ROPE (1948) – Transatlantic Pictures – Rating: ★★★ 1/2
Color – 80 mins. – 1.37:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: James Stewart (Rupert Cadell), Farley Granger (Phillip Morgan), John Dall (Brandon Shaw), Cedric Hardwicke (Mr. Kentley), Constance Collier (Mrs. Atwater), Joan Chandler (Janet Walker), Edith Evanson (Mrs. Wilson), Douglas Dick (Kenneth Lawrence).
Written by Hume Cronyn (treatment), Arthur Laurents (screenplay)
Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine
Edited by: William H. Ziegler
On May 7, 1947 Alfred Hitchcock wrapped production on The Paradine Case, bringing to a close his nearly eight year affiliation with David O. Selznick. Although the Selznick/Hitchcock period began rather auspiciously with Rebecca in 1940, it was drawing to an unsatisfying close. Cast and crew alike seemed to sense that The Paradine Case was doomed to failure. But Hitchcock himself seemed little phased. As at other points of his career when he was making what he felt to be a substandard picture (e.g. Waltzes From Vienna, Jamaica Inn) his mind was already on his next project.
And that project was titled Rope, and would be the first film made by Transatlantic Picures, a production company founded by Hitchcock and partner Sidney Bernstein. Transatlantic Pictures made a deal with Warner Brothers for distribution, beginning an association between Hitchcock and Warners that would last for several years.
Rope was an unconventional film, both in story and in structure. It begins with two young men murdering their friend, just for the thrill of it. They then place his body in a trunk, and proceed to host a dinner party, serving the food from the very trunk which holds the body. The party guests are all intimately related to the young victim as well, including his father, his aunt, his girlfriend, and his best friend. The most interesting guest however is Rupert Cadell, former prep-school housemaster of the murderers and the victim. Over the course of the evening, he suspects that something is awry, and will ultimately figure out exactly what happened.
Continuous action: Perhaps it is best to let Hitchcock himself describe the manner in which Rope was filmed:
I wanted to do a picture with no time lapses – a picture in which the camera never stops… As I see it, there’s nothing like continuous action to sustain the mood of actors, particularly in a suspense story. In Rope the entire action takes place between the setting of the sun and the hour of darkness. There are a murder, a party, mounting tension, detailed psychological characterizations, the gradual discovery of the crime and the solution. Yet all this consumes less than two hours of real life as well as ‘reel’ life.
So Rope is meant to play out in real time, with the 80-minute running time equaling 80 minutes of story time. There are 10 editorial cuts in the movie, meaning that the takes average 8 minutes in length. That is a long period of time to film without cutting. Imagine an actor flubbing his line, or a technical mistake, at the seven-minute mark. That meant resetting to the beginning of the sequence and starting over. Here is Hitch again:
Rope was a miracle of cueing. Everybody; actors, cameramen, the prop crew, the electricians, the script supervisors, spent two solid weeks of rehearsals before a camera turned. Even before the set was built I worked out each movement on a blackboard in my home…Whole walls of the apartment had to slide away to allow the camera to follow the actors through narrow doors, then swing back noiselessly to show a solid room…Tables and chairs had to be pulled away by prop men, then set in place again by the time the camera returned to its original position…But the most magical of all the devices was the cyclorama – an exact miniature reproduction of nearly 35 miles of New York skyline lighted by 8,000 incandescent bulbs and 200 neon signs…On film the miniature looks exactly like Manhattan at night as it would appear from the window of an apartment at 54th Street and First Avenue.
In the above picture, you can view the cyclorama in the background. The clouds, made of spun glass, would “move” across the cyclorama as the action progressed. And as the late afternoon turned to evening, the sky would darken, and the lights in the buildings would turn on.
Now here is the same cyclorama seen from a more close-up angle, and later in the evening.
