Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)
His association with David O. Selznick terminated after the unhappy collaboration The Paradine Case, Alfred Hitchcock finally set out as his own producer in 1947, forming a company called Transatlantic Pictures with Sidney Bernstein, with whom he’d already made a little-seen documentary about the Nazi concentration camps, one of several contributions the director made to the war effort. Transatlantic would ultimately prove a commercial misstep, producing or initiating three consecutive box office disappointments (and two outright flops), a rarity for Hitchcock right up to the end of his career. (Only once more, with the run from Marnie through Topaz, would he remain in the wilderness for so long.) Hitchcock and Bernstein’s partnership ended very quickly and he became a studio director — while continuing to act as his own producer, luckily — but before all that, Transatlantic did manage to produce what we’d now know as a “cult film,” and a formidable one at that.
It will surprise some modern audience members, who’ve managed to transform it into one of the most popular and crowd-pleasing Hitchcock titles, that Rope, the director’s first film in color, was considered a bomb in its day; the very elements that give it such allure, and have allowed it to age so gracefully, consigned it to audience bewilderment and city council-level bans in some parts of America. Chiefly, the issue at hand was the film’s not-so-covert handling of homosexuality; secondary to that was its oddball execution, giving the illusion of a story told mostly in one shot and in “real time,” with continuous camera movement and only four ordinary cuts (plus six “masked” cuts), astounding for an eighty-minute film. The movie was conceived as a filmed play of sorts — based on a Patrick Hamilton drama that in turn was inspired by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb’s “perfect crime,” their just-for-fun murder of an innocent normal named Bobby Franks — but one in which the camera would be as active and restless as in any of Hitchcock’s more conventionally edited pictures, quite unlike his earlier, much stodgier stage adaptations such as Juno and the Paycock and The Skin Game. It also serves as another chapter in Hitchcock’s procession of “single-set” features; stories entirely or almost exclusively unfolding in one location fascinated him for a period of about ten years, and this — discarding the extremely long, arduous courtroom scenes in Paradine — was the second example he put on film after Lifeboat.
The genius of Rope is in how blatant and uncompromised it is, perhaps because Warner Bros. served simply as distributor; it does not seem like a film that a studio would have originated, probably not now and certainly not in 1948. Its extreme forcefulness and continued potency come from its nonchalant but unwavering depiction of the two clearly gay prep school graduates who commit the crime before our eyes, never campy or disrespectful but never anything but obvious, never even really “coded” (both lead actors were gay or bisexual, as was screenwriter Arthur Laurents). In broader terms, the film’s narrative is a nearly perfect, skeletal thriller scenario: a dead body is in a chest, over which the murderers are brazenly serving food at a seemingly innocuous dinner party to the unwitting friends and family of the victim — as in Notorious, free-flowing champagne portends doom — and without a lapse of time or the relief of normal film editing, we’re forced to endure the entire ugly tale with no possibility of trickery or sleight-of-hand. The camera never blinks; the hard cuts that do exist are cunningly timed to anxious moments so that we hardly notice them, and the tension as a result of the otherwise seamless photography becomes nearly unbearable at several points, such as when the maid, after dinner, comes within inches of discovering the boys’ secret, but moreover with the sickening realization that neither of them is stoic or experienced enough to pull this sick game off. It’s all riveting, simple and quick, and reaches a strikingly forceful conclusion when the pair is confronted by one of the party attendees, a former professor of theirs implied in the script (less in the finished film) to also be a former lover of one of them, who then indicts them as well as us with a hard-hitting speech about the moral horror of what they’ve done. It’s exhilarating up to the eerily calm final moments, as the distant blare of sirens grows louder and the killers indulge in wine and song in the last moments of sheltered life as they’ve known it. Little wonder that this deeply satisfying tale resonates so much with new audiences, to the point that it’s quite fair to think of it along with Rear Window and Rebecca as the best introduction to Hitchcock’s craft.
