You have to give it to Alfred Hitchcock. He could have comfortably kept making the same type of movie over and over again if he chose to, and in the process made a lot of money and a lot of really fantastic films. But what set him apart and made him perhaps the greatest director of all time was his constant desire to push the envelope. He famously had to fight exceptionally hard to get Psycho (1960) made, blew the budget on a Salvador Dali dream sequence in Spellbound (1945) and got all high concept with Lifeboat (1944). Another film quite similar in premise to that is the baby-faced Jimmy Stewart starring Rope (1948).
The high concept Rope all takes place in a single small apartment. It sees two young men Brandon and Phillip covering up a murder (which they carried our using the titular weapon) whilst hosting a dinner party, with the body hidden away in the apartment as friends and family mingle. Amongst those friends is Rupert, played by a pretty young Jimmy Stewart. This mentor figure is the audience’s way into the film, reacting as we may to the events as they unfold. Rupert is brought to life by Stewart’s remarkable humorous sensibility, which shines through even in roles such as this which are not particularly comedic. The body literally sitting in the middle of the room whilst characters linger around it casts a pall on proceedings, from the perspective of the audience at least, though not the unsuspecting characters. The body also influences what is a very smart script, resulting in everything taking on different meaning if you have the knowledge of what is really going on. It is a wordy script too which is quite bold, the characters expounding a lot of ideas aloud, in a way which never ends up feeling like the unnecessary regurgitation of the plot and bringing the audience up to speed, rather adding complexity to the film’s thematic focus. The film is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, which is an interesting stylistic choice. It works though, boxing in the action on screen and intensifying the claustrophobia that the audience and especially the under pressure characters onscreen are feeling.
Given the premise, it is in themes not plot that Rope has the most weight. Right from the start, you can tell that Hitchcock’s primary concern with the film is psychology. Brandon and Phillip go through a range of feelings in terms of the crime they have committed, from contentment, to guilt, to horror. This is all informed by the distinct hint of homoeroticism in their relationship and the way that one seems to be able to control and guide the other. Also feeding into the psychology of the participants is their class, which has imbued the perpetrators, Brandon in particular, with a sense of entitlement and smug satisfaction in what he has done. The manner in which Brandon and Philip revel in their intellectual game is also connected to their class. It is as if they are bored by the leisure activities that society offers them, so instead of polo they resort to a sick game of cat and mouse, as if that is the right that their class affords them. The experiment of pulling of the perfect crime, killing for the sake of danger and sake of killing, also serves to stoke the ego of the perpetrators, reinforcing what they have always been told – they are special and they are better than those around them.
Verdict: Rope always feels a little too small a film to be counted amongst the very best of Hitchcock. But there is no shame in that and the psychological aspects of the film are unique, intense and expertly written and performed. Stubby of Reschs