Source material: The movie is based upon the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton, which in turn was inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case. (Leopold and Loeb were two University of Chicago students who murdered a fourteen year old boy to demonstrate their “intellectual superiority” in pulling off the perfect crime. They were caught and sentenced to life in prison.) Arthur Laurents’ screenplay follows the structure of the play fairly closely, with a couple of minor changes. The setting is moved from London to New York. In the play, it is a blue theatre ticket that provides the final clue for Rupert Cadell to solve the crime; in the movie it is the victim’s hat, which is given to Rupert by accident, that serves as a clue.
Overall the dialogue of Laurents’ screenplay is better than the original play, but there is some delicious dialogue in the play that didn’t make it to the movie including a great self-referential moment, as the denouement approaches, when the character of Rupert says “It is the hour when jaded London theatre audiences are settling down in the darkness to the last acts of plays” which is of course exactly what the very audience listening to this dialogue was doing! But Arthur Laurents creates his own referential joke in his screenplay. When Mrs. Atwater and Janet (played by Constance Collier and Joan Chandler) are discussing movies, Mrs. Atwater is swooning over Cary Grant. She says “He was thrilling in that new thing with Bergman. What was it called now? The ‘something of the something’? No, it was just plain ‘something'”. This is, of course, a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s own film Notorious, which had been a hit two years earlier, in 1946. Hitchcock must have apprecited the in-joke.
Hitchcock and homosexuality: There are several Hitchcock films that have homosexual undertones, but nowhere is the theme more prevalent than in Rope. Leopold and Loeb, the actual killers that inspired the story, were in a gay relationship. And that relationship remains intact in the Patrick Hamilton play. So it is only natural that it would be carried over to the screen version as well. Of course gay themes were strictly taboo in 1948 Hollywood, so they had to be implied through subtleties of screenplay and acting. It probably helped that the movie’s screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, was gay. The two actors who played the homosexual killers, Farley Granger and John Dall, were gay as well. As a matter of fact, Laurents and Granger were in a relationship at the time the movie was in production. Granger had this to say in his autobiography: “John Dall and I discussed the subtext of our scenes together. We knew that Hitch knew what he was doing and had built sexual ambiguity into his presentation of the material.” Watch the early scenes between Dall and Granger, watch how close they get to one another, listen to the tone of Granger’s voice. The gay relationship is hiding in plain sight. When Phillip asks Brandon “How did you feel, during it?” He is asking about the murder, but the viewer can imagine that same query in an entirely different scenario. Later, when Brandon (played by John Dall), is describing Phillip (Farley Granger) strangling chickens, Phillip vehemently denies ever strangling a chicken. There are layers to the guilt here. Phillip feels guilty because he has recently strangled a person, but the phrase “choking the chicken” also has another entirely different connotation. This entwining of guilt that Phillip feels, his double secret ( he is a murderer, and he is gay), continues throughout the film.
Performance: There are only eight characters in the film (nine if you count David Kentley, but he is killed in the first minute). I’ve already discussed the good performances of John Dall and Farley Granger. Everyone else is solid in this as well. Cedrick Hardwicke and Constance Collier, two veterans of the stage, are clearly in their element in this film involving long takes. Joan Chandler, Douglas Dick, and Edith Evanson are well cast too. But the biggest surprise here is Jimmy Stewart. Stewart later admitted that he was miscast in this role, but his performance is very good. In the original stage play, the character of Rupert Cadell was the boys’ housemaster at school, and he exposed them to the idea of intellectually superior beings, who could kill “lesser” people with impunity. But he also “taught” them something else as well; for in the play, Rupert is gay as well, and probably was involved with both young men at some point. Well there was no way Jimmy Stewart was going to play a gay character; even an implied homosexual element was out of the question. So Jimmy played it straight. His character works like a detective, sensing something strange about this dinner party from the very beginning. then gathering evidence until the final scene, when he uncovers the truth and summons the police.
