Monday, January 17, 2011

CMBA Hitchcock Blogathon: Rope


“Rope” (1948) concerns two young intellectuals who are also killers. Not just any kind of killers, but thrill killers. They see murder as an intellectual exercise. They want to not only experience what it feels like to murder someone, but to see if they can get away with it.

To see if they can get away with it. It’s similar to what Alfred Hitchcock tried to do with “Rope.” Like his thrill killer subjects, he wanted to try something new to see if he could get away with it.

Get away with what?

“Rope” was based on a 1929 play by “Gaslight” and “Hangover Square” author Patrick Hamilton. Hitchcock wanted the movie audience to feel they were watching a play. That meant no cutting. With this decision in hand, Hitchcock set forth to undertake one of the most audacious films in his long and illustrious career.

Authors Robert A. Harris and Michael S. Lasky explain in their book “The Films of Alfred Hitchcock” (Citadel Press, 1976): “He shot Rope with no actual cuts and instead filmed ten-minute takes, the maximum amount of film (one thousand feet) that a camera will hold. Planning was necessary in defining just how the camera would move and how to create the effect of no cuts. The latter was obtained by closing and opening each ten-minute take in close up behind an actor or object so that they would create a solid texture on the screen. The total effect of Rope was of one continuous shot, the length of the film being the actual time of the action in the story.

“The single setting for the production had walls and furniture with silent wheels which could be moved away quietly while the camera was moving from place to place. A color backdrop skyline of New York was realistic. Clouds, made of spun glass, would move and the sky turned from the orange of sunset to the black and twinkling lights of night.”

In addition to the film’s technical challenges, it was also Hitchcock’s first color film. An odd choice for a color debut, since it all takes place on one set. It was also the first of four films James Stewart and Hitchcock made together. It proved a most fruitful collaboration.

The film cost $1.5 million to produce, mainly because of the many technical problems the film engendered. Plus, Stewart’s salary alone was $300,000. But the film earned its money back and even made a small profit.

While the no editing approach is interesting, it is somewhat limiting. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever tried to repeat this one-take approach. In that regard, “Rope” remains a most singular achievement.

The film opens on a New York street and we see an eagle eye’s view of people (including our beloved director, in his cameo appearance) scurrying past an elegant apartment building. We then track to a window followed by a choked off scream. We then see two men with a third standing listlessly between them with a rope around his neck. At first glance it looks like a rehearsal of some kind (is Hitchcock playing tricks with us?), but no, its murder and the two men are then shown placing the body in a large chest.

The two are Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) who have just committed the murder just before hosting a small dinner party. Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson), their housekeeper and cook, is serving at the party.

Guest of honor is David Kently, a college classmate and friend of Brandon and Philip. Other guests include David’s father Henry (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Henry’s sister-in-law Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier), David’s fiancée Janet Walker (Joan Chandler), David’s former friend and Janet’s ex-boyfriend Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick).

Late arrival is Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the former teacher of the boys. Rupert is brilliant but has definite ideas of the superiority of some over others, and rationalizes killing the weaker elements in society.

Tension begins to rise at the party, not only at the guests’ repugnance at Rupert’s theories, but when the normally reliable David does not turn up at the party. The audience knows that David has been murdered by Brandon and Phillip and is now lying in a chest that’s being used as a buffet table for the dinner guests. Brandon finds this highly amusing and Phillip, who has shown doubts about the murder from the very beginning, begins to unravel over the course of the evening.
Rupert suspects something is up and after everyone has left, begins to bait the boys to get to the truth.

Running a crisp 80 minutes, the film is continually engrossing. Though based on a play, Hitchcock gives us two wonderful suspense sequences. Who but Hitchcock could squeeze suspense out of a stationary camera in a one-room setting with no editing?

In one, Rupert theorizes to Brandon and Phillip how the murder was committed. We don’t see the actors in the scene, only hear the actors as the camera tracks where the murder was committed, how the body was hid, how the furniture was re-arranged. The camera acts as a visual guide to Rupert’s remarks.

In the other, Mrs. Wilson cleans off the makeshift buffet table, removing the candles and dishes. The camera remains a stationary observer as she brings the dishes and food platters into the dining room in the background, and then returns with a stack of books brought from the dining room back to the chest. Running several minutes long, there’s no editing, but we hear the empty babble of a cocktail party conversation, and we wait in breathless anticipation for her to open the chest and put the books back in. It’s a marvelous sequence.

Because of the Production Code, any hint of homosexuality between Brandon and Phillip is buried, but astute viewers can figure out there’s something going on between the two, especially those viewers familiar with the Leopold and Loeb case, which helped inspire “Rope.”

Leopold and Loeb were two well-to-do students at the University of Chicago who in 1924 murdered their neighbor, 14-year-old Bobby Franks, in a desire to commit the perfect crime.

