Reviews of Classic Movies: Hitchcock's 'Rope'

Over the past year, I’ve been playing catch-up with Hitchcock. I’ve taken in Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, Vertigo and a number of others. A few months ago, I backtracked a bit and saw Rope, a relatively early Hitchcock film starring James Stewart, John Dall and Farley Granger, released in 1948. I was prepared to see the beginnings of what made Hitchcock’s films so good: a deft manipulation of suspense and a masterful understanding of the camera.

While I did notice these elements in Rope, I’d argue that the movie is a highly experimental effort, and that Hitchcock actually made a few mistakes in the film – errors that likely  helped him refine the movies he made later in his career. Read on for my full review, and my ranking out of four stars!

The story is fairly simple: Two college graduates, Brandon Shaw (Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Granger), decide to murder David Kentley, their former classmate. Their plan is to commit the perfect murder -  all to prove their intellectual superiority. To test themselves, they invite a number of friends over to their apartment for a dinner party, including their victim’s father and aunt. Also in attendance is the men’s former prep school housemaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), who allegedly inspired the men to commit murder with his discussions about Nietzschean philosophy several years previously.

Shaw and Morgan then continue their “test”, enduring a number of questions from Rupert and the guests about David’s whereabouts. Still seeking an intellectual thrill, Shaw goes so far as to taunt the guests by tying the rope they used to kill David around some of David’s books, for David’s father to bring home. Despite the graduates’ efforts to cover up the crime, Rupert is suspicious, and in the film’s climax, Rupert must determine if the boys really did kill their classmate.

The film is excellently plotted, with all the twists and turns of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. The difference is, it is a murder mystery seen from a different perspective – that of the perpetrators – and so the suspense in the movie is not generated by a lack of information about the killers, but by whether or not the murderers will be found out.

It sounds clever in theory, but on-screen, the film’s opening sequence of the two men strangling David ruined the surprise for me. It is Rupert Cadell’s task to discover what happened to David, but the viewer already knows the answer – and you feel like shouting out, “He’s in the chest! It’s right there!” For me, it wasn’t enough of a “hook” – I didn’t know whether I was supposed to be rooting for the two men to get away with the crime, or whether I should be cheering on Stewart’s character.

Something must be said, however, about the way the film was shot. Hitchcock decided to film in extremely long takes – ten minutes at a time, in some cases. When he was nearing the end of a reel, he would move the camera so that the cut could be masked. For example, Hitchcock would dolly the camera into the back of a character, cut, and then shoot again in the same position, so it wouldn’t look like the shot had ended when the film was screened. This creates a dynamic, flowing pace for the film that mirrors the story’s origin as a stage play; the characters appear to move through the apartment in real time.

Because Hitchcock decided to shoot the film in this way, he had to devise an innovative method for moving the camera. Rope was Hitchcock’s first film shot in Technicolor, meaning the camera he used was the size of a small car. To follow the actors through the set, pieces of the individual rooms and items like furniture had to be placed on wheels and rolled out of the way of the monster camera. This meant training the film crew to move as a coordinated unit, learning when to swoop in and silently roll set pieces away to make room for the camera.

As revolutionary as this may sound, it also harms the film in a way. Some scenes do mask the cuts very well, but the purposeful movement of the camera into an actor’s sleeve or a piece of furniture is a bit distracting. There is no justification in the story for the camera to be moving in this way – if the camera is meant to be a viewer’s eyes, it is as if the viewer is walking into a wall at points, all in the name of achieving a narrative flow.

The quality of the acting in Rope is one important redeeming feature. I love Jimmy Stewart’s acting in almost all of his roles, especially those in Hitchcock films. He is supported here by strong performances from John Dall and Farley Granger, who are convincing as a pair of men led astray by their privileged background and twisted philosophical studies. The rest of the cast bounces off the personalities of the lead actors, reinforcing the stage-play atmosphere of the movie.

My ultimate experience with Rope was one of casual research; I came to a better understanding of Hitchcock’s earlier work, particularly his first attempt at using Technicolor. Considering the suspense-killing reveal of the murder at the film’s beginning, and the visual sacrifices Hitchcock had to make for his unbroken shots, Rope does not rank among my favourite films by the director. Still, given the performance of the cast, the quality of the script and the scope of what Hitchcock tried to accomplish with his moving camera, Rope gets two stars out of four.

Have you seen Hitchcock’s Rope? If so, what did you think? Was the film spoiled for you by the opening scene? How did you feel about the masked cuts? Let me know in the comments section! You can also browse through some of my recent movie reviews, including the last installment of my “Reviews of Classic Movies” series!

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