isn’t the case at all.
Earlier at the party Rupert greatly amused David’s aunt, Janet and Kenneth, with his funny musings about using murder to solve problems such as getting theatre tickets or booking tables at top restaurants. The conversation quickly takes a darker turn and Mr. Kentley grows distressed by this flippant conservation and has a go at Brandon who seems to really approve of the idea of casual murder whenever someone feels like it. When Mr. Kentley asks him “who decides who is inferior, and therefore a suitable victim for murder?”, Brandon coldly replies “the few who are privileged to commit murder. The few are those men of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they are above the traditional moral concepts.” It’s chilling to listen to.
Although Rupert claims to be serious in what he’s saying when questioned by some of the guests, his tone and the ridiculous scenarios he describes clearly prove that the opposite is true. I think he came up with those views simply as an amusing talking point. If he was truly a psychopath with no regard for human life, like Brandon is, wouldn’t his described scenarios be darker? Wouldn’t he go out and commit murder to put his thoughts into practice? Wouldn’t he help Brandon and Philip get away with their crime rather than turning them in?
It seems to me that Brandon was born with a twisted mind and read too much into what Rupert said and went and built his life around those words and saw himself as being more important than others. Of course Rupert was appalled by that and shocked that his words and silliness clearly had such an impact on Brandon’s psyche. All of this just goes to show the power that words can have, sometimes without the speaker or writer even realising it.
A few shots from the film. Screenshots by me.
Farley Granger and John Dall are both superb. Farley captures Philip’s easily led personality and his growing distress and rage perfectly. John is calm and collected and perfectly captures Brandon’s coldness and smugness.I think John Dall steals the film and he makes Brandon one of the most effective and memorable of the Hitchcock villains. I especially love how he subtly conveys Brandon becoming over excited,almost like a child desperate for praise from a parent, once Rupert arrives at the party.
Constance Collier is hilarious as Mrs. Atwater and steals all the scenes she’s in. Cedric Hardwicke is heartbreaking as the worried father desperate to find out where his son is. Edith Evanson is great as Philip and Brandon’s long suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson, I especially love her scenes with James Stewart.
I don’t think that Joan Chandler and Douglas Dick really have as much to do as the rest of the cast, but they try their best with the smaller roles they have and make an impression. I do like their subplot of being brought together again by Brandon’s machinations.
Some think James Stewart is miscast as Rupert. While someone like James Mason or Claude Rains would perhaps have been more suited to the role, I think there would be a real danger of them playing Rupert with an air of malevolence which would have made the character too much of a villain. I like that James Stewart makes the character naive in that he doesn’t think what others could read into what he says. While it’s not one of his best performances I do like him in the role.
While the film does have its weak spots, it really is so much better than the reputation it has received over the years. I also disagree that us knowing Brandon and Philip are killers and seeing what they do with their victims body, takes away any suspense in the film. The suspense lies not in whether or not the pair have killed, but whether or not they will give themselves away to Rupert through their behaviour, or if the body will be found if their housekeeper opens the chest when clearing away the buffet. I love how the tension and suspense builds very slowly in this one.
Rope is an underrated gem from the master of suspense and the macabre. Don’t forget to RSVP your invitations to Brandon and Philip’s party. See you at the Hitchcock blogathon next weekend.