Both were homosexual and both subscribed to the Nietzschean philosophy of the superman – someone who has certain “superior” qualities inherent in themselves, and thus are exempt from the laws which govern “ordinary” men.

Brandon and Phillip think they’re above the law too, and I think Rupert does too. His realization that his theories have caused Brandon and Phillip to murder their friend is beautifully played by Stewart and is one of the most underrated bits of acting in his career.

Some think that Stewart is miscast here, and there may be some truth to that. Hitchcock wanted James Mason to play Rupert and I think he would have been marvelous. With that rich, plummy voice, I think Mason could make anyone feel inferior and not worthy of living. He’s so good in those kinds of roles.

But Stewart does well enough, and I think he’s good in the confrontational scenes with John Dall and Farley Granger. I’ve always liked Dall, ever since I first witnessed his magnificent sneering in “Atlantis, the Lost Continent” (1961) on Sunday afternoon TV.

“Rope” was adapted for the screen by Hume Cronyn, though the screenplay was written by Arthur Laurents. Laurents thought Jimmy Stewart was just playing Jimmy Stewart and someone like James Mason would have suggested a romantic relationship between the teacher and one, or both, of his students, thus giving the film even more of an edge.

Like a lot of Hitchcock movies, the ghoulishness is lightened somewhat by some dry comedy. The dithery Mrs. Atwater can never remember the names of plays or movies she’s seen, though she recently adored the movie she recently saw with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. I’m assuming she means Hitchcock’s “Notorious” (1946). And the alert Mrs. Wilson, with her snarky comments, shows she’s more on the ball than Brandon and Phillip think.

Atypical for Hitchcock, there’s no original score though a principal theme, “Perpetual Theme No. 1” by Francis Poulenec, is heard throughout the movie.

Despite its lack of editing, “Rope” remains a fascinating film. The wit of the script, performances, and Hitchcock’s unfailing visual eye make this one a winner.

There’s lots of good reading about other Hitchcock films in the Classic Film Association’s Alfred Hitchcock blogathon. Films and their sites are below. I’m looking forward to reading them and encourage others to do so as well, especially if you have a favorite Hitchcock title listed here.

1. The Birds – Classic Film & TV Café http://classic-film-tv.blogspot.com/
2. Dial M for Murder – True Classics: The ABCs of Film http://trueclassics.wordpress.com/
3. The Lady Vanishes – MacGuffin Movies http://macguffinmovies.wordpress.com/
4. Lifeboat – Classicfilmboy’s Movie Paradise http://www.classicfilmboy.com/
5. The Man Who Knew Too Much – Reel Revival http://reelrevival.blogspot.com/
6. Mr. and Mrs. Smith – Carole & Co. http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/
7. North By Northwest – Bette’s Classic Movie Blog http://bettesmovieblog.blogspot.com/
8. Notorious – Twenty Four Frames http://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/
9. The Pleasure Garden – Thrilling Days of Yesteryear http://www.thrillingdaysofyesteryear.blogspot.com/
10. Rear Window – Java’s Journey http://javabeanrush.blogspot.com/
11. Rebecca­ – ClassicBecky’s Film and Literary Review http://www.classicbeckybrainfood.blogspot.com/
12. Rope – Kevin’s Movie Corner http://kevinsmoviecorner.blogspot.com/
13. Shadow of a Doubt - Great Entertainers Media Archive http://greatentertainersarchives.blogspot.com/
14. The 39 Steps – Garbo Laughs http://garbolaughs.wordpress.com/
15. Three Classic Hitchcock Killers – The Lady Eve’s Reel Life http://eves-reel-life.blogspot.com/
16. Torn Curtain - Via Margutta 51 http://www.via-51.blogspot.com/
17. The Trouble with Harry – Bit Part Actors http://bitactors.blogspot.com/
18. Vertigo – Noir and Chick Flicks http://dawnschickflicks.blogspot.com/
19. The Wrong Man – The Movie Projector http://movieprojector.blogspot.com/

14 comments:

Page said...

I remember watching Rope with an ex boyfriend years ago and he just didn't care for it! I knew then he had to go. Rope is one of those films that I feel would translate well today if remade. (By the right director and cast of course). I enjoyed this review very much and I would love to catch Rope so many years later without a boyfriend to screw things up while I enjoy the master at work. : )
Page at MyLoveOfOldHollywood

Rick29 said...

Kevin, this is a fine review of one of Hitchcock's lesser-known works--which is odd, because ROPE is a fascinating technical experiment that has always intrigued me. I waited for many years to see it because ROPE was withdrawn from circulation for over a decade. That probably built up my expectations, resulting in a little disappointment when I finally saw it. The "single take" is interesting, but doesn't really add anything to the film. I like the confined setting which seems to heighten the verbal jousting between the characters. I agree that James Stewart is OK, but an actor like James Mason may have been a better choice. John Dall is quite good; my favorite of his films is GUN CRAZY. Another movie dealing with the Loeb-Leopold murders is COMPULSION with Orson Welles as famous attorney Clarence Darrow (though his name is changed).

trueclassics said...

