Rope (1948)

This is a film that I have actually had for quite some time, but only came across it again last week, having misplaced it. I’ve enjoyed several Hitchcock directed films; two personal favourites being Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954), so I hoped I would be on to a good thing. Today’s film was adapted from a play published in 1929, which had the same name and was written by Patrick Hamilton. I wasn’t particularly familiar with the actors involved, though one name did jump out at: James Stewart, which I recognised.

To get you up to speed here is the blurb:

‘James Stewart stars with Farley Granger and John Dall in a highly charged thriller inspired by the real-life Leopold-Loeb murder case. Granger and Dall give riveting performances as two friends, [Philip and Brandon], who strangle a classmate for intellectual thrills, then proceed to throw a party for the victim’s family and friends – with the body stuffed inside the trunk they use for a buffet table. As the killers turn the conversation to committing the perfect murder, their former teacher becomes increasingly suspicious. Before the night is over, the professor will discover how brutally his students have turned his academic theories into chilling reality in Hitchcock’s spellbinding excursion into the macabre.’

Overall Thoughts

Unusually this film is shot on one set, aside from the opening credits, with quite long running scenes before there is a shift in character or action. This approach to filming a story comes with its specific advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand it can contribute towards rising tension levels, but it can also lead to the film dragging, if not handled properly. For me this film leaned more towards the latter than the former and in the main, I don’t really think I would rank this as one of Hitchcock’s greatest successes. However, I am getting ahead of myself…

A strong beginning is achieved, with the opening exterior shots of an idyllic ordinary street, clashing brilliantly with the sudden screams heard behind the closed curtains. The audience is also startled by then being shown the victim dying after being strangled, before being placed into a trunk by two men. Hitchcock plunges us into the middle of the action, with no run up or background to the victim and killers. Nor are these answers immediately in the offing, as post kill the focus of the narrative is on the physical reactions the killers have towards their recent deed. Given the differing roles they had in the crime, their reactions are similarly divergent, with the strangler suffering the most psychologically and in a way you feel as though he was probably more propelled into the activity by his more psychopathic friend.

In fairness giving one of the killers psychopathic tendencies is the only way you can really justify the point of having the party. Brandon invariably wants to keep pushing things just that bit further to see what happens, a tendency which spells doom for their perfect murder. This is no spoiler as the story is irrefutably an inverted mystery, which brings me to how this film doesn’t show Hitchcock at his best.

Now knowing who the killer is in a Hitchcock film is no bad thing, as in both my favourite Hitchcocks, the identity of the murderer is not in question. The focus is more on whether or not they will get away with it and what might happen to those doing the detecting. Yet in both of my favourite films there is more of a run-up to the central death. They may not be long run-ups, but they do allow the audience to get a handle on the key characters. Moreover, the sense of peril and tension is much better achieved in these two other films. We may not get so visceral a viewing of the killing, but somehow we still feel as though we’re getting a closeup on the crime. Maybe less is more in such moments. We then of course get to the killers themselves. I wouldn’t say I like or admire the killers in Dial M for Murder or Rear Window, but I do think I found them to be smarter crooks, who I wanted to find out more about. I equally found their motives for killing more creditable, as Philip and Brandon’s philosophical motive, just gives the death a strong sense of futility.

A lack of depth in the characters was also a weakness I ran into with Rope. I think this most affected the old teacher of the killing duo, who has the detecting role. His ability to unnerve those around him and play around with social chit chat, meant he had a lot of scope and potential, but it is a potential which is never fully realised. There is one rather good scene in which the teacher tries to prize the truth out of Philip who is playing at the piano. As the interrogation unfolds, a metronome is effectively used to pile on the pressure and overall I would say that this film does an interesting line in increasing the tension through the mildest of things. Moreover, background instrumental music is used sparingly throughout the piece. Another strong moment in the film is when it looks like the housekeeper will end up opening the trunk. This scene takes a little time as the woman shifts items to and fro to clear the lid of the trunk. But the scene ends a bit clumsily and with a sense of anti-climax, which brings me on to the final key reason this film didn’t quite work for me.

Being an inverted mystery there is an eventual showdown, but I found its’ use of understated tension to now be something of a weakness, as the whole final sequence drags painfully. Whilst there is some interesting camera work used in producing a re-construction of events, I found the denouement to be weighed down with lethargy, with a rather ham-fisted attempted at a fight over a gun. There could be an argument for psychological realism, but the lack of dialogue and energy does not make for great cinema and on the whole I found the finale concluded on a flat note.

Not sure how well or ill regarded this film is, so I am looking forward to hearing other people’s views on the matter.

Rating: 3/5

24 comments

  1. Yeah, it’s not well-regarded at all. You have to admire Hitchcock for always pushing the technical boundaries of film, like he does here by shooting the entire production in long single takes. He did it again with Under Capricorn, which is an even bigger failure. Did you know that Dial M for Murder was filmed in 3-D?!? I saw it once, and aside from the murder scene, it doesn’t add much. But Hitchcock was always experimenting, and when it worked, it could be spectacular.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Hitchcock himself regarded Rope as an experiment that didn’t work out. However most people and critics like it. It has 93 at RottenTomatoes for example. I did not much like it the first time I saw it, but did like it when I saw the Blu ray restoration. I’d call it third grade Hitchcock. But it has a lot of admirers.

