From One End to the Other: Rope



During Alfred Hitchcock’s long career, he often experimented with cinema and stretched the boundaries of the thriller genre, from innovative sets in movies like Lifeboat, to elevating B-movie production values in Psycho. Hitchcock tried to do something new with every film he made. No film demonstrates as much experimentation as Rope, one of his less-famous pictures about two Leopold and Loeb types who kill someone just to see if they can get away with it. From the storyline to the method of filming and cinematography, Hitchcock took big chances with Rope, a movie that marks a significant shift between his early films and the ones that have come to define his career (The Birds, Vertigo, Marnie, Psycho). Despite the fact that it was not a box office success, I’d argue that Rope is an example of everything Hitchcock found intriguing about cinema, and is one of the most significant films in his development from director to auteur.

Rope takes place entirely in the Manhattan apartment of Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan. They are former prep school buddies, current lovers, and 1%-ers who own a fabulous flat full of modern art and a god’s-eye view of New York City. This is appropriate, since they’ve taken on the role of gods, or at the very least of Nietzsche’s “superbeings,” by killing a friend for the sole purpose of proving they can. The leader of the duo, Brandon, has little doubt they will get away with the crime, and has planned a “going away” party for David to which he’s invited David’s fiancé, her lover, David’s family, and their old school master, Rupert Cadell. Brandon is particularly anxious for Cadell to attend, as his nihilistic philosophy inspired Brandon to kill, and he wants to show off his success.

Sounds cynical, no? Yet Rope is very clearly anti-cynicism, a critique on Nietzsche’s ideas of superiority with WWII overtones. Although the subject matter is extremely cynical, it’s not a depressing or disheartening movie because Hitchcock limits the events to the world of the film, a self-contained and idealized space. Even though this was Hitchcock’s first color film, he kept the colors deliberately muted, the only brilliant display of color occurring in the backdrop outside the window as the sun sets over the cyclorama city. One might wonder, viewing Rope, if Hitchcock was afraid of color, but I think he was more afraid of the realism color would imply. He did similar things in The Trouble with Harry and Dial M for Murder. The audience can go to sleep after watching Rope, knowing the events that happened in the film are safely contained in fiction.

Also, as with many Hitchcock films, there’s a grim humor to the tale. David’s party has the distinct feeling of a wake, with all the characters telling us about him and what sort of person he was, while he lies—unbeknownst to them—in a makeshift coffin piled high with food and punch. Since the camera is placed behind the chest/coffin, it’s usually in the periphery of the frame, constantly reminding us of the irony of hosting a party for a dead man.

Rope was based off a play by the same name, which was based on the Leopold and Loeb case, and while not the only film Hitchcock made after a play, it is the one that feels most play-like. The reason for this is also the thing that makes it interesting: Hitchcock (the man who wrote the book on how to edit a film to tell a story) shot it in real time. Hitchcock had experimented with this technique before in films like The Lady Vanishes, as had other directors, but all those movies had cuts and periods of missing time or sped-up time. Rope takes place entirely in real time, through a series of long takes, basically filming until the reel runs out, between four and ten minutes a take. This is a very long shot. The average shot is five to fifteen seconds; a two-hour film can have over a thousand separate takes. Rope has ten. Because of this, the change between reels can feel awkward. When the camera zooms into someone’s jacket and then out for no reason, it’s because they needed a transition scene to change the film reel.

In later years, Hitchcock was dismissive of Rope, calling it a “stunt.” But if it was nothing but a stunt, why’d he also direct his next movie entirely in real time as well? Perhaps Hitchcock saw real-time techniques as an egotistical indulgence that contributed to the films’ disappointing returns. Yet in Rope at least, the knowledge of the action taking place in real time heightens the suspense.

The true weakness of Rope is actually Jimmy Stewart. This is definitely not one of his better performances, although that’s not entirely his fault; his just wasn’t a good fit for the role of Cadell. Meant to play an elitist pedophile, Stewart’s too much of an aw-shucks boy scout to pull it off convincingly. When he can’t deflect the double-entendres hinting at his relationship with Brandon and Phillip at the end, he simply reverts to over-acting.

Even with that, however, Rope remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most interesting and innovative films. It had big ideas about cynicism and responsibility, interesting characters, and unusual cinematography. It definitely deserves to be rediscovered by audiences and critics alike! ■



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