Rope (1949): Hitchcock’s Provocative Thriller, Starring Jimmy Stewart, John Dall and Farley Granger

“Rope,” Hitchcock’s 1948 movie turns Chicago’s infamous old Leopold- Loeb murder case into mystery-drawing-room comedy. There have been many versions of this case, including the 1959 “Compulsion” and the recent indie, Tom Kalin’s 1992 “Swoon.”

Arthur Laurents’ script, adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play, “Rope’s End,” is full of smart lines and arch speeches that once defined wit and decadence in the Broadway theater. ‘What would you say to some champagne’ Brandon asks one of his guests at the post-murder cocktail party he’s giving. ‘Hello, champagne,’ says the guest. Actor Hume Cronyn and ace scripter Ben Hecht are also credited as writers.

Shaw Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) have carefully planned and executed the’ murder of their long-time friend, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), whose body they’ve hidden in an antique chest occupying a prominent place in their living room. Hitchcock told Truffaut that the film was a “stunt,” and that “I really don’t know how I came to indulge in ‘Rope.” But clearly, the film is more than a stunt; it’s an ambitious experiment.

Hitchcock was interested whether he could find a cinematic equivalent to the play, which takes place in the actual length of time of the story. Hence, he decided to shoot it in what appears to be one long, continuous ‘take,’ without cutaways or any other breaks in the action, though in fact there would have to be a disguised break every 10 minutes, the length of stock a camera could contain.

These breaks are achieved by having the camera panning across someone’s back, during which dark close-ups the film reel is changed. The obsession to tell a story without the usual methods of montage, or cutting from shot to shot, results in a film of unusual technical facility, whose style and mood suits its subject matter.

Though the film was made when any suggestion of homosexuality was taboo, ‘Rope’ is explicit without actually committing any offenses the Production Code could object to. Brandon, who dominates his homosexual lover, Philip, strangles David with ordinary clothesline. David’s only crime seems to be that he’s ‘ordinary,’ i.e. engaged to be married. It’s OK to be “normal” but not “ordinary,” because “ordinary” means being boring and average. Aversion to being “ordinary” runs through many of Hitchcock’s films, including “Shadow of a Doubt.”

The two men place David’s remains into the chest and attend to their cocktail party for a small group of guests, including David’s father (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), aunt (Constance Collier), and fianc (Joan Chandler), and their former teacher Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart).

There’s a speech at the end in which the murderers’ prep-school teacher, Rupert Cadell, that brought up his pupils on Nietzsche’s and Darwin’s superman theories, recants and admits that his theorizing has been false. In one of the few roles in which he was miscast, Stewart seems uncomfortable playing an intellectual, and his dull performance fails to project quality of superior yet disturbed authority.

Unlike other movies, in “Rope,” Hitchcock is less concerned with sharp characterization and moral dilemmas than with describing how a seemingly “perfect” crime goes wrong.

Hitchcock loved to test himself and his medium by working in tough, confined spaces, as was evident in ‘Lifeboat,’ set entirely in a lifeboat. “Rope’ shows a cinema master at work. Indeed, the camera is a marvel to watch as it swoops and swirls around the set, with close-ups, medium, and long shots.

Hitchcock constructed a set that encompassed 35 square miles of skyline, including such landmarks as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. The skyline included an ad for Reduco, featuring a before and after silhouette of Hitchcock; a similar gag was also used in a newspaper in “Lifeboat.”

Career-wise, “Rope” is superior to the two movies between which it was released: “The Paradine Case” (1947) and “Under Capricorn” (1948). But hold on, the best Hitchcock is yet to come in films of the 1950s and 1960s.

For the record: With a running time of 80 minutes, “Rope” is Hitchcock’s shortest American film.