And on repeat viewings, we can take more careful note of just how much Rope manages to get away with, keeping in mind that — as Laurents remembered — various Warner Bros. executives refused to refer to the characters Phillip and Brandon’s sexuality as anything but “it.” To begin with, the film all but opens with a sex scene; for neither the first nor the last time in Hitchcock, however, it’s coded as a murder. Setting up later jokes about “strangling chickens,” we first see Farley Granger’s Phillip with his hands pulling a rope around the screaming, dying David Kentley’s neck while Brandon (John Dall) holds him up, then releases. They’re breathless. Brandon smokes, and puts on the light. “Don’t,” Phillip says softly — but not sensually, more the sound of a terrified kid who’s just done something “bad” and is experiencing refractory regret. He requests that they “stay like this for just a minute,” to stay in the moment before the outside world can intrude on them and can judge what they’ve done. The dialogue is note-perfect as a stand-in for the terrifying aftermath for lovers whose activities were then so taboo, so forbidden that to even state them outright was frowned upon. And this analogy calls into question the entire nature of Rope‘s actual story: what if the thing Phillip and Brandon can only speak openly about to each other, can only wind around endlessly — one confident and cocky, even pushy, the other mousy and tormented — until they eat one another alive, the secret so easily recognized by the one figure they make the mistake of mildly trusting, isn’t a corpse at all? And what if serving food from a boy’s coffin to his own father and girlfriend isn’t really an expression of intellectual superiority, of the irrelevance of morals? (Hot subject matter in the years just after the war; Hitler even gets a name-check.) What if it’s some Agatha Christie-like expression of a kink?
It’s not for me to say whether Hitchcock centers this story upon a pair of gay men (probably a couple, though perhaps not?) because of some intrinsic suspicion toward homosexuality, but it’s not a question the viewer of today should ignore; his killers, as ever, are human rather than demon, but it can’t really help any progressive argument for the film that within three years he’d be following another effeminate sociopath palling around with Granger in Strangers on a Train or that his most famous murderer of all, Norman Bates, is a nervous cross-dresser. (Strangers‘ Bruno was also the creation of an LGBT writer, Patricia Highsmith; and while Psycho author Robert Bloch was straight, Bates’ real creator by any logical cultural measurement is the bisexual actor Anthony Perkins.) As with Hitchcock’s contradictory, often infuriating real-life views of women, the most charitable interpretation for us as modern admirers is to call his treatment “complicated,” which isn’t helpful and tells no real story at all. Laurents’ own feeling was that it was an extension of Hitchcock’s interest in the macabre and (then-)unusual; no sane person could work in Hollywood, even then, and continue to view homosexuality as the latter, and having worked at Ufa in the 1930s, Hitchcock would have long since encountered “it” among his friends and contemporaries, including his most treasured mentor F.W. Murnau.
Laurents assumed that Hitchcock’s interest in Rope came specifically because it was about gay murderers; neither element on its own would have interested him, in the writer’s opinion, but this is debatable: did Hitchcock not make at least thirty movies and countless TV dramas involving murderers? And while coded or unmistakable queer orientations abound in a number of those killers (Esme Percy in Murder!; Alan Baxter in Saboteur; Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train; Martin Landau in North by Northwest; Anthony Perkins in Psycho), it’s worth recalling that Hitchcock adapted one of the great covert lesbian romances, Rebecca, in 1940; and prominently features a lesbian couple, a mystery author and her girlfriend, in Suspicion. This second choice is particularly telling because it has no direct relevance to the plot. It cannot therefore be stated that Hitchcock was disinterested in gay characters, regardless of their habits or attitudes toward murder. Maybe a viewer could walk away believing that he views these people as grotesque, therefore intriguing, like the “circus freaks” in Saboteur.
My own feeling, however, is that Hitchcock really was looking to the future, if not in quite the progressive way we’d hope for (those of us for whom he’s among the greatest artists of the last century naturally wish his own outlook and morals were up to the standards of his art, which simply wasn’t the case); in contrast to every other major Hollywood director outside of the B-pictures and film noir, Hitchcock tries to give his audiences a view of the world as it really is, in his own strange bourgeois fashion trying to expose his pearl-clutching mainstream fans to the “wild side” Lou Reed would later sing about, full of strange amoral behaviors, fringe beliefs, perverts and weirdos, and the dark indulgences of the wealthy, specifically those who’ve built comfortable empires on the ill-gotten. No matter how much I adore the films of Preston Sturges or Frank Capra or even (gasp) Orson Welles, they will always seem to exist in a heightened world apart, envisioned by brainy screenwriters propagating myths of a kind, however attractive they may be. Among major studio-era filmmakers of the sort that tended to get Academy Award nominations, only Billy Wilder frankly toiled around in the same degree of muck, and even he avoided the perversity of Hitchcock’s great passion, which is matching the real America of desperate leeches, above-the-law psychopaths, trapped couples and, yes, then-atypical sexuality and clashing them with the uptight George Cukor universe of high-rise apartments, graduate school, concert pianists, holidays in the country, Careers in the Arts. This fusion of high and low art not only defines Hitchcock and sustains his art to this day, it defines and sustains Hollywood cinema as an audience-participation module. We watch and enjoy films of the Hays era — the 1930s and ’40s — by filling in the blanks which Hitchcock directly taught us how to fill in, in films like Rope. My best guess is that Hitchcock knew the stuffed-shirt morals of the day were destined to date other films, and chose to act accordingly even if only out of long-term commercial motives.
