REVIEW: ‘Rope’ (1948)

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Grade: A-

When it comes to camera techniques, fewer are admired more than the infamous tracking shot. These shots have been used more frequently than ever in recent years, mostly for the sake of gimmick. However, when it is pulled off by a filmmaker who knows what they are doing, it can be a spectacle. It creates the ultimate real-time viewing experience.

One of the greatest uses of the tracking shot of all-time is Hitchcock’s 1948 murder-mystery Rope. Hitchcock wanted the film to be entirely in real-time, reflecting the effect that is used in the play on which Rope is based. There is one obvious cut, which happens after an exterior establishing shot immediately after the credits, and the rest of the film is essentially one shot. Due to the filming restrictions in 1948, the movie is assembled in 10 minute segments that are tied together using invisible cuts and simple methods like zooming into someone’s back and then zooming out with no obvious time lapse. The movie is entirely real-time and it doesn’t leave the two rooms of the protagonists’ apartment.

The use of the one-take effect makes for great drama in the murder-mystery that is present within. The story is loosely based on the infamous Leopold-Loeb case in Chicago where two intellectual college-aged boys executed a “thrill killing,” which they justified as the perfect murder because of their belief in Nietzsche’s Superman theory.

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In Hitchcock’s version of the story there are two flamboyant boys in an apartment who decide to kill a friend of theirs for the sake of the thrill. The film opens with the killing in progress, the preferred methodbeing strangulation with a rope. The body is stuffed into an old bookcase and then the boy named Brandon enthusiastically announces the most essential element of the plan – the murdered boy’s family and friends are on their way over for a dinner party, during which they will eat right off of the same bookcase that holds the body.

For the rest of the movie we are treated to a tense cat and mouse game where the oblivious dinner guests get closer and closer to stumbling across the truth. One of them has more of a suspicion than anybody else – the boys’ former school teacher, Rupert. After seeing how excited the boys get when they have a conversation about justifiable murder, Rupert decides to play detective and begin questioning the boys. Phillip and Brandon gradually transition from confident to nervous, and eventually to terrified, as their secret nearly gets revealed.

The dynamic between the two boys is brilliantly subtle. Originally the intention was to portray them as homosexual lovers, but because of the censors in 1948 they had to remove any direct references. At one point Brandon mentions how he had a former relationship with one of the female characters, however apart from that he seems completely uninterested in women. He is the dominant member of the boys’ relationship and you get the sense that he has a power over Phillip and is able to control his actions.

Since we do not get any insight into what planning took place before the actual murder happened, we don’t know how each boy felt about the endeavor. However, it seems apparent that Phillip was uneasy from the start. While Brandon emits a confident air, Phillip is never sure of himself and what they have done. You get the sense that he has been shamed for his unusual behavior since he was young and he is weighed down by a constant feeling of guilt.

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The performances from John Dall as Brandon and Farley Granger as Phillip are excellent. The fact that the film stretches for long amounts without a cut gives the drama even greater strength as we actually get to see as Brandon’s pretentious smile fades away and he breaks into a sweat. You know that Granger has to be really sweating in those scenes.

James Stewart is brilliant, although slightly miscast in the role of the boys’ former schoolteacher, Rupert. The inquisitiveness of his character is excellently portrayed by Stewart, who shows his ability to play everyman-turned-detective in other films such as Hitchcock’s other effort Rear Window. He also has a fantastic character arc as he begins to realize how dangerous his past teachings about the superman theory have become. From the dialogue that the boys speak, you get the sense that in the past Rupert was more than a schoolteacher. However, the persona of James Stewart is such that it is impossible to imagine him as a homosexual mentor and the possibility for that subtle addition is lost.

Rope may not be one of Hitchcock’s undeniable masterpieces. However, it is a fantastic look at the power of the camera and a fantastic insight into the auteurism of Alfred Hitchcock.

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  • G1000

    This is probably the most underrated Hitchcock film I’ve seen. Great, great movie.

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