[box cover]

Rope

Universal Home Video

Starring James Stewart, John Dall, and Farley Granger

Written by Arthur Laurents,
from the play Rope's End by Patrick Hamilton
Adapted by Hume Cronyn

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


"I undertook Rope as a stunt; that's the only way I can describe it." — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 "thrill kill" drama Rope is a modestly successful experiment in cinema technique and storytelling. By its nature Rope is one of the screen's best records of a time when actors had to know how to act before the cameras rolled. Like performers on a stage (which they all had been), everyone you see in Rope had to dig into and memorize pages of script, plus sustain characterization without the benefit of stopping the camera after every five- to ten-second "take."

That's because Rope is famously shot in only nine takes, each approximately eight to nine minutes long, the time it took to use up a camera's film magazine. We witness the entire story played out uninterrupted in real time, the camera floating as if we're in the room, ghost-like, with the murderers, their unsuspecting houseguests, and the body in the box. What editing there is occurs when the change from one film magazine to another is disguised (rather clumsily sometimes, granted) by having the camera zoom in, say, on the back of someone's dark jacket. Zoom in, black, cut, zoom out away from jacket and continue until the next change minutes later. So like the camera movements, every actor had to be fastidiously choreographed and held to the task of delivering every take in one long, smooth, unbroken flow. There are few other screen achievements that make you so aware of professionals having to work for a living.

Rope's use of continuous takes decades after film editing had become a complex artform reminds us of what a daring stylist Hitchcock was. As an exercise, Rope offers a study in the art of staging actors in a space coordinated with a camera. Once Hitchcock choreographed his actors and positioned his camera in that tight set, he eliminated the post-production visual and rhythmic options usually provided by editing. As the story builds, he leads our eyes to what he considers important through composition, actor position, and camera motion.

If nothing else, Rope reminds us of what a fine actor of compelling presence Hitchcock had in Jimmy Stewart, who was much more that just a "movie star."

"We killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing." — Brandon

Within the first 60 seconds of Rope, we witness the strangulation murder that is the centerpiece of the story. In a high-rise Manhattan apartment, two wealthy prep-school pals use a rope to kill David, one of their peers. Why? Simply for the "experiment" of committing the "immaculate murder." Brandon (John Dall) is an effete elitist. He justifies their act with classist notions of his right to do away with "inferior beings" who "merely occupy space." He declares, "Good and evil, right and wrong were invented for the ordinary average man, the inferior man, because he needs them.... Of course, he was a Harvard graduate. That might be grounds for justifiable homicide."

Phillip (Farley Granger), a concert pianist, is in Brandon's thrall. The sensitive one, his nervousness and growing sense of guilt over what he participated in threaten to give the crime away. That danger of being revealed is — for us as well as for Brandon — part of the thrill, and the danger couldn't be higher than at the dinner party the lads throw for the victim's fiancé and parents. Brandon even has the cheek to move the candelabra and dinner buffet from the dining room to the top of the trunk where they've stashed the body.

Also invited is their college professor, Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart). The evening progresses over casual teacher-student banter on the moral concepts of good and evil, the positive social value of murder, and other "theoretical" Nietzchean precepts. "Murder is an art," Cadell intones, "and as such the privilege of committing it should be reserved for those few who are really superior individuals." Hitchcock's detective-equivalent, Cadell picks up clues from what the young men say and do, and, ever more suspicious, begins to piece together what has become of the missing David. Mortified that his students have perverted his musings on social morality, therefore making him an indirect contributor to David's demise, Cadell sees to it that Brandon and Phillip are punished according to society's rules of justice, not by Brandon's.

Inspired by the real-life Leopold-and-Loeb murder case, Rope works as both an intellectual puzzle and as a nail-biter suspense thriller, albeit of the brainy "locked room/perfect murder" short fiction variety you might find in any random issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Fans of, say, Agatha Christie's detectives or Nero Wolfe are already familiar with the nuts and bolts of this type of story. The pacing is deliberate and unhurried. There are no explosions, fist fights, or spilled blood. Almost all the action arrives in the form of someone walking across the room. David's corpse is a presence only in that we are in on the secret of what's stuffing the trunk placed centerstage. There are gunshots, but not used in a way you might expect.

Rope's origins as a stage play are plain and no attempt was made to hide them. This is one of the few cases where a stage-bound pedigree works to enhance the experience — that is, it works if you're up to suspending any difficulty you might have with a story confined to a single set and unfolding around us as if we are present on stage during a nightly performance. Hitchcock pulls us almost physically into the set and story. Because Rope moves forward without cuts or other interruptions over 81 minutes, the tick-tick-tick of our mental clock tightens the screws like the rope around David's throat. We know that the murderers won't get away with it, so the suspense comes from being there to witness Brandon's audacious cockiness and Cadell's picking up the subtle clues, driving inexorably toward the required confrontation, revelation, and comeuppance.

"By what right do you dare to say that there's a superior few to which you belong?" — Cadell

Rope was the first time Hitchcock gave a starring role to Stewart, certainly one of Hollywood's "superior few." Their working relationship later flowered into two of Hitchcock's masterpieces, Vertigo and Rear Window. His solid performance is the hub on which the movie turns, and the only criticism that can come from it is the fact that Dall and Granger suffer by any comparison to him.

The second-tier cast is worth noting as well. Sir Cedric Hardwicke's Mr. Kentley, David's father, provides disapproving balance to Brandon and Cadell's morbid coffee talk. Joan Chandler is fine as Janet Walker, who's eating food served atop her fiancé's coffin. And Constance Collier is a hoot as the comic-relief socialite, Mrs. Atwater, with whom Cadell verbally sports.

