Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting The Alfred Hitchcock blogathon, and this is my entry dissecting one of Hitchcock’s most claustrophobic and intriguing films: “Rope” (1948). Even thought this film may not be as ambitious as Hitchcock’s later “Psycho” (1960), it is still suspenseful, tense, cerebral and belongs to one of my favourite cinematic “genres”: “one location” setting films. This “genre” was later used by Lumet (“Twelve Angry Men” (1957)), Polanski (“Repulsion” (1965)) and Mangold (“Identity” (2003)), among others, to a great result. And, this is because in such films what the audience is usually left with is the fascinating psychological “game” among characters of scheming, guessing, suspecting or simply going crazy, without any outside “distractions” being present. Hitchcock’s “Rope” is no different.
In this film, two friends, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) kill their third “inferior to them” friend, David, and hide his body in the living room chest. However, this is not enough for the egocentric and thrill-seeking Brandon, and the pair then invites David’s parents, his fiancée-to-be and another of their friends, Kenneth, to a party, where Brandon and Phillip then serve food to unsuspecting guests from the same chest where David’s body is hidden.“Rope” is the least favourite film of Alfred Hitchcock, but it has all the components of a great suspense film. It grips the audience from the very beginning, and it radiates the same morbid cleverness that will define Hitchcock’s films for decades to come.
In the opening sequence, we are presented with a dimly-lit room where we witness the killing of David by strangulation. The beginning is spooky and macabre, which contrasts nicely with the bright atmosphere of the film a few minutes after, when the shades of the room where David was killed are pulled aside. It is an airy, big room with breathtaking views, and it is unthinkable that something as grotesque as murder has happened here just moments before. This is part of Hitchcock’s genius: to play with contrasts, to make the audience anticipate and be constantly in awe. Here, we have two bright, educated men who is about to give a grand party with some champagne as an aperitif – what can be more remote than a cold-blooded murder?
Brandon and Phillip’s guests soon arrive to the party, and that is when the real “fun” begins. Brandon is not satisfied unless he keeps dropping references to their “deed” (the killing of David) here and there, even though these references are disguised and seems innocuous. Moreover, the pair’s “perfect” murder still leaves vital clues, such as the rope used by Phillip to murder David. That rope is hanging just out of the chest with the dead body, what if someone sees it? Brandon is unconcerned though: it is just a rope, an ordinary home object, belonging to a kitchen drawer, why even hide it? As the evening progresses, more guests arrive, such as the girlfriend of David, Janet, who becomes increasingly concerned by David’s absence, and who cannot understand why Brandon now says that Kenneth has better chances with her than David. Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) also comes. Rupert was a schoolteacher to the trio of friends, and he is the one who instilled in his young students the philosophy of the superiority of some men over others, and the idea that murder may be wholly justifiable (and not only in self-defence or as a punishment). Rupert is probably the one who knows Brandon and Phillip best, and he is the one who begins to suspect that something sinister explains Brandon and Phillip’s strange behaviour that evening. At this point, the film becomes a deliciously macabre game of “do you smell murder or not?” or “catch me if you can!” with Brandon getting bolder in his general assertions related to murder and strangulation, Phillip getting more scared at the prospect of being caught, and Rupert becoming more and more suspicious of the friends’ behaviour. What has started as a quiet, friendly gathering turns into a very peculiar party attended by the film audience who is constantly kept intrigued on the question whether the two friends would slip up completely and let their shocking game be known to all.
Now, the film is based on a play, and does not have much choice but to be theatrical in its presentation. Even so, Hitchcock manages to invent and surprise with his clever camera-work and attention to detail. Sometimes, the camera moves as though it is another character in the film, and does not necessarily show the main characters engaged in the discussion. Instead, as the party dialogue going on, the camera catches a secondary character in another room, who is unwittingly getting closer and closer to finding the cadaver. In this case, it is Mrs. Wilson, who is tidying up and picking up the books. Moreover, despite its single location and straightforward plot, the film is never dull. Even the dialogue sequences are interesting because, during them, the characters make reference to something which has an impact on the murderous pair. For example, at first, during the party, Rupert blabs about how nice it would be for everyone to have a “cut a throat” week or a “strangulation day”, where people could just vent their feelings and kill others once in a while. This dialogue makes Brandon less cautious and more confident in what the pair has done. Also, there is a dialogue on Phillip’s expertise in strangling chickens, which he vehemently denies. But, the crown lines are probably the ones made by one of the party guests, Mrs Atwater. She refers to Phillip’s hands and says that they will bring him great fame. Of course, she refers to his piano abilities, but, for Phillip, that could have only one meaning – he would get notorious for the murder he had committed earlier that day. Mrs Atwater also has the misfortune to mistake Kenneth for David, and this throws off Phillip completely.
The review will never be complete if it does not mention that duo of characters which is Brandon and Phillip. Aside from their implicit homosexual relationship (many film critics undoubtedly launched their careers exploring this), their partnership is also the one to intrigue and provoke. Brandon is the master-mind of their “perfect” murder. He is a domineering, manipulative and controlling psychopath who hides under everyday charm. He is so self-assured and confident of his superiority that it costs him nothing to kill a man and hide his body in plain sight, taking morbid pleasure merrily engaging with the dead man’s loved ones over his corpse. Bandon says: “We killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing”. However, Phillip is not so sure anymore. He is the weaker and more humane of the two, but also the executioner of David, because Brandon will not dirty his pristine hands by physically committing murder. The interaction of Phillip and Brandon is interesting, because, as the party progresses, Phillip tries to rebel against Brandon, and the torment that Phillip is going through is definitely felt.
Perhaps, Hitchcock discloses too many things in the beginning and does not provide enough food for thought when the film credits roll, but “Rope” redeems itself by what it ultimately suggests and implies. Hitchcock turned the usual “who dunnit?” story on its head by revealing the culprits and let everyone be amazed at the sheer business-like approach to the deed. Suddenly, the murder is right in front of our noses and is committed by people not dissimilar to us. This same technique will later be used to shape such characters as Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” (2000). At the end of “Rope”, there is an unnecessarily lecturing on the rights and wrongs, but the film still manages to culminate in style with the room in the film being illuminated by a flashing light signalling urgency and resolve.
It is clear that “Rope” is unjustly underseen and underrated. It may not be the best of Hitchcock’s movies, but the film’s fascinating, morbid and unbelievable premise is hard to shake off and it still fuels the imagination of many. The film is also very well-done and acted. Whatever Hitchcock might have thought, “Rope” has succeeded in presenting a rather elaborate and fascinating series of events shot in just one room. The gimmicky, theatrical and even overly-lecturing elements of the film are easily overlooked, especially since they are also part of that testament demonstrating the director’s unique and brave approach to cinematography. 8/10