FILM: The Rope
CAST: John Dall, Farley Granger, James Stewart, Edith Evanson, Douglas Dick, Joan Chandler…
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
“Rope,” Alfred Hitchcock’s first colour film, turns Chicago’s infamous old Leopold- Loeb murder case into mystery-drawing-room comedy. Rope, was adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s stage play Rope’s End by no less than Hume Cronyn.
Arthur Laurents’ script, adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play, “Rope’s End,” is full of smart lines and hollow speeches. ‘What would you say to some champagne’ Brandon asks one of his guests at the post-murder cocktail party he’s giving. ‘Hello, champagne,’ says the guest. Actor Hume Cronyn and ace scripter Ben Hecht are also credited as writers.
The plot, concerning two implicitly homosexual college chums, played by Farley Granger and John Dall, places a fascinating challenge upon the central characters themselves. Their heads filled with Nietzschean philosophy by their kindly professor James Stewart, Granger and Dall kill a third friend just for the thrill of it. The boys hide the body in an antique chest in the middle of their lavish upstate New York apartment, and proceed to host a dinner party inviting the victim’s family, friends and fiancee (Joan Chandler), as well as their intellectual role-model Stewart in the victim’s honour – all without any of them knowing his tragic fate. A maid ignorant of the horrifying deed arrives soon after the murder and prepares a feast, serving it all as per the directions of her bosses on the very piece of furniture that houses the corpse. As the guests wander obliviously around the sealed chest, the killers make snippy, indirect comments about their deed–never going so far as to reveal the existence of the body nor their involvement in the murder. Yet through the cleverly designed dialogues, there are enormous clues provided to keep the inquisitive audience satisfied. For example the scene in which the victim’s fiancée and her former lover sympathize over their bond for the missing guest, an elusive Brandon even hints that he is “out of the way.”
In Rope, Hitchcock attempted the daunting technical challenge of filming the entire picture in one long, seemingly uninterrupted take. Perhaps Hitchcock trying to establish a new trend in avant-garde film making by treating his film as a cinematic equivalent to the play, which takes place in the actual length of time of the story. At that filmic era where in, the length of stock a camera could contain was just about 10 minutes, Hitchcock’s passion and determination to shoot it in what appears to be one long, continuous ‘take,’ without cutaways or any other breaks in the action to be admired – though in fact there are disguised break every 10 minutes. It is in fact fascinating and admirable to learn that these breaks are achieved by having the camera panning across someone’s back, during which dark close-ups the film reel is changed. Indeed Hitchcock’s obsession to tell a story without the usual methods of montage, or cutting from shot to shot, resulted in a film of unusual technical facility, whose style and mood suited its subject matter. Hitchcock was often quoted having told Truffaut that the film was a “stunt,” and that “I really don’t know how I came to indulge in ‘Rope.” But clearly, the film is more than a stunt; it’s an ambitious experiment.
One may also feel that the ultra long takes deprived Hitchcock of the main weapons in his cinematic armoury – manipulative editing and control of the audience’s viewpoint. But Rope has got many other impressive ways as well. The eight ten-minute takes had to be painstakingly choreographed, with sets being mounted on castors so they could be silently moved in and out of the way as required. Also noteworthy is the skyline `outside’ the apartment, as night falls and lights go on in the buildings opposite. And of course when commenting on the set one can’t but feel absolutely breath taking to even think that he managed it all in a plain studio stage, having roll away screens and ample strength of crew to vigilantly shift the furniture’s and props according to the requirement of each moment of the film and the technicians to keep the sound and the lighting accurately fit and fixed at every moment as the camera moved. Hitchcock seems to be font of working in tough, confined spaces. “Rope’ shows indeed a cinema master at work. The camera too would have been a marvel to watch as it swoops and swirls around the set, with close-ups, medium, and long shots.
Socially speaking the film was made when any suggestion of homosexuality was taboo. Yet again ‘Rope’ is explicit without actually committing any offenses the Production Code could object to. Brandon, who dominates his homosexual lover, Philip, strangles David with ordinary clothesline. David’s only crime seems to be that he’s ‘ordinary,’ that is engaged to be married. It’s OK to be “normal” but not “ordinary,” because “ordinary” means being boring and average. I must admit that the display of aversion to being “ordinary” provoked and triggered my philosophical mind at some point of time, to the extent that I wanted to be a part of the film to argue against. In another word Hitchcock managed to bring out a morally sensitive and socially debatable theme which could be studied and debated upon. However he also made sure that he not only provides you with a problem to raise the action and emotions but also a resolution to show down. For example, there is a speech at the end in which the murderers’ prep-school teacher, Rupert Cadell, who brought up his pupils on Nietzsche’s and Darwin’s superman theories, recants and admits that his theorizing has been false. Hence, Hitchcock cleverly manages to voice against the so called aversion to being “ordinary” and the schism
‘Rope’ isn’t merely a terrific movie; it is also a benchmark for which the intricate nature of the killer’s mind can be simplified into immense clarity. The two killers inevitably come to fundamental disagreements about the finality of the act; Phillip, unnerved and regretful for what has just transpired, finds it incredibly terrifying to hide David’s body in a cabinet very near to where a dinner party will be celebrating. Brandon, consistently calm and collected, experiences great stimulation and yet displays a confidence and power over it that plays like ecstasy (he even lights up a cigarette as a celebratory gesture after the deed is done). The discord between their reactions is used strategically to further the plot’s underlying tension – will Phillip’s nervousness make him loose the ground in a room full of suspicious observers, or will Brandon’s mask of attentiveness be strong enough to keep secrets from being revealed?
The two leads are instrumental in achieving this effect. John Dall, approaches the character from a place of superior satisfaction that gives the performance an almost erotic quality, while Farley Granger, balances silence with desperation as the paranoid partner in crime like it were second nature. Adding weight to the authenticity of the characterizations is James Stewart as Rupert Cadell, a former professor whose eccentric philosophy creates the grim scenario for Philip and Brandon to act on (while in turn providing him with an opportunity at redemption in the final minutes), he is modest and precise with the role. However, in “Rope,” Hitchcock is less concerned with sharp characterization and moral dilemmas than with describing how a seemingly “perfect” crime goes wrong.
Nevertheless, beginning with that inevitable shock of a sudden slaying and ending with a powerful realization on the thought process of intellectuals with fearless impulses, Rope remains worth seeing, for it is different from film in general and even from the rest of the popular works as well. There is a great stroke of craftsmanship at work throughout the film. The film creates an elaborate illusion that there is no cutaway or break from the action, as if to indicate a quiet observer is present in the room for the whole duration of the story instead of a mere movie camera. And moreover this film can be a great establishment concerning the conflict between morality and intellectuality and it can take the audience in to the realm of great thinking and debates. YES IT IS A MUST WATCH and REWATCHABLE!