Retro-View: Rope (1948)
Everything I know about film-making I learned from Alfred Hitchcock. Yet I rarely speak of him or his films here, despite the fact that when I became interested in the production of movies, I devoured all of his ouevre, read everything from Cahiers to Spoto to Truffaut, and broke down his films by examining his set-pieces or other unique visual moments that stood out. I also became entranced by the stunning cinematography of his greatest collaborator, cinematographer Robert Burks. At a recent screening of SORCERER, William Friedkin responded to a query that all you had to do to learn about film was study Hitchcock. He’s right.
So for the record, my three favorite Hitchcocks are in order: REAR WINDOW; NORTH BY NORTHWEST…and ROPE. Yes, I adore VERTIGO for its dark vision and PSYCHO for its artistic shock, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN for the brilliant Robert Walker, and the remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH for its editing elan, and even THE BIRDS for its sheer audacity, among others. Yet ROPE has always been a bit of the odd-film out, often written off as a gimmick due to Hitchcock’s idea of filming in real-time, with ten-minute long takes broken by clever editing (as befits Patrick Hamilton’s stage play). But ROPE was also Hitchcock’s first color film, and the first to star James Stewart. ROPE is also his most subversive film until PSYCHO given the barely-concealed homosexuality of the lead killers, loosely based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case, wherein the two lover/killers murdered for the “thrill.” John Dall stars as Brandon Shaw, the model of a smug Ivy League sociopath and his worried, weaker paramour, Phillip Morgan, the late Farley Granger in his second Hitchcock film after STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. The couple’s homosexuality is played close to the closet while Shaw’s ecstasy through the strangulation of his friend, David, is subtlety presented as post-coital, psycho-erotica.
The screenplay by Arthur Laurents and Hume Cronyn focuses on a dinner party for the now-departed David, his family and fiance, Janet Walker, and on the cat and mouse mind-games that result when the headmaster who inspired the pair’s Nietzschean attitude towards life and death, arrives and suspects foul play. The playing out of the evening’s action in an unbroken narrative adds great tension as Hitchcock’s meticulous camera glides among the shifting set, part voyeur and part public. The chest that holds the body acts as the morbid dinner table, further creating suspense for the killers and their unwitting guests. So if ever a film cried out to be directed in “one long take,” then ROPE certainly qualifies.
And as John Waters rightly pointed out in his brilliant bio, “Shock Value,” the glass encased apartment where all the action takes place is indeed the greatest set in motion picture history. In some ways, the locale is the primary character. Hitchcock’s German Expressionist influence can be seen in the wonderful slowly darkening skyline window that segues from late afternoon blue into a surreal orange filament over the macabre proceedings, an image worthy of Lang and Murnau except in glorious Technicolor.
Though this is clearly based on a play with its grandiose themes and speechifying, I’m a sucker for grandiose themes and speechifying. Therefore I accept the actors are pitched on a more theatrical level, the bonus being the dialogue and delivery is often sharp and witty. I particularly like the bitchy banter between Brandon and his ex, Janet (well played with self-pleased ardor by Joan Chandler.) I think John Dall’s Brandon Shaw is one of Hitchcock’s most memorable villains, and his constant smirking and condescencion just borders on camp (and I’m sure a Castro Theatre audience watches this film with apropos hoots or howls). “Good Americans usually die young on the battlefield, don’t they,” he says staring at the trunk that holds his friend’s body. What Dall expertly projects is a man infinitely pleased with himself; as if he’s performing for his own audience — or those few who could appreciate his superior intellect. Thus his sociopathic tact of inviting his brilliant headmaster to the soiree.
Even the dim, paranoid Phillip realizes Brandan is not as smart as he supposes by wanting this probing presence. Farley Granger is just right as Phillip, uncomfortable in the role his smug lover has decreed, but not weak enough that he won’t throw his moneyed weight around when need be. It’s clear that someone as insecure as Brendan needs a more insecure partner to bully. While it might appear a thankless task to descend into guilty hysterics, Granger has the right mix of privileged naivete and alcoholic swagger. As for the rest of the cast, Cedric Hardwicke stands out as David’s decent, worried father.
In fact, at first glance, their mild mannered mentor Rupert Cadell shares a similar superiority complex, though far more wry and nuanced than his students. James Stewart began his long fruitful career with Hitchcock in ROPE yet considers this his least favorite role since he felt miscast as an academic intellectual (Cary Grant was the first choice). I wholeheartedly disagree — this is easily one of my favorite Stewart performances. I totally buy him as a sly Faulkner-esque teacher transplanted to the East Coast, and that’s how Stewart plays Rupert. He loves to gently shock or deflate the party guests with a twinkle in his eye. His ivory tower facade crumbles as he begins to suspect Brendan and Phillip have perverted his ideas to the worst extreme. This is when Stewart shines and his growing fearful weariness is palatable; I LOVE his on-the-nose, explosive speech at the climax — if barely prodded, I can do a pretty mean impersonation.
Technically, ROPE is quite accomplished and Hitchcock’s roving camera (cinematography by William Vall and Joseph Valentine) is something to behold. Contrary to legend, there are actual cuts in the film outside the end of reel breaks. The penultimate one is extremely powerful, trained as your eye has become to the fluid camera. One can only marvel at the technical ingenuity required to dolly the giant 35mm cameras of 1948 through revolving walls. Yet Hitchcock was able to compose masterful frames with the lush lenses. The shot of James Stewart holding up the lid to the trunk, his stunned face halo’d by the city’s neon light is in my pantheon of great Hitchcock images.
So why is ROPE In my top tier of Hitchcock films? The director himself wrote it off as a failed experiment. It’s not just due to my perverse nature to single out cinematic fringe work; when I was studying his films, ROPE stood out for me not just because of the experimental style but the sexual subversions (considered far too shocking in its day) and dark satire of elitist, Darwinian philosophy. The script also plays with themes of class division, not only in the academic/intellectual realm as evidenced by Brendan’s Superman ideals, but the treatment of the housekeeper by the pompous aunt and others, who look pained to acknowledge her at all. The atmosphere of the film is quite evocative, instilling a pulp novel Manhattan cultural sensibility, highlighted by Rupert’s wistful lines to Brendan as he reluctantly prepares to leave the doomed party: “I almost wish I was going with you. It might be rather exciting. Driving at night always is, but driving with you and Philip now might have an additional element of…suspense.” If ROPE is too-often put on the backburner of Hitchcock’s works, at least one can appreciate this unique, experimental cinematic treatsie as a starting point for his next, most glorious 1950’s phase.