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Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope Review

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This 1948 Hitchcock film is mostly noted for its technical achievements. Hitchcock filmed this story, about two well-to-do rich kids who decide to commit a murder for the fun of it, as a play. Which, it in fact, originally was, though based in London and not New York. Technical limitations did not enable his original vision of making the entire picture one continuous long shot. Instead it is made up of several 8 minute continious shots. This was the length of film that fit into one reel. Using some very inventive cutting techniques the film appears as if it was filmed all in one take. This is more impressive when you see the actual size that color film cameras were during this time period. They were absolutely enormous, bigger than a man standing. To move the camera in and around the small stage space, many of the set pieces were set on castors and rolled about to keep out of the way of the camera. Some of the actors were noted in saying that they worried everytime they sat down, that there might not be a chair for them to fall into. Another achievement of the film is in terms of lighting. The apartment that the entire film is set in has several large windows overlooking the city. As the movie is more or less uninterupted from start to finnish we see the lighting change as the sun begins to set and night falls. It is a testament to this achievment that upon first viewing you don’t really notice the effect. Yet, the filmakers took great pains to get it to look realistic, staging numerous reshoots for the final few scenes.

Though the technical achievements are quite wonderful, it is a shame that they have overshadowed what is really a very good bit of suspense. It seems the two high society murderers have planned a dinner party just after the murder. They store the corpse in a wood box that is featured prominently in the midst of the dinner. This creates an excellent mix of suspense and the macabre. Throughout the party the murderers become more unraveled even as they are enjoying their little game.

All of the acting is quite good. The two murderer (John Dall and Farley Granger) do a fine job of playing intelectual, society playboys, with a desire for excitement. It is slighly annoying watching their excited, nervous mannerisms (especially some stuttering by Jon Dall) but it is fitting with the characters. Their former instructor, Rupert Cadell, is played magnificently by the impecible James Stewart. This is a bit of departure from Stewarts typical roles. Here he is a tough, cynical intellectual. This was his first of four collaborations between Stewart and Hitchock and it is hard to imagine his role as Scottie in Vertigo without having first played in this movie.

The story unravels in typical Hitchock fashion. The suspense is built, then lessoned by some well timed comedy, and then built again to a final crescendo. Hitchcock was excellent as a technical director and allowed his actors the breathing room they needed for fine performances. In the end I left the picture feeling more excited about the superb storytelling than any particular technical achievement. It is a testament to his craft, that Hitchock allows you to leave a picture being enamored with his story over his technical achievements. Some of the greatest effects are those you don’t notice because they seem so natural and real.

The documentary that accompanies the DVD version had some discussion of the homosexual nature of the two murderers as well and James Stewart’s character. The production codes of the time would only allow the slightest hints of homosexuality in a motion picture. In fact I had no idea any character might be homosexual while watching the movie, and it was until I watched the documentary that I thought anything about it at all. Upon review I can see where the two murderers mannerisms may have pointed in that direction. Although James Stewarts presence is so wholesome and devoid of sex that any notion of the characters sexuality is more a point of trivia at this point.

Alfred Hitchock manages a triumph of technical brilliance and suspense in Rope. It’s influence in the technical realm of cinema far outshines any effect the story has on future movies. This is a shame, for the story being told is one of suspense, macabre and excitement.

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About Mat Brewster

  • Man, you guys are going way back. I’ve only seen this movie once, and that was when I reviewed it, nearly two years ago. So I’m not sure how good my memory will serve for the discussion, but we’ll see.

    Although I must say that my first paragraph is waaaay too long.

    cmeza, why do you say it is appalling? I rather enjoyed the film, I recall, though unlike you I can’t say I thought much about the costumes. Though, admittedly, I don’t ever think much about costumes.

    I won’t argue your point, Rodney. I’m not sure what real purpose making it all look like one take really served other than being an experiment for Hitchcock. 24 has certainly proven that you can make a show in real time with lots of cuts and still maintain a lot of tension.

    But within the confines of this story it still seems very strange to make a few very obvious cuts when they’ve taken so much trouble to hide the others.

  • “It is set in one room and plays out in real time (more or less) so why should their be a bunch of cuts?”

    I can just as easily turn it around and say “Why shouldn’t there be a bunch of cuts?” The fact that it’s in real time is a very thin justification for the one-take method. The real trick of pulling off a long take is for it NOT to be noticeable; like, say, in a Preston Sturges film, or in several of Kubrick’s films, like “Paths of Glory” or “Full Metal Jacket.” In those cases, the long uninterrupted take focused attention on the character or ratcheted up the tension — which it clearly did not do in “Rope.” What little tension “Rope” has to offer is in the story or the actors, not the camera. In fact, the long take technique in “Rope” mainly serves to show how slim the story is. I think the best thing that can be said of “Rope” is that it showed Hitchcock what it took to film a story in a single room over an extended period of time — an experiment that bore extraordinary results in “Rear Window.”

  • cmeza

    The only impeccable aspect of this rather appalling period piece is John Dall’s and Farley Granger’s tailoring–those suits are to die for! John Dall was quite successful as the waspish gay guy and Farley a perfect foil as the wavering emotional “weak sister” of the pair. How anyone could mistake them for straight is hard to fathom.

  • Mat

    Thanks for the nice comments. On the contrary, Rodney, I think the technique is completely JUSTIFIED by the story. It is set in one room and plays out in real time (more or less) so why should their be a bunch of cuts? It is also based on a play, and the technical choices make this movie roll out like a play. Why do you think it is unjustified.

  • It’s a technically interesting movie. The problem is that the technique is completey unjustified by the story.

  • dbcooper

    Nice review Mat on a great Hitchcock film. I have always enjoyed Rope, though consider it the third-best collaboration between Hitchcock and Stewart. It is a technical wonder, and I too have noticed the lighting in background windows and have marveled at its detail. I believe the play is thinly based on the Leopold-Loeb murder case from the 1920s. Another film was made on the same subject matter in 1959 called Compulsion, with Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell as the murderers, and Orson Welles as the investigator. But Rope is far more interesting.

  • Very nice review, Mat – you give me at least four excellent reasons to buy this DVD.

  • This is my favorite Hitchcock film as well. And I just love Jimmy Stewart in it, playing a very different kind of character than he did before he’d been in the war. (In film school we discussed pre- and post-war Stewart extensively; an interesting topic if anyone ever wants to look into it.)

  • Nice! This is actually my favorite Hitchcock film. The suspense and story are are great and technical it is an impressive achievement. It was also the first film that Hitch shot in color.