A Length of Rope, Revisited

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Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of returning to my old university for dinner with a former professor, now friend, and taking in a movie from the school’s Tuesday film series. The feature was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, from 1948, a minor suspense thriller based on a stage play by Patrick Hamilton. After the film, as we wandered around campus, I remembered that somewhere out there I had written a review of Rope that was somewhere between unfavorable and apathetic. I’ve since found this review, from 2010, and am sharing it here unedited, with a few updated comments (in brackets and italics throughout):

“A Length of Rope”
04 June 2010

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope is one of his most curious films: the murder happens right at the beginning, so there’s no whodunit aspect. The killers are obviously hiding something; their actions scream suspicion, although it’s difficult to judge them as being anything but suspicious, since we know they did it. The biggest draw of the film is that Hitchcock attempted to make it seem as though Rope was filmed in one continuous, real-time shot, a trick that might have worked save for a handful of cuts and awkward shots that go into a close-up of a character’s back, and then reverse out.

Awkward is actually a good word for Rope. The film doesn’t work very well as a real thriller, and it’s hard to buy nice-guy everyman Jimmy Stewart as a believer in the art of murder. Even the gimmick of the continuous shot falls a bit flat, making the whole film seem too stagey. To be fair, it was Hitchcock’s intent to make the film seem more like a stage production than a typical Hollywood production, but this works slightly against the film’s favor rather than for it.

[I disagree with this sentiment now. I think that despite the staged feel of the film, the one-shot gimmick adds to the claustrophobic feeling of the film’s single set.]

It’s a stiff film. You can definitely sense the tight choreography the actors had to perform in filming ten minute takes around an enormous, constantly moving camera and set. Stewart, as Rupert Cadell, is quite out of his element here, and his performance shows how uncomfortable he seemed with the role of the killers’ former headmaster, who inadvertently sells them on the idea of murder. He plays the part more detective than anything, and his turn at the end when he finds what his teachings have brought about seems far too abrupt to be believable.

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John Dall as Brandon, the braggart of the two killers, overplays his hand quite a bit here. Everything about him screams “HE DID IT,” which is kind of the point. He clearly wants to show off his perfect murder; although he tries very hard to keep calm, he’s positively giddy with excitement. However, it’s difficult to watch the other characters seem so oblivious. Not to mention, the character is pretty much an asshole. He isn’t likable in any respect, not even possessing the charm so many of the other characters attribute to him.

[I quite enjoyed Dall’s performance this time around. He seems to be having the most delicious fun with the role of Brandon, reveling in the little details, such as using the murder weapon to tie up the books. Yes, he’s an asshole, but he’s so much fun to watch.]

The film’s real highlight is Farley Granger as Phillip, who is much more fidgety and visibly upset than Brandon. However, he seems far more sympathetic, as we get the impression that he’s so enamored of Brandon that he’s been somewhat unwillingly caught up in this murderous game, even though he is the one who commits the actual deed. Indeed, the characters of Brandon and Phillip are based upon Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two University of Chicago students who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in what they thought was the “perfect crime,” and who were also lovers.

[Still agree – Farley Granger is at his manic best here, a powder keg just about to explode as the film progresses.]

Rope tones down much of the homosexual subtext of the original stage play, mostly to keep the Motion Picture Production Code authorities at bay, although it’s still clear that Phillip and Brandon have a relationship that goes beyond friendship. Also toned down, to the point of being non-existent, is the fact that Cadell is also gay. Indeed, upon hearing that his character is gay, Stewart was surprised, much to screenwriter Arthur Laurents’ delight.

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Something that was not to Laurents’ delight, however, was the fact that Hitchcock made the decision to show the murder at the beginning of the film. The screenwriter had wanted much of the film’s suspense to ride on the fact that the audience didn’t know for sure if there was a body in the book-chest or not. It certainly would have given a far different tone to the film, and likely made the two killers far more intriguing characters, rather than them being just smug or pathetic.

[Showing the murder at the beginning and then serving a buffet dinner from the deceased’s temporary coffin might be the best and most blackly comic version of the Hitchcock bomb under the table. At the very least, it’s one hell of a MacGuffin.]

Overall, Rope isn’t the worst of Hitchcock’s films, but it isn’t one of his greatest either. It exists mostly as a curiosity, an exercise in form, with a few touches of his signature black humor throughout – the idea of celebrating a murder and serving a feast on the victim’s coffin is darkly amusing – but overall, it’s far too uneven to be considered a masterpiece.

[I am far more favorable to this film these days, as both a formalist exercise and as a piece of early queer cinema. It seems less uneven now, and should be considered as one of Hitchcock’s better works. Something else I noticed this time, during the end credits the cast is referred to by their relationship to the victim. Another dark touch from Hitch.]

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