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  2. In general, I STRONGLY recommend getting the Blu ray restorations towatch Hitchcock’s color movies. At least here many are to be had pretty cheaply, and libraries tend to have them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really loved this film (as you probably would anticipate given my fiction tastes) though I haven’t seen it in about ten years. I probably out to revisit it!

    I admired it a lot technically and I appreciated the discussion about the dangers of treating issues as a purely intellectual exercise. I do take some of your points though and I will be curious to revisit it at some point to see how it stacks up against my memory.

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  4. Back in the day when TV had seasons of movies around Christmas, this was one of many Hitchcocks I video’d and then spent months trying to get round to watching — and this title in particular I kept putting off on account of its lukewarm write-up in the TV guide (aaaah, those were the days).

    I remember being quite taken with its innovation — the single set, the long takes, the clever use of cuts — but can now, some 20 years later, recall little beyond having enjoyed how it wound tighter and tighter without the need to do Big Things as other movies from this era attempted and usually pulled off poorly to my juvenile brain and eye (the plane assault in North by Northwest, say, or the rooftop chases in To Catch a Thief). That it just concentrated on story, and on telling that in an unshowy and deliberate manner, really stood out to me even then. Perhaps it’s no surprise I became such a plot-hound after all these years…!

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    • I can see where you are coming as some of the scenes I mention in the review are some of those low key non-showy moments which are highly effective. Yet, whilst an over the top chase scene would not have fitted with the story, I equally feel the ending needed a little more oomph.

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      • I’ll have to watch it again; expect me to be able to comment on the oomph or otherwise in about three years. I do remember liking how low-key it was, in contrast to a lot of what I was watching at the time, but as to precise details you’ll be surprised to learn that my memory is hazy 😀

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  5. Rope is an interesting failure. If we consider the two ways of communicating in film—mise en scene (Murnau, Lang, anyone German) and montage (Eisenstein)—it would seem perverse that Hitchcock, one of the original practitioners of combining the two, would handicap himself like this. It’s especially bad because the shots become compromised every ten minutes with those hidden cuts. The uninterrupted shot from Under Capricorn is enough for one film. Dramatically it’s okay. Jimmy Stewart can sell that morality speech as well as anyone. The brief period between Notorious and Strangers on a Train was not successful for Hitchcock. The Paradine Case is God-awful and Stage Fright is a cheat.

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    • Without that “brief period”, we wouldn’t have got the masterpieces that we got after that. Though I feel that those films in that period are just as good and adds to Hitch’s illustrious career. Much better than half of the films done today.

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  6. I know a fair number of people who rate this movie, although I’m not one. It’s perhaps 30+ years since I first saw it and, to be honest, it left me cold from that initial viewing. And I’m speaking as both a Hitchcock and Stewart fan.

    It is an interesting experiment for the director and another step along the road for him, and I think we can approach it in the same way for Stewart, and actor who achieved true depth and cinematic greatness after his war time experiences and then under the direction of Frank Capra, Hitchcock and Anthony Mann.

    Still, Rope doesn’t really work satisfactorily as a film. Stewart’s work is nuanced, perhaps too much for some, but Dall and Granger are less successful, the latter being an actor I could never warm to. On the plus side, the passage of time and the gradual change in light, reflecting the change in mood as much as the advance of the hour, is a fine technical achievement. And Cedric Hardwicke produces an extremely touching and wholly credible performance.

    As an aside, it might be worth having a look at Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion, another take on the same real life case. It’s not perfect either but does have a fine turn by Orson Welles playing a character based on noted jurist Clarence Darrow.

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  7. I enjoyed this when I watched it (about 20 years ago now…), but looking back, I’m wondering if that was more because I’m a big Jimmy Stewart fan. I wonder how much I would like it now–may have to get it from the library and find out…..

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  8. Rope is a film that I can never forget. It may not be a favorite of many but I doubt anyone one forget it! Apart from the technical experiments that Hitchcock tried, the whole concept of a group of people eating, drinking, and conversing in the same room unbeknownst to them that something horrific happened but that the body is in a chest right in the same room . . . .and they’re partaking of food and beverages on that chest! That concept wholly reminds me of Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, though both stories are poles apart from there.

    What I love about Hitchcock was his courage to test the waters and experiment all throughout his illustrious career. I know these days we want rich characterization, full of depth, but I don’t think in this story we needed such characterization because I think in the hands of many film makers today they would have made the story as dark and drab as it could be. It appears that dark and drab equates in-depth characters by modern viewers, as identified with many of these new Agatha Christie adaptations as an example. But Hitchcock wasn’t about dark and drab. He peppered the film with humor, some relief which I feel is an element many films today are lacking. I agree, you need some relief from the tension and suspense and I think Rope does that. I even feel that with Granger and Dall, you get a good sense of their characters and what type of men they are, apart from their Nietzsche philosophical belief of the superior man. They’re interesting, not flat and boring and I’m drawn to them. On top of that, I feel that those two main characters paint a more realistic portrayal of homosexuals not falling into the campy stereotypes or other cliches that many films today are doing making them one-dimensional and in that regard, Granger and Dall have more depth.

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    • I like the premise of everyone at party, with most of the characters not knowing there is a body there, but I think I maybe had different expectations for how the initial idea would be developed and worked out.

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