Case in point: Rope. While not the first subject that springs to mind whenever Alfred Hitchcock's name comes up, Rope is among Hitchcock's best, most influential and most stimulating filmed experiments. Psycho and The Birds are often cited as some of the models of modern horror. Vertigo and Rear Window are the pure and brilliant suspense thrillers that have given rise to so many others. Action capers would be nothing like what they are today without the excellent North by Northwest and Notorious. Rope is generally appreciated by those who are already Hitchcock fans, or those who are film students, entranced by its top-notch technical achievements. Rope has no modern corollary. Instead, this feels more like the teacher whose students are too numerous to list.
It was Hume Cronyn who adapted the screenplay from the stage play Rope's End (originally known as "Rope") by Patrick Hamilton. Cronyn and Hamilton have contributed to a disturbing and frightening final product, unlike anything seen before it. However, it was Hitchcock who made Rope a masterpiece.
We begin with the grizzly rope strangulation of a young man named David Kentley (the top-billed Dick Hogan, whom we see only the once) at the hands of our main characters, John Dall's Brandon Shaw and Farley Granger's Phillip Morgan. Brandon and Phillip are two dapper, intellectual young bachelors who share an immaculately decorated, upscale apartment. Uh, yeah, in case the hints aren't strong enough... they're gay.
The scene is deeply disturbing all its own. However, the dead calm (and near glee) shown by Brandon is more chilling than the murder itself. Phillip, on the other hand, is as uncomfortable as the audience. It seems that the boys have killed David, a friend of theirs, simply for the intellectual experiment of it. The concept of two intellectual supermen being above the ideas of good and evil has come from their studies of Nietzsche, as taught by their seemingly amoral professor, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart). As nasty and sick as that is, what follows is even more disturbing. Immediately following the Murder, Brandon and Phillip host a dinner party, with guests including David's girlfriend, rival, and parents. Also present is their teacher, Rupert Cadell himself. The topic of conversation is just where David might be, and what could possibly be taking him so long to arrive. Little do they realize that they're eating the food served from the top of the very chest where David's body is interred.
The truly engrossing aspect of Rope is found in the drama Hitchcock gives us during the party scenes. Phillip is fine as the confident intellectual, but where he unravels, Brandon does not. Brandon's joyous celebration of his own ego and his toying with the emotions of David's family and friends is a horrific game to watch. Especially considering the conventions of the time, both Granger and Dall are excellent in their parts. Joan Chandler's Janet Walker adds a beautiful and self-confident class as a young lady uncertain of whether she should stay with her boyfriend David. Meanwhile, Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick) is all too ready to sweep in on David's territory should he and Janet split up. I think that decision's already made, kids.
It's Jimmy Stewart who truly works the thespian magic here. Jimmy's Rupert Cadell is a fascinating and complex character who goes miles beyond the initial impressions we get of him. Stewart is fascinating as the intellect-over-morality teacher, and we believe him as that, in spite of his usual "Aw Shucks" attitudes. He never becomes George Bailey here, but with every layer he gets more interesting and we believe Jimmy at every point.
This is more than just a cool story with great acting. The fact that all of this happens over the span of a dinner party and still works is simply amazing. Hitchcock has preserved the feel of the "Stage Play" with Rope, not only by preserving its (almost) single-location setting, but also with some incredibly, almost impossibly long camera takes. The camera moves with the actors, rarely allowing for a cut or an edit of any kind. Reportedly, throughout this film's entire 81 minute run time, only nine cuts exist. Occasionally (especially since those flattering imitators have followed in Hitchcock's footsteps so often) the cuts are easy to see from half-a-century later. More often than not, however, the cuts are either invisible, or the story is far too engrossing to notice them.
Sound is also an incredible aspect of Rope. The camera acts as a silent and unseen participant, essentially we, the audience, as a character. As the camera moves throughout the set it picks up important parts of some conversations, then pulls back, slowly, carefully to observe the reaction of the person watching, desperately trying to listen in. The audio fades from the vantage point of the conversationalists to the vantage point of the thwarted eavesdropper gradually and frustratingly. Exactly the right sound and sound continuity help to make this film grippingly realistic and thoroughly entertaining. The audio also wasn't picked up merely from the set itself. The set (built within a miniature city to emulate a skyline) was a part of Warner Brothers' Studio in Burbank, California. Some of the voices, vehicles and even the police sirens sound so real because they were picked up from microphones placed outside at the right place to maximize their perfection.
Based (somewhat loosely) on the real-life case of Leopold and Loeb, this isn't the first time Rope had been filmed, nor is it the only loose interpretation of its subject matter. Rope was filmed for the BBC in 1939, using only a few of the interesting directorial choices that Hitchcock used, and the real story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb was also the subject of the fictionalized work Compulsion (brought to film in 1959). It's interesting to note that Rope was banned in some cities, not for its disturbing violent or amoral content, but because of the suggested homosexuality of its two leads (Leopold and Loeb in real life were gay lovers). Now days, not only would this film not be banned, but the only protests it might gain would be from Gay and Lesbian groups about its leads being killers.
The psychology and suspense of Rope as well as its acting and technical superiority make it a true Five Star picture. This might not be for all tastes and after this many years there have been many, many long-cut scenes appearing in the likes of Touch of Evil, Goodfellas, The Player, Serenity and many more. Let me tell you, not a single one of these was "easy", and even then, only Rope managed this feat over and over through the entire runtime of the film. The fact that this was not only attempted, but was a complete success in 1948 is nothing short of brilliant. Well, enough of this, then... Time to go back to work... Not that I'm comfortable doing this crap... in fact... I think my tie is too tigggggggggsssssssssssslkkkvzzzzzzzzzzzzcccccccxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
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