Phillip and Brandon, acting as long-marrieds having a tiff, don’t have the composure to pull off the stunt Brandon is so convinced will be their masterpiece; in the fashion of so many collaborative crimes, they fall apart immediately: his partner is far too shellshocked by the act itself to refrain from giving himself away by sheer body language and temperament. Even Brandon, the suave architect, it seems, of the killing and the “ironic” party afterward, can’t stop himself from sweating excitedly or stuttering his way through simple sentences when his old professor and idol, one Rupert Cadell, comes to visit. Cadell is an intellectual and master bullshitter, played extremely well by James Stewart in a feat of typical Hitchcock stunt casting (it was their first of four films together) that doesn’t entirely work for the plot, though it’s a thrill to see Stewart delving into the lower-key, darker impulses to which he’d later give vent in Anatomy of a Murder and of course Vertigo. The only issue is that Stewart’s hardened but comparatively innocuous performance fails to sell the logic of him having any real insight into his young former students’ “secret,” ostensibly their act of murder — the film has him undergo a magical metamorphosis from an obnoxious pseudo-intellectual spouting off about Nietzsche at a party to, abruptly, master detective Columbo when it’s time for him to “solve the mystery” and explain why the boys’ interpretation of his own nonsense was so horrible and wrong — but also their queerness. Brandon obviously views Rupert as the one party who would understand what they’ve done, a wide-eyed notion that has equally compelling application in either the literal or metaphorical version of the story the movie’s telling. He gets a kick out of launching Rupert on a tirade about how murder itself should be a privilege exercised by the few, the intellectual superior, over those, like the victim David according to Brandon, who are simply wastes of space.
This is not new territory for Hitchcock, but it plays differently than it did before the war. Innocent, laughingly blasé conversations about murder figure in both Suspicion and most famously in Shadow of a Doubt, in which aloof patriarch Henry Travers makes sport of discussing idealized murder scenarios with an awkward neighbor and dime-novel addict played by Hume Cronyn (who happened to write the first treatment of Rope for Hitchcock). In the former film this is a minor emotional plot point, in the latter it’s mostly comic relief, but in both it’s largely treated as a lightweight understatement, black comedy like The Trouble with Harry in micro. But here (and later in Strangers on a Train, when it’s pretext to a near-strangulation), the act of discussing murder with such jovial disconnect is suddenly viewed as quite horrific, thanks in part to the audience-vessel remarks of the victim’s father (Cedric Hardwicke), whose duty when Rupert starts talking about freeing up traffic by selective murder is to invoke Nietzsche and Hitler. Today Hitler’s a staple of every vapid philosophical conversation about moral relativism, but in 1948 he was still current events, and Hitchcock would not have taken the comparison lightly. As already mentioned, he had seen Sidney Bernstein’s harrowing footage of the concentration camps just after liberation and advised the British Ministry of Information on how to present the footage to decrease the plausibility of the Allies having faked it, an accusation he correctly surmised would occur. The project deeply disturbed Hitchcock and in fact was eventually withdrawn from circulation for decades, and his involvement in it remains one of the lesser known chapters of his career, as does his cooperation with the Free French on a pair of short films in 1944. The point being that Hitchcock knew the potential real-world consequences of the boys’ and Rupert’s rhetoric, and their casual invocation of Superman theory is pointedly not presented as something funny or quirky; it’s clearly dangerous and fascistic, and Rope specifically displays its consequences.
That said, one of Rope‘s most impressive achievements is how completely it sells fear on behalf of a pair of killers as a vehicle for intense, almost involuntary audience identification. The favorite citation of this occurring in Hitchcock’s filmography is the car’s excruciating pause in being submerged in mud by Norman in Psycho, but if anything the slowly boiling sensation of watching the plan unravel in Rope is even more intense because it’s sustained for much longer without a break, and because the absence of cuts forces us through the entirety of the nightmare without the usual rhythm or relief. This is why Stewart’s speechifying at the end of the film, however melodramatic, is so effective. When he’s chastising Phillip and Brandon for taking pleasure in “squeezing the life out of” David, there’s no doubt that the moment earns its power because he’s doing the same to us, because we can’t deny that in the fevered moment, we haven’t wanted the two perpetrators to get caught, even as every cerebral, calm interpretation of the events playing out before us would insist on the opposite, and in fact our moral grounding retakes its effect in the final moments, as we do indeed take pleasure in now seeing Brandon and Phillip trapped and punished, but isn’t there still just that tiny shred of disappointment? Maybe it’s disappointment in ourselves for being duped, after all; the despair runs in multiple directions, as Rupert — the hollow nature of his own playful convictions, ever-distant from reality, now revealed — equally displays disgust at himself, at his own arguments from earlier in the evening and in years prior about murder as a privilege and public service. There’s even a suggestion that a part of him is giving thanks to Brandon — far more Brandon than Phillip; he can't know that it was the latter who squeezed — for reconfiguring his own moral compass through the dramatic evil of his actions.
