Rope is best known as an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. However before that it was a 1929 stage play by Patrick Hamilton, which in turn was inspired by Leopold and Loeb, two students at the University of Chicago who in 1924 murdered a fourteen-year-old boy because they'd wanted to commit the perfect crime. They got sentenced to life in prison, where Loeb was murdered with a straight razor in the showers in 1936 by a man who claimed that Loeb had tried to sexually assault him, so managed to get it passed off as self-defense. Leopold and Loeb seem to have been up there with Ed Gein in inspiring novelists, playwrights and filmmakers of a macabre persuasion. That would be Hitchcock, then. His Ed Gein film incidentally was Psycho
The most notable thing about Rope is its experimental form. It's very obviously based on a stage play, taking place in continuous time in a single unbroken scene in an apartment, so Hitchcock decided to make a virtue out of this and see how far he could push it. It's pretending to have been done in one take. The camera follows the actors around on a set where the walls were on rollers and the furniture was always getting silently shifted by prop men when not on camera. Of course there are edits really, but only a few of them and they're usually done by taking the camera right up against something as a kind of fade to black. This is actually far more distracting than a straightforward cut and I'd have been happier if Hitchcock hadn't done it. I suppose he's drawing attention to the form, which is perhaps fair enough.
Obviously a piece like this is all about its actors. The leads are pretty much what you'd expect. Brandon Shaw (John Dall) is the egomaniac who thinks he's God and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) is the nervous one who immediately regrets it. He's even got to put up with a dinner party organised by Shaw, to which he's invited people like their victim's parents and fiancee. If nothing else, this film is a good hard slap in the face to everyone who says you have to like the heroes of a movie. Dall is smug and punchable and it would be a crime against the universe if he didn't get himself caught. Granger is less compelling, since the role compels him to be twitchy and whiny all the time, but it lets him show more range. To my surprise, he successfully (at first) covered up the nervousness with a sort of oily charm when the guests showed up.
Most of the guests don't matter. They don't have a clue about what's happening and they're only really interested in their own lives. Nothing wrong with that and they seem like perfectly nice people, but this is a movie about a murder. They have their relationships and spiky moments, but they're mostly defined by their relationships with the corpse and only two of them have weight. One is Sir Cedric Hardwicke, only six years after The Ghost of Frankenstein
. He gets a scene where he's the voice of moral authority.
However the headlined star is of course James Stewart as Rupert Cadell. The movie comes alive when he shows up, having gone into a slight lull when the murderers started playing host. He's the only one asking questions, thinking and engaging with his surroundings. Morgan rightly thinks he's dangerous. It's interesting to wonder how the film might have changed with someone who wasn't such a shy, good-hearted everyman playing Cadell, since he's actually quite a bastard. He enjoys being slightly shocking, he's an aggressive conversationalist and it was his armchair philosophising that unwittingly set Brandon on the road to murder in the first place. I was slightly surprised to realise that there was some doubt about how Cadell might take the revelation if he discovered the truth, but it wasn't real doubt with Jimmy Stewart. With another actor, who knows?
I still like Stewart, though. He worked with Hitchcock a lot and they made good films together.
There are gay overtones. The main characters are an all-male bunch of friends who associate with each other and even seem to live together in the case of our murderers. Joan Chandler plays a girl who's been romantically attached to three of them, but her conversation contains words like "gay" and "queer" and she feels guilty about disrupting these close male relationships. However I couldn't see what all this had to do with anything and eventually decided it was just my imagination. Nope. Not so. The film was banned in a number of American cities because of implied homosexuality. The original play is also much clearer on the subject, with for instance the James Stewart character having had an affair with one of the murderers while still their schoolteacher. You couldn't put explicit homosexuality into a 1940s Hollywood movie, but Hitchcock makes it pretty clear anyway. Then of course there's the fact that in real life, Leopold and Loeb were indeed lovers. There are more openly gay versions of their story, such as Swoon in 1992.
Death bookends this film. We begin with the murder itself, which is still shocking today despite the profusion of films which begin with a killing. Then at the end we have the reflection that Shaw and Morgan were two men taking one life, whereas for Stewart to unmask them would mean one man killing two. One tends to forget the death penalty these days. It's both powerful and thought-provoking, but it's also a tad disingenuous. Brandon's so cocky that it's hard to imagine him surviving any kind of police investigation, while of course the real Leopold and Loeb were indeed convicted but managed to escape the death penalty anyway. Whatever Stewart may or may not end up doing at the end would probably only be making sure.
It took me a while to spot the hidden meaning in the title. "Give a man enough rope..."
This is a fairly nasty movie, which of course is right up Hitchcock's alley. It's not one of his funny ones, but there's a sense of mischief in Hitchcock's seemingly never-ending shot of the housekeeper clearing away plates, books and candlesticks from what nobody realises is the corpse's hiding place. This was his first film in colour, by the way. It's short, but memorable and utterly Hitchcock.