Hitchcock and color: Rope was shot in Technicolor, the first color movie in Hitchcock’s career. Hitchcock had some very interesting thoughts on color which are worth sharing. He said:
I never wanted to make a Technicolor picture merely for the sake of using color. I waited until I could find a story in which color could play a dramatic role, and still be muted to a low key…The key role played by color in this film is in the background. I insisted that color be used purely as the eye received it…We must bear in mind that, fundamentally, there’s no such thing as color; in fact, there’s no such thing as a face, because until the light hits it, it is nonexistent. After all, one of the first things I learned in the School of Art was that there is no such thing as a line; there’s only the light and the shade.
Theatrical trailer: Throughout the course of his career, Alfred Hitchcock had many unique and innovative trailers made for his movies. The trailer for Rope is one of the most interesting. It begins with a scene featuring the characters David Kentley and Janet Walker, sitting on a bench in Central Park. David is killed in the very first moment of the film, and has no dialogue (other than a scream). And yet here he is, conversing with Janet in a scene that could function as a prologue to the film! The trailer is narrated by Jimmy Stewart, and can be viewed here. (Please note: All rights to this film are owned by Universal Pictures.)
Recurring players: James Stewart would later appear in Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much remake, and Vertigo. Farley Granger would reunite with Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train. Cedric Hardwicke also appeared in Suspicion. And Edith Evanson would appear in Marnie almost 20 years later.
Where’s Hitch? One could say that Hitchcock has two cameos in this movie. Since the action all takes place in one apartment, he first decided to insert himself by creating a neon sign of his famous profile, which is visible out the window at about the 55 minute mark. The profile is difficult to recognize on a small screen, and the word that appears underneath it in neon is pretty much impossible to see. And that word is “Reduco”, the weight-loss aid that was the basis of Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat. (So the neon sign is an advertisement, justifying its appearance on the New York skyline.) Perhaps because it was so hard to spot, or so unconventional, Hitchcock shot a more straightforward cameo; he can be seen walking down the street from left to right with an unknown woman at about 1:58, just after his director credit fades.
Look closely! There is Hitch’s profile, over the word “Reduco”.
What the actors said: In his autobiography, Farley Granger said that “Rope was an interesting technical experiment that I was lucky and happy to be a part of, but I don’t think it was one of Hitchcock’s better films.”
Jimmy Stewart said that “Rope
wasn’t my favorite picture”, and observed that the film was “nothing more than an experiment.” However, he followed that by saying “I’m glad I did it, and I’ll go on record as saying I’ll make a picture for Alfred Hitchcock anytime.”
Hume Cronyn, who appeared as an actor in two Hitchcock films, wrote the original story treatment with Hitch. Here is what Hume had to say in his autobiography about writing with Hitchcock:
When Hitch found a story he liked, he enjoyed talking about it. He would spin the tale and dwell lovingly on its climaxes, its surprises, and how the camera would enhance these. I can see him now, seated, waving his thick, stubby-fingered hands about, simulating the camera movements…He thought in images…Hitch and I would sit in the garden of his Bel Air house, talk, discuss and argue; then I would go back to North Rockingham Avenue and put it all down on paper. We did not meet every day; I was too busy scribbling for that. When we did meet, there were certain hazards to be avoided; one of the most severe was that I should not get drunk. Hitch was a great believer in a relaxed approach to work and before lunch the wine bottle would appear and he would decant on the vineyard, the vintage, and the nature of the grape as he poured and poured again.
What Hitch said: Hitchcock had the same reservations about this film as his actors did, saying “I undertook Rope as a stunt, that’s the only way I can describe it…As an experiment, Rope may be forgiven.” Not a very ringing endorsement. Perhaps the most significant thing he said is in reference to the technical aspects of the production: “…technique is merely a means to an end and the audience must never be aware the camera, the director, or the photographer is performing miracles. Everything must flow smoothly and naturally.”
Definitive edition: The 2012 blu-ray release of Rope, from Universal, is the best available sound and picture quality for this movie. The print is very clean, the color sharp and balanced. Extra features include a 32-minute documentary titled Rope Unleashed, which features interviews with Farley Granger and screenwriter Arthur Laurents. Also included are production photos, and the original theatrical trailer.