For a story almost entirely driven by dialogue, you need a script that's up to the task. The dialogue is witty and engaging, full of bone-dry humor and punning double-meanings ("these hands will bring you great fame," Mrs. Atwater says to pianist/strangler Phillip). The story is forced to be simply told, and the clues Cadell detects are natural enough to avoid the trap of writer's contrivance.

"Naturally, we went to a lot of trouble to achieve this..." — A.H.

Rope is also memorable from a purely technical angle. In fact, its central gimmick created its own new array of technical hurdles:

"Two young homosexuals strangle a college friend just for the thrill of it..." — Hitchcock/Truffaut, by François Truffaut

Much hash has been made over the notion that Brandon and Phillip are gay, presumably lovers. Nowhere in the script or the action is their being gay explicitly stated. Well, they are rather fey and effeminate, and they do occupy each other's personal space with unusual closeness, and in 1948 that could brand one as stereotypically "fruity." There are talks about long vacation trips to Brandon's mother's farm in Connecticut, trips that once included Cadell. On the other hand, Brandon clearly had a prior close relationship with Janet Walker.

So, are Brandon and Phillip gay? And does it matter? Remember that 1948 was a time when homosexuality was socially feared and condemned much more than it is today. It was officially considered a "sickness." "Deviant" behavior of all sorts was thought to be tightly interwoven in if-then causality, and the stereotype of the sociopathic gay/lesbian is one of those sad old Hollywood clichés. There's the implication that Brandon and Phillip are criminal sociopaths largely because they're homosexual. That has the potential to taint Rope with an uncomfortable anachronistic subtext.

Is there anything on this new DVD that addresses the matter? In the fine making-of documentary, Rope Unleashed, screenwriter Arthur Laurents declares that Rope "is obviously about homosexuals. The word is never mentioned, not by Hitch, not by Warner's where it was filmed. It was referred to as 'it.' They were going to do a picture about 'it,' the actors were 'it.'" Even Stewart's character was originally intended to be homosexual, and Cadell had had an affair with one of the students.

The homosexual content was no secret. Cary Grant had turned down the role of Cadell, and Montgomery Cliff the role of one of the boys, because neither star wanted to be identified as "it." The characters' sexuality appealed to Hitchcock, who would not have been as interested in them if they'd been only murderers or only homosexual. It was the confluence of the two that attracted him. But production codes of the time insisted that anything smacking of overt homosexuality be struck from the script, and Jimmy Stewart "never had an affair with anyone; he was just a Boy Scout." So by the end result, Laurents says, Rope was "curiously off-focus and didn't have the sexual center that it should have."

Certainly plenty of people in 1948 were willing to see some sort of taboo "sexual center" even if it had been drained out to near nothing. Rope's box office success was much higher in Europe than in the more puritanic U.S., where it was censored in some regions. To many at the time, Rope's homosexual content, whether it was there or not, was visible and too close to the surface for contemporary sensibilities.

Subtext and symbolism are most often in the eye of the beholder. It's no great stretch to see Rope as being "about" a secret, illicit love affair, one that would have horrified other characters in the story — and therefore contemporary audiences — almost as much as the murder. The body's in the trunk and the sex is in the closet, yet both are hidden in plain sight.

What is unquestionably played up is the power relationship between Brandon and Phillip. Brandon is the controlling, aggressive power-player to Phillip's weaker, submissive role. Whether their dom/sub relationship extends beyond psychological manipulation is, like the rest of it, left up to us in the audience. (Of course, any film-wonk chin-stroking may have been trumped by my home's resident 15-year-old. He walked in on Rope during the first quarter, got hooked, and by the third reel said, "That Phillip guy is Brandon's bitch, isn't he?" Ah, the innocent wisdom of youth.)

"When I look back, I realize that it was quite nonsensical because I was breaking with my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage for the visual narration of a story." — A.H.

Years after he made Rope Hitchcock disparaged the exercise, favoring the importance of editing techniques — developed since the days of D.W. Griffith — in manipulating time and information and rhythm. "No doubt about it," he said, "films must be cut. As an experiment, Rope may be forgiven."

Rope deserves more than to be offhandedly "forgiven," even by the master himself. It works as a taut piece of suspense filmmaking. While small in scale and scope, it remains more successfully "Hitchcockian" than several much bigger films he created in his later years. Now that we're able to view it as one piece of a massive body of work, Rope serves as a fine before-dinner brandy preparing the way for the full meals of Rear Window or North By Northwest that were to come.

Universal's "Hitchcock Collection" DVD

Of all the DVDs in this new series, Rope is the one that visually fares the worst. Granted, it's an improvement over previous versions, but the original master was plainly in distressed shape compared to other "Hitchcock Collection" entries. Scratches and flecks are numerous, and early on the blue hues in particular fade and wash out to distraction. As Rope continues, these problems subside, but I was surprised to see that the master negative had deteriorated so strikingly.

Otherwise the colors are strong and the definition is clear, most noticably in the last quarter as night falls and Manhattan is lit by sunset and twilight. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio track is clear, clean, and solid, if undistinguished.

The highlight of the supplements is the new documentary produced by Hitchcock historian Laurent Bouzereau. Rope Unleashed is one of the best making-of featurettes in the series. Hume Cronyn, Arthur Laurents, Farley Granger, and Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia O'Connell Hitchcock, let us in on what went into the development of the screenplay (Hitchcock actually sneaked a major element into the film that quite probably weakened Laurents' vision of what made Rope suspenseful), its unique production difficulties, the controversy affecting the would-be homosexual content, and what it was like working alongside "Hitch."

Also included are production photos and notes, cast and crew info, and Rope's original theatrical trailer — which in Hitchcockian fashion plays a prank on its audience and gave the poor actor playing David a better reason to come to work that day.

—Mark Bourne



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