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.