“I’ve always wished for more artistic talent,” says Brandon Shaw. “Well, murder can be an art, too. The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create.”
Alfred Hitchcock may have been known as the master of suspense, but he was also known for his experimentation in his films. Perhaps the most experimental of all his films was Rope, a film in which a series of long takes were edited together to make it appear as though the film was shot in one continuous take. It also marked the first time that Hitchcock shot a film in Technicolor as well as his first collaboration with James Stewart. I got a chance to see a digitally restored version of Rope on the big screen as part of a double feature with I Confess this past March at Film Forum as part of their complete Hitchcock retrospective. It’s fascinating that Hitchcock believed that Rope was an experiment that didn’t work out because I enjoyed it very much (both the technical camerawork and the gripping performances).
1948’s Rope follows two young men (who believe themselves to be superior to others) who strangle a former classmate to death prior to a dinner party, leaving their guests to ponder on his whereabouts when he doesn’t show up. Hitchcock brought together an impressive cast for the film: James Stewart (as Rupert Cadell), John Dall (as Brandon Shaw), Farley Granger (as Phillip Morgan), Joan Chandler (as Janet Walker), Cedric Hardwicke (as Henry Kentley), Constance Collier (as Anita Atwater), Douglas Dick (as Kenneth Lawrence), Edith Evanson (as Mrs. Wilson), and Dick Hogan (as David Kentley). Stewart is a joy to watch as Brandon and Phillip’s former prep school housemaster who attends the dinner party and is the only one who starts to suspect that David (Brandon and Phillip’s former classmate) may have been the victim of foul play. Dall and Granger are just as good as Brandon and Phillip; Brandon manages to keep his composure during the party while Phillip struggles to maintain his during the party.
Arthur Laurents’ terrific screenplay was based on a treatment by Hume Cronyn as well as the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton (which in turn was inspired by the 1924 murder of a 14 year-old boy by college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb). It contains a strong homosexual subtext that actually managed to make it past the censors working for the Production Code. It also explores how ideas can be misinterpreted, exploited, and/or corrupted. Hitchcock manages to create a lot of suspense in this film not by withholding the identity of the killers but by taunting the audience with that information and then leaving everyone to wonder if the killers will actually get away with their crime. The cinematography by William V. Skall and Joseph Valentine was an incredible achievement, moving the camera around for those long, extended takes while ensuring that everyone hit their marks. The production design by Perry Ferguson was top-notch; all of the action is confined to one location (an apartment built on a soundstage) and the backgrounds that appear outside of the window were superb (changing as time goes on during the long takes). Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is a vastly underrated film that deserves more positive recognition and is certainly not the experimental failure that Hitchcock believed it to be. Do not miss out on a chance to see this film on the big screen.