“An arrogant person considers himself perfect. This is the chief harm of arrogance. It interferes with a person’s main task in life – becoming a better person.” – Leo Tolstoy
Apparently once referred to by its masterful creator as, “an experiment that didn’t work out,” this lesser known title in the Hitchcock oeuvre is dazzling, thrilling, witty, and a remarkable display of the command of the art form the notorious director possessed. Designed to feel as if shot in five separate twenty minute single takes spliced together to create a seamless narrative happening in real time, it is the precursor to every one take wonder, from RUSSIAN ARK to VICTORIA to the Best Picture winning BIRDMAN. However, it’s worth noting that the gap between Hitchcock’s attempt and the others listed is vast. Being the first recorded feature of such daring, it wasn’t for another thirty-four years that another filmmaker would try it again. The reason long takes are used so frequently in contemporary film is that the technology has finally caught up to the visionaries. That’s what makes ROPE truly amazing: Hitchcock was using the full ten minutes of film camera magazine capacity allowed at the time, using them like no other auteur before him. Though to reduce the film to simply its groundbreaking wizardry feels like a slight to the diamond in the rough that it is as a complete picture. Adapted from a 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton, it features a delightful cast and a sharp, smart script that compliment the incredible craftsmanship, making it a truly underrated classic.
Partially inspired by Nathan Leopold, Richard Loeb, and their real-life murder of a 14-year old boy named Bobby Franks, the action begins with immediate homicide. As the credits conclude, we hear a cry from within an apartment, quickly cutting to the sight of David Kentley (Dick Hogan) gasping for air as he’s strangled to death with the a length of rope, per the film’s title. As he breaths his last, we’re introduced to the two killers, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger). Their motives are not initially clear, but their relationship and dynamic is established almost instantaneously. The weight of the act is almost unbearable for Phillip, while Brandon basks in his triumph. True life inspirations Leopold and Loeb are believed to have had a sexual relationship with each other, but, due to the Hays Code, the nature of Brandon and Philip’s is never explicitly stated, though enormously hinted at frequently, such as Brandon’s almost post-coital cigarette immediately following David’s death. They’ve pulled off the perfect crime to prove their superiority, they believe, and stuffed his corpse into the chest in the living room. The finishing touch is yet to be done: hosting a dinner party with the chest acting as a buffet table to serve the food with a sense of dark, twisted irony. Yet as the guests arrive and with no sign of David, it isn’t just Brandon who becomes nervous, and everything begins to unravel, verging on someone eventually discovering their secret.
Its theatrical beginnings are far from hidden, but its rapid dialogue and variety of characters convey the charming ensemble-esque feel of the stage at the time, and that’s thanks in part to a colorful group of actors. For the two murderers, as well as probable lovers, Dall and Granger are perfectly matched to one another, and the tension is palpable from the start. With an air of arrogance, sophistication, and budding pleasure, Dall’s Brandon moves throughout the apartment, executing his plan with devilish details and manipulations, while Granger’s Phillip is always lurking in the background, becoming progressively more and more intoxicated and less and less restrained. Granger may have some laughably heightened moments in his performance, but when considering how much he’s been hitting the bottle, it’s not surprising his anxiety is insanely amplified. There’s some wonderful bits of character work from Constance Collier as David’s eccentric aunt and Edith Evanson as the housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson, but the real surprise is Joan Chandler as David’s fiancé, Janet. Her career on film only spanned two credits, this being the last, but she’s ridiculously funny and has a fantastic screen presence, it seems such a shame her time in the movies ended so quickly. But, of course, the true star is James Stewart as Rupert Cadell, the boys old prep-school housemaster. Stewart has always been noteworthy for his compelling humanity, honest charm, and downright powerful veracity, and this is no exception, but I also can’t think of anytime he’s been this laugh-out-loud hilarious, his eyes and head movements eliciting many a guffaw. His is the performance that highlights the film’s journey, carrying it through to its blistering conclusion.
It absolutely bears repeating the sheer immensity of craft necessary to have pulled off this feat so successfully. Hitchcock had to plan out every single movement of the camera, actors, crew members, even the walls themselves which moved silently on rollers to make way for the bulky Technicolor camera. Everything had to be so precise to fit perfectly within the ten minutes of time they had to pull off a shot, and one individual was gagged on set when his foot was broken by a heavy dolly just so they could finish the take uninterrupted. Due to the short length of time, Hitchcock made “hidden” cuts at the conclusion of each shot, almost always closing in on a piece of dark clothing to occupy the whole frame only to pan away from it at the start of a next piece of film. There are direct cuts as well, every twenty or so minutes, as that was the maximum amount of time a film reel could hold before needing to be switched by the projectionist. As necessary as they are, they still come across expertly planned, more often than not highlighting a shift in mood or perspective. This also marks Hitchcock’s first use of color, and while it may not reach the lofty heights of the rich vividness of VERTIGO or NORTH BY NORTHWEST, it does add some nice touches as the day slowly sinks into night. The cyclorama in the background representing the New York skyline paints a wonderful sunset, and the neon lighting outside flickers red and green adding to the intensity of the final encounter.
Astounding, surprising, and expertly executed, ROPE is, if anything, a showcase of the the level of talent and virtuosity of the man who would eventually give us one of the most perfectly structured and directed films of all time. It’s leaps and bounds ahead of its time, a pioneering art work underappreciated upon its release as well as in film history. Not merely a stunt, it’s a riveting eighty minutes of a roller coaster ride with splendidly biting humor, a motley crowd of characters, and intense, arresting power. It’s also a fascinating examination of homosexuality depicted onscreen during an age of repression and censorship, Hitchcock’s hints and allusions as telling now more than ever, and the entirety of the film, particularly Brandon and Phillip’s shared secret, acts as a gigantic metaphor all to itself. There’s no doubt the famed director was meticulous in every aspect of the film’s creation, down to every movement, word, gesture, even breath. The two murderers’ hubris and arrogance at creating the perfect crime eventually becomes their downfall, but Hitchcock himself is in every way deserving of his pride, because he may have found the perfect way to capture that perfect crime.
(They Shoot Pictures is a series of posts dedicated to viewing films from the yearly updated 1,000 greatest films list “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?”, compiled from rankings by critics and filmmakers alike at theyshootpictures.com)