While Rope is my least favorite of the Hitchcock-Stewart collaborations, it's still an interesting experiment of a film. But sometimes I wonder if the technical aspects of the film aren't overly distracting. When you realize that you're looking at a series of uninterrupted chunks of time, you tend to find yourself paying more attention to catching the few cuts/transitions between scenes than the action on screen (well, at least I do, anyway).

Great review! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this movie.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Hitchcock wanted the movie audience to feel they were watching a play

This, in a nutshell, is the main reason why I don't consider myself a big fan of this film, and I still remember the lengthy verbal donnybrook a film class professor and I had about the movie (he thought it was one of Hitch's best). I don't completely dislike it, though, and often find myself coming back to it after long periods of isolation but I'll readily admit that its homosexuality theme plays far, far better in the superior Strangers on a Train.

One part of your splendid review that has me applauding was your suggestion that James Mason would have been a better choice for the role played by James Stewart (who's really, really miscast here). Once time travel is perfected your mission will be to journey back to 1948 and make that suggestion while posing as the casting director.

Classicfilmboy said...

Good as always. My friend Dan at PalCinema.com loves this film and the daring of Hitchcock to make it in single takes. I wasn't aware of the desire to cast James Mason, but as soon as you explained it I agreed that he would have been perfect. The older I get, the more I appreciate it. I think the lack of action (i.e. it's all in the dialogue) made me restless when I first watched this 20+ years ago. Now I like listening to this one as much as watching it. Anyway, great post!

The Lady Eve said...

I probably view "Rope" as Hitchcock approached it - an intriguing exercise. It is dry and a little slow, but compelling. To my mind, Technicolor is almost an additional character. The film's color stands out in my memory... and the cityscape view from the apt. window a wonderful, evocative backdrop. Well done and informative blog...

ClassicBecky said...

I always thought that the opening shot of Rope was horrifying, seeing life go by as usual, moving slowly toward the window, hearing the choked-off scream and seeing the very end of David's life. It always horrifies me. I enjoyed the effort to make it more like a play, although that is as much a part of the viewing experience as the story.

Very interesting and well-written article about a movie that people either love or hate!

Kevin Deany said...

Thank you everyone for your nice comments. I know "Rope" is a pretty divisive film, even among Hitchcock fanciers, but its so unique that its singular qualities should be celebrated.

But Hitchcock was wise never to return to the single take technique. I have no doubt someone will do another one one day.

Clara said...

I didn't know the background of this story, a very interesting reading!

toto2 said...

Kevin, I enjoyed your well-written review of "Rope" even though I am not a fan of the film. I can't stand the story and its basis in reality saddens me. I appreciate your research, especially about the preference to cast James Mason. Well done!

garbolaughs said...

Great review. Rope is probably my favorite Hitchcock film, and you've nailed all the reasons why I love it. I think the undertones are very powerful, plus I really love that gorgeous moving backdrop!

-Caroline

John said...

I always looked at ROPE as an interesting experiment, maybe not quite successful but still an technically interesting. For Hitchcock it was a challenge, as was LIFEBOAT and DIAL M FOR MURDER, filming in a restricted space. Nice mention of the Loeb and Leopold case which inspired the case (have you seen COMPULSION? Another film that used the Loeb/Leopold case as its source. Wait! I see Rick has just mentioned it in his comment).

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, a thoughtful post on one of Hitchcock's most unusual movies. You covered some interesting points. About the implicit gay relationship between the two "rommates": I've read that Montgomery Clift was offered Dall's part but turned it down. (He also turned down "Sunset Blvd," apparently because it also hit a bit too close to home.) There's no doubt in my mind that Clift was the better actor, but I don't think he could have projected the same smug, domineering personality that Dall did. I can see Mason as the professor, but I like James Stewart because when he realizes the real-life monsters he has created by espousing a strictly intellectual proposition, his dawning horror is all the more convincing. Here's a basically nice, sane fellow who has unintentionally become Dr. Frankenstein! I find Constance Collier quite funny as the dithery Mrs. Atwater. I've seen an interview with Farley Granger on TCM where he relates the difficulty of those 10-minute long takes. One flubbed line or movement meant the whole thing had to be reshot, a difficult thing for movie actors used to short takes to avoid. No wonder Hitchcock never repeated this experiment. A very good post on a good but not great movie given an extra lift by its technical experimentalism.

Kevin Deany said...

R.D.: That's very interesting about Montgomery Clift. I did now know that. I agree with your observation on Stewart's realization about the monsters he unknowingly created. He's really strong in those scenes. I don't know if the pre-war Stewart could have pulled it off, but his war experiences seemed to have given him extra years of maturity in just those four years he was off the screen.