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Better Late Than Never: 'Rope' (1948)


The Guys from {FILM} is a discussion on movies and films from all eras and genres

Better Late Than Never: 'Rope' (1948)

Shaun Cordingley

I am a sucker for Alfred Hitchcock films, and I have done my level best to see his films, but there are still a few that I had not seen, or in the case of Rope, had not even heard of before stumbling across it randomly when cruising Turner Classic Movies. This may have something to do with the fact that the film was independently banned in many small towns upon release, and Hitchcock also bought back the rights to the film to be left as a part of his legacy to his daughter Patricia, but thankfully, reappeared in the 1980s in release.

Rope is based on the 1929 play of the same name (written by Patrick Hamilton) and is said to be inspired by the real-life murder of Bobby Franks (who was 14 at the time of his death) by two University of Chicago students. It also happens to be quite an experimental film for Hitchcock, both technically, and in an emphasis on the old dramatic standard of "unity of place" (like Lifeboat before it, Rope takes place entirely in one New York apartment). 

So, how does Rope hold up? 

First thing's first: Rope opens with the murder-- Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) have a rope around their "friend" from Harvard, David (Dick Hogan)'s neck, killing him, after which they move his body into a wooden chest in their magnificent sitting room. Brandon is thrilled at the prospect of committing the perfect crime in killing an "inferior", and in order to get the maximum thrill from the act, has actually invited David's parents, fiance, friend (and ex of David's fiance), and their old prep-school housemaster Rupert Cadell   (Jimmy Stewart) over for a dinner party. A dinner party where they will serve food off of the chest in which David's body is hidden, much to the dismay of their housekeeper (who worked real hard on making the dining room gorgeous). Over the course of the evening (which occurs almost in real time), their perfect crime is put in jeopardy by Philip's guilty conscience... 

Check out this...strange trailer I found for Rope below: 

The first thing that you are going to notice (and that I noticed) is that the film is in colour-- and indeed this is Hitchcock's first colour film...even though it is a very primitive technicolor, the colour is actually quite lush. That is not, however, the most impressive thing about Rope though, the fascinating thing about Rope is how it is actually shot in ten sections, and is cut together in such a way as to make it appear that it is continuous (67 years before Birdman). Now it is not as seamless as what Lubezki achieved by any means, nor is it any sort of Russian Ark insanity (the film that is entirely done in one-take), but it is a brilliant device to not only ground the story around it's play roots, but it allows the film to largely play out in real time. Rope occurs over what is roughly 100 minutes of story, with a run-time of 80 minutes, and this is largely only apparent nearer to the end of the film. 

What these long-takes also mean is that the tension, and the suspense is built naturally: as things are playing out, and thanks to your (the audience's) knowledge of what has happened, and thus knowing as much as the murderers' do, you see the little slips, feel the confidence ebb, and depending on whose angle you begin seeing the crime from (Brandon or Philip), you begin watching the film differently. I have to say that i have never felt that before, and even though I do feel that, especially with film of the era, they are going to get caught, there's that feeling that maybe, just maybe, they might get away with it. 

There are a couple of theories as to why Rope was independently banned in some towns: first off, it could have been the subject matter, as the Franks' murder was still fresh in many peoples' minds.... Second, Rope can be interpreted to have a fairly strong homosexual subtext to it in the relationship of Brandon and Philipand at the time, under the Production Code, gay subject matter (even inferred) was very controversial, but the film did pass the Production Code Offices, so...honestly I was pretty sure that Brandon and Philip were a couple from the go...(though I feel Philip could have done much better...but I digress). 

Rope is a film that undeniably feels like you are watching a play at times, so if that is not your jam, then you will probably not enjoy it as much as I did, but with the snappy, quick-riposte dialogue (notorious of that era of Broadway), very good performances (even Jimmy Stewart, who is perhaps miscast AKA a bit young for his role), and brilliant filming techniques, it is one that I can definitely recommend. This is not Hitchcock at his best, but Rope is incredibly underappreciated, and is probably one of my favourite melodrama/suspense films of the era. 

I hope you get a chance to see Rope....even if it is on YouTube (which if you search for it, you may be able to come across a pretty good version of this one). It will not be for everybody, but for Hitchcock fans, fans of cool technical films, and fans of the theater really should give it a shot. 

-S (@Shauncord

PS: I just noticed how long it had been since we had posted anything in the Film category...we always say that it is because of how much we talk about film on The Guys From Podcast, but I feel like that's not a very good excuse....we'll try and get more fun things in our {FILM} category in, with the podcast coming out this Friday being about films of the 1940s, and I had not seen this when we had recorded...