Thousands of films have featured evil and murder as their subjects, but no filmmakers can master the topics the way Alfred Hitchcock could. Where other directors make movies about bogeymen who slash people to ribbons for revenge or bloodlust or money, Hitchcock took delight in portraying evil not as the nightmarish visions of the slasher, but as good-looking young men who could easily blend into the crowd. Real evil more often comes with a friendly smile and a handshake than it does with a knife.
Take Brandon Shaw (John Dall), the murderer in Rope. Brandon kills not because of anger or for profit, but for the artistry of it; the thought of killing an inferior being and getting away with it scot-free is too intriguing to pass up. To him, murder isn't just an unparalleled adrenaline rush, but an art form. Minutes after strangling David Kently and hiding the corpse in a large wooden chest in his living room, he has a dinner party where the guests include David's parents and fiancee. Even better, hors d'oeuvres will be served on the temporary grave. His joy and satisfaction are palatable — "The perfect crime," he says to his partner, "with no mistakes".
He is wrong. His first mistake was to include Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), his roommate and homosexual lover, in the plan. Unlike Brandon, Phillip isn't a psychopath, and finds himself instantly smitten with guilt over the crime. Brandon likely foresaw this, but with an ego as big as his, was unable to comprehend performing the perfect crime and then having no one to boast about it with.
His second mistake was to invite Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart, perfect as always), their old teacher, to the dinner party. Brandon couldn't resist, as Rupert's discussions about Nietzsche's's superman philosophy provided the moral justification to Brandon that spurred him to commit the murder in the first place. And, while fooling the rest of the dinner guests may be easy, Rupert's constant suspicion and inquisitiveness provide a real challenge, the finishing touch to this masterpiece of crime. Surely even if Rupert discovered the truth, he'd understand, right?
The key to understanding the film lies as much within Rupert as it does the murderers. The smarmy intellectual type, Rupert casually endorses legal murder as a privilege of the elite, though Brandon remarks that Rupert could never actually go through with it. How many of us have fantasized about the semantics of pulling off a murder, or casually remarked that while we were deserving of certain privileges, others aren’t? Rupert's reaction to the truth seems to be suggesting that Hitchcock wants us to hold the mirror up to ourselves.
The film takes place almost in real time, entirely within Brandon and Phillip's apartment, with a mere nine takes. Hitchcock directs with awe-inspiring confidence and skill, allowing the tension to stretch and push the audience to the edge, before smoothly pulling back for a calm which ensures the next call will be even closer.
Unlike most contemporary thrillers, Rope relies on dialogue and a slow, almost torturous burn to generate suspense. The audience already knows the details of the crime, but will the murderers be discovered, and if so, how will everyone react? Rope's plot revolves not around What Will Happen, but What Will Happen Afterwards, in many ways a superior point of view to base the movie around. After all, once big events that occur in our lives are done and over with, we have to live with the consequences, don't we? Hitchcock understands that, but unfortunately for Brandon and Phillip, they don't.
My rating: 5 out of 5