Rope (1948) – A Review
Alfred Hitchcock tells a tale of a murder in one New York penthouse apartment with one continuous real time shot.
Roommates Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) strangle to death their former classmate David. They feel they are the superior beings and feel entitled to commit the perfect murder by eliminating an inferior human being.
Taking their arrogance further, they hold a dinner party with David’s body hidden in a wooden chest in the middle of the gathering. In attendance is David’s father, his aunt, his fiancée Janet, her former beau Kenneth and their old college housemaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart).
With their housekeeper Mrs. Wilson milling around, it’s a tense afternoon that Brandon relishes and Phillip fears. Their odd behavior starts to raise the suspicions of Rupert, who begins to wonder what exactly are they up to, why David hasn’t shown up to the party – and just what exactly is in that chest!
Like many movie fans, there was a point I had discovered Alfred Hitchcock and began to watch his catalog of films.
I had first seen Rope when I was very young. During that first viewing I had no idea about any homosexual subtext the film contained. I wasn’t aware of the Leopold and Loeb murder case the story is loosely based on. I didn’t even fully understand the technical challenges Hitch undertook at the time with the production. I only kind of knew that this would be another Hitchcock movie with Jimmy Stewart in it. Cool! I like Jimmy Stewart!
After that initial viewing I thought it was a good unique movie. And after watching Rope multiple times since then, I still think that today.
Sure, there’s that neat technique of Hitchcock trying to film the story all in real time with extremely long camera takes. Although the execution might not seem as impressive today, you have to admire him trying to tackle it with the obvious technical limitations he faced in 1948.
Keeping in mind the amount of work that went on behind the scenes – stagehands moving walls, setting up props, actors having to hit their precise marks, moving huge cameras that were the size of small cars – to make it work, you do have to appreciate it all.
You can even forgive the clunky cuts when the camera zooms onto someone’s back filling the screen with black before the next uninterrupted section of the film takes place. It’s not exactly seamless transitions, but they do the job. It’s certainly a direct and faithful presentation towards filming a stage play (which Rope was based on).
One thing to note about Rope is it’s often described as meant to being one long continuos shot (I even used that description at the start), however it is not. There are several clear edits in the film that Hitchcock specifically used that were meant to increase dramatic effect. I don’t think they necessarily work all that well (and apparently neither did Hitchcock), but the movie does unfold in real time and the execution of it all is admirable.
Despite the technical feats on display, it’s the story, characters and performances that make me continue to revisit Rope. As things begin with David’s strangulation in the early afternoon, the preparations for the party, guests arriving and the eventual climax of Brandon and Phillip’s deed being discovered is all just as engaging had the film been shot in a more conventional way.
I always find myself enjoying the actors more than Hitch’s camera. There are some wonderful small moments all the actors give. Bits of dialogue, looks, movements. Just small little touches that enrich the proceedings.
There’s a lot of subtle looks being thrown around this party. The aggravated look Mrs. Wilson give off at being upset her dinner setting has been rearranged. Mrs. Atwater and Mr. Kentley appearing not thrilled with the help talking to them in such a casual way. The dagger stares Janet gives Brandon when she realizes he’s up to something.
Joan Chandler as Janet is completely ravishing in this. I never had any trouble believing how she would have gone through so many suitors. I’ve never seen her in anything other than Rope. Apparently she had a very brief career and Rope was the most famous work she had done.
Stewart is as expected likable as ever. His Rupert is more of a confident, egotist than the typical ‘Stewart’ persona. Here, he doesn’t seem very concerned about potentially offending others with his eccentric beliefs and behavior.
However, by the end that’s shaken out of him when he sees the firsthand display of his own philosophies, his own touting of being a superior being and the repercussions it has. In some ways he’s the catalyst for this crime.He gets to be righteous with a lecturing speech at the end.
Granger is fine as the more fragile and guilt-ridden murderer. As the evening wears on his conscious and nerves threaten to reveal the secret. He just can’t keep it together. He is definitely not an ideal candidate to have as a partner for murder. I was never a big fan of Granger’s and thought many times he would come off rather stiff. He’s serviceable I suppose, but fades into the background compared to Dall.
Yes, John Dall. Out of everyone, it’s John Dall’s Brandon that steals this movie for me every time! He is terrific! I consider him one of the great Hitchcock movie villains.
I have more fun watching Dall float around this penthouse than the intricate moves of Hitch’s camera. Dall has an unshakable confidence as he welcomes his guests. He’s dying to show them what he has done, knows he can’t, but practically waves it in their faces inviting them to discover that David is indeed present at this gathering. The closer the secret can be discovered, the more excited he becomes
He so wants to proclaim himself the superior being and bask in the success of his ‘work of art’. The guy is just so proud and confident that he’s pulled this dastardly deed off. He also has such contempt for those that he views as inferior, I’m sometimes amazed he has any friends to even invite to a party!
Speaking of this party – it’s hard for me to imagine a party like this. It’s very short, yet elegant. Everyone is dressed up, a maid is there to serve, alcohol is constantly flowing. Do afternoon parties like this exist anymore???
Anyway, I get drawn into watching Dall pour drinks, light his cigarettes, pontificate about how wonderful and dangerous this all is. His sly looks and swagger are riveting to watch through the entire film. He really makes the movie for me.
There’s a lot to like about Rope and a lot going on. Hitch’s camera, the homoerotic subtext, the actors all doing a top notch job and one real charismatic villain holding court through it all. It’s worth seeing if you haven’t already.
As I’ve said I’ve watched it many times and most likely will have more viewings of it in the future.
One more thing to point out with Rope. Hitchcock famously made cameos in all his films. Here, his appearance became quite difficult to accomplish. I’ve often read that he shows up at the very beginning as a man walking right after the opening titles end. It could be, although it’s hard to recognize him from the distance.
The real Hitchcock cameo is most likely a neon sign seen through the penthouse window that looks like it has the famed Hitc
hcock lined silhouette. I’ve heard back and forth between the two as which is his true cameo. I’d lean towards the neon sign. Or maybe both are.
Normally I would put the movie’s trailer here, but Rope’s give away too much. So rather than risk spoiling for those who haven’t seen the film, here’s the opening two minutes of Rope.
And if that has peaked your interest, here’s the whole movie to watch and enjoy! (just try to ignore the subtitles)