A master of suspense, Hitchcock delights in toying with his audience, repelling and luring his viewers into the scene of a crime – and nowhere more audaciously than in Rope
Rope isn't Hitchcock's best film, but it's one of his most audacious. With this movie, the master of suspense turns a nail-biting setpiece into a full-length feature, and shows us the ugly flipside of the violent thrillers that made his name. Murder in the movies is usually more about motive than consequence. The bad guys have it coming, and killers are much more interesting before they start repenting their crimes. But Rope rejects that formula by taking inspiration from a real-life murder, a particularly cold-hearted one, and rubbernecking on its aftermath.
Rope is the dark shadow of Rear Window, a film Hitchcock made six years later, also with James Stewart, also set in a smart city apartment. In the later film our voyeurism, and Stewart's, is morally justified: we suspect we've seen a murder but we're not sure – and the only way to uncover the truth is to keep watching. When we watch Rope, however, we know exactly what kind of sickness we're staring at and the only question is how long we can bear to look.
We open with a murder, and close with a gunshot that summons the cops. What happens in between is filmed excruciatingly close to real time. David, Brandon and Philip are gathered for cocktails in a swanky Manhattan apartment, but two of the pals throttle the third and cram his body into a heavy wooden chest. Instead of hiding themselves, or the evidence of their crime, they throw a party, inviting the dead man's loved ones to sip champagne and make small talk, just a few feet from his cooling corpse.
As the sun sets over the New York skyline, the guests at the "sacrificial feast" discuss the victim, and fret over his unexplained absence, while the burial chest looms in the foreground. Constance Collier as the dead man's aunt is imperiously hilarious, Cedric Hardwicke plays his father as a clearsighted, sober, moralist, the only one in the room. Slowly, the killers' university tutor, played by James Stewart in his first, dazzling, appearance for Hitchcock, begins to pick up on the clues.
The murderers are supercilious Brandon (John Dall), and sensitive Philip (Farley Granger): friends and, it is heavily implied, lovers, too. Rope is adapted from Patrick Hamilton's 1929 play of the same name, which itself was said to be based on the grisly Leopold and Loeb case of 1924. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were upper-class Chicago law students who went on a crime spree that culminated in the murder of a teenage boy. Like snobbish Brandon and Philip, the real-life murderers considered themselves Nietzschean supermen whose superiority of intellect exempted them from laws that govern the rest of us. "Good and evil, right and wrong were invented for the ordinary average man, the inferior man, because he needs them," claims Brandon, the deluded mastermind of the murder.
Killing a man, and getting away with it, too, just to feed one's own intellectual vanity, is a hideous, amoral stunt, but it's just the kind of trick that Hitchcock excels at. For the director, like Brandon and Philip, murder was an art, and when he made Rope he had a stunt of his own that he wanted to pull off.
Rope is, or purports to be, a one-shot film: an experiment in real-time, continuous-take cinema. Alexander Sokurov achieved the real thing in 2001's Russian Ark with one gargantuan 96-minute Steadicam shot looping around the St Petersburg Hermitage. Made 53 years earlier, Rope is neither as smooth, nor as mobile. Technically, the best thing here is the studio skyline-backdrop, with fibreglass clouds, a travelling sun and neon lights that blink a garish red and green as the film reaches its climax. Hitchcock's camera was loaded with 10-minute reels, and had to duck behind an actor's back, or a piece of furniture, to "invisibly" cut from one piece of film to the next. This clunkiness can be part of the film's claustrophobic strength though: the coffin-chest is rarely out of shot, and the camera follows the actors around every square inch of the confined set. They're trapped, and so is the audience. Perversely, this cinematic experiment replicates the theatrical experience: Rope feels "live", which means that at any minute one of the actors could do something unexpected, such as fluff their lines, or heaven forbid, open the trunk.
Hitchcock is torturing his audience, for sure, but he is also parading his own cleverness, and like Brandon, on some level he wants to be found out, too. There are, after all, cuts in the film: and you'll only notice them if you're watching the direction rather than the story. Once you've spotted one, you'll want to know why it's there, and then, bam, you're thinking about Hitchcock, the director and not his cattle. Just like Brandon, Hitchcock wants to be appreciated. When Stewart, playing the tutor, discovers the young men's crime, his fury is righteous: "Did you think you were God, Brandon?" Hitchcock always smirked that in his films the director was God. Everything we see on screen has been meticulously planned, thanks to Hitchcock's famous reliance on storyboarding and scripting (this one is by Arthur Laurents and Hume Cronym, with a little help from Ben Hecht). You could of course say the same of David's murder.
Hitchcock always wanted to make his audience suffer, and with Rope, guilt, the guilt that Brandon should be feeling, is what makes us miserable. The murderers need an audience to applaud their crimes, and with their dinner guests in the dark, our privileged knowledge of what's in the trunk makes us uneasily complicit in what they've done. A crowd of squirming spectators was bread-and-butter to Hitchcock: after all, he puts the murders on screen, but we're the ones who pay to watch them.