Rope‘s innovations are numerous, but as is typical of Hitchcock, technique takes an obvious backseat to storytelling. The tasteful, muted use of color makes the film feel more present and alive, and therefore threatening; despite the clearly stagebound, artificial nature of the New York skyline behind the characters, the trick of gradually setting the sun and lighting up the city is genuinely nifty and impressive. The massive Technicolor camera had to weave around moving furniture and walls, leaving mazes of wire in its path that actors then had to navigate sightlessly. It was almost as if the act of making the film itself was as much a stunt and experience as the finished product. But none of this outweighs the script or the performances, or the suspense, it only maximizes the effect of all three. Dahl and Granger never gave better performances, especially the latter as he grows progressively more drunk and unhinged through the evening; they are heightened, but also terribly believable as sequestered rich kids inflicting their nihilism on the world; Phillip doesn’t seem so much a psychopath as an easily seduced and manipulated sort, which makes him a perfect mark for Brandon’s whims, but then again, something more than just persuasion has wrapped Phillip up in this scheme. Laurents establishes the characters with completeness, wisdom and economy, including three women we’ve yet to properly mention: Edith Evanson as a smart, flirtatious maid lightly scolding the boys for mild infractions, little realizing the drama quietly playing out before her; the actress and writer Constance Collier, playwright of the source material for Hitchcock’s early silent film Downhill, as a loud palm-reading tourist and Cary Grant fan, aunt of the victim; and Joan Chandler as Janet, the murdered’s bride-to-be, an awkward society woman and newspaper columnist who’s stewing after realizing that Brandon, mysteriously cited at one point as an ex (wonder why that relationship ended!), is attempting to fuss with her love life and set her up with a third party, a clueless fellow student named Kenneth (Douglas Dick), best friend of the deceased. It’s a bit Parker Brothers, but that’s the beauty of it, that its geometric obviousness matches so well with the clumsiness of the smug narrative Brandon’s trying to construct, which would be amusing if it weren’t so horrific and tragic, something Hitchcock forces us to contend with in real time since we know, from the beginning, where the dead man David is and why.
Meanwhile, the screenplay itself furthers Hitchcock’s theoreticals about thriller design and “pure cinema”; in the absence of cutting and montage, which he would argue is the most vital component of cinematic storytelling, Laurents cuts the film in the script itself. There is no break in chronology, and yet this requires a heightened reality: it is frankly impossible for the events of the film — a murder, the last-minute preparation for the party, the party itself including the serving of a full meal, the wondering and worrying of David’s whereabouts, the fumbling departure of the guests, the deduction of the existence of a mystery and the solving of the mystery itself, the discovery of clues (a hat, a rope), the increasing intoxication of a suspect, the proclamation of success, the return of a single guest on false pretense, the accusation, the fight, the (essentially) confession — to occur in a matter of eighty minutes, yet they do, before our eyes, thanks to extremely skilled, careful dialogue writing. Moreover, the cold, puzzle-like design of the film is overridden beautifully by the emotional context provided by the characters: fear, worry, superiority, dejection, dread, paranoia, horror all find their way into all three principal characters and various others at some point. Through it all, Hitchcock’s camera never seems to stop bounding, recomposing, reinterpreting its surroundings, editing — along with the script — as it goes, moving in and out of closeups and presenting as much story material in what it doesn’t show — an offscreen voice or reaction, say — as what it does. No film, or at least no thriller, toys with time and space in quite the same way Rope does.
And while the film was not a great success at the time of release, there’s reason to believe Hitchcock was pleased with the results — showing off the set proudly to any Hollywood friends who’d pay a visit — and it certainly informed the even more ambitious, if slightly more conventional costume drama Under Capricorn the following year. It would be the final Hitchcock picture with no major thriller elements; this time, while there was no pretense to a lack of cuts, he would follow characters up and down staircases and attempt even more to wander into the psyche through roving, unpredictable movements of the massive Technicolor camera and its unforgiving eye, its one-on-one conversation with the audience still as nuanced and sophisticated as the one in Rope, if perhaps a bit less claustrophobic. Under Capricorn still has yet to find its audience outside of some French auteurists, which is a pity; but one supposes that Hitchcock would feel validated by the way the world has caught up with Rope, which is now routinely acknowledged as one of his classic thrillers, and one that certainly has not lost its capacity to torment and haunt those who see it — has, if anything, gained a great deal of power with the passage of time.