In praise of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope

Feature Ryan Lambie 24 Apr 2014 - 06:37

Famous for its long takes, Alfred Hitchcock's Rope is a blackly funny exercise in suspense, too. Ryan takes a look back...

"Murder can be art, too. The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create," runs a line in Rope, which aptly sums up Alfred Hitchcock's ability to craft tense and involving thrillers. The director once said that Rope was "an experiment that didn't work out", and it's still widely remembered for its daring, experimental use of long takes. Yet while Rope, released in 1948, isn't necessarily perfect, it's still engrossing, blackly comic and boldly constructed.

Adapted from the play of the same name by Patrick Hamilton (and loosely based in turn on a real-life murder case), Rope introduces two young Manhattan socialites who conspire to commit the perfect murder - and afterwards, throw the perfect dinner party. For the coldly sociopathic Brandon (John Dall) and his nervy partner Phillip (Farley Granger), the killing's a carefully-planned experiment designed to prove that they're the supermen Nietzsche wrote about in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Brandon and Phillip's unlucky victim is David (Dick Hogan), an ex-classmate who's chosen because, to quote a couple of words from Brandon later in the film, he's an "inferior man". "The Davids of this world merely occupy space," Brandon says, "which is why he was the perfect victim for the perfect murder."

When Hitchcock's prowling camera pulls us into the pair's expensive top-storey apartment overlooking the New York skyline, they've just finished throttling poor David with the titular bit of rope - the deed done, the body's bundled into a wooden chest. Then, Brandon and Phillip do what any sensible pair of murderers would do: they throw a party.

Yet even Brandon and Phillip's genteel get-together is part of their sly game; the guests are all connected to David in some way, and the occasion appears to have been engineered so that the murderers can revel in what they've done - that the guests are oblivious to the crime (and the corpse hidden in their midst) is further proof of their superiority. Said visitors include the victim's father, Henry (Cedric Hardwicke), his aunt, Anita (Constance Collier), his fiancee Janet (Joan Chandler) and his close friend and Janet's ex-lover, Kenneth  (Douglas Dick).

Brandon and Phillip will soon live to regret inviting their fifth and final visitor: Rupert (James Stewart), their old prep-school housemaster. As a guilt ridden Phillip plies himself with drink, Rupert begins to suspect that something's wrong, especially when a man whose name repeatedly crops up in conversation - David - is notable for his absence.

Much has been written about Hitchcock's use of long takes and sparing use of editing in Rope. His aim was to make a film that appeared to be shot in one continuous take, with the camera moving in and around the action rather than cutting to different camera angles. In practice, Hitchcock was limited by technology; a film camera's magazine could only shoot ten minutes of continuous footage, which forced Hitchcock to either mask his edits - usually by panning the camera into a dark area, such as a chair or Brandon's back - or by using conventional cuts to another angle.

In total, there are ten edits in Rope's 80 minute duration - four of them inserted to provide points where the projectionist could switch film reels every 20 minutes. The video below, created by Vashi Nedomansky, provides a wonderful illustration of where these edits fell:

These edits provide a clue to how meticulously Hitchcock and his crew planned and executed Rope. Every move of the camera had to be perfectly synched to the movements of the actors; the dialogue had to be expertly timed. The set was designed so that stage hands could silently whisk away walls to allow the cameraman to move around.

It's worth noting how effectively Hitchcock used his technologically-enforced hard cuts as well: note how, in so many of them, we cut to Jimmy Stewart's expressive face: it accentuates first his growing suspicion at Brandon and Phillip's odd behaviour, and finally his horror at the pair's terrible crime.

As the camera roves around the grim party, the audience becomes an invisible gatecrasher. As the guests trade quips and chatter about films or plays or philosophy, and Phillip continues to numb himself with booze, we become aware that night is falling outside. The New York cityscape was a gigantic scale replica of the real thing, with dozens of tiny lights and clouds made of fiberglass. All of this stagecraft and technical cunning comes together to heighten the suspense and black humour already in the script: we know what Brandon and Phillip have done, and we're watching and wondering if and how they'll get away with murder.

There's a parallel between the Rope's content and its execution, in fact: just as Rope is about two men hiding a corpse in plain sight, so Hitchcock attempts to hide his filmmaking trickery. Like Brandon, who appears to enjoy the power of not only killing but repeatedly hinting at what he's done during the party afterwards, so Hitchcock appears to enjoy toying with his audience. He picks out the rictus-grin darkness that's there in the script - the use of the chest concealing the body as an ad-hoc dining table, the murder weapon used to tie up a pile of books given to the victim's father.

Hitchcock captures all this with barely-contained glee, and it's rarely noted that, as dark and even controversial as Rope may have seemed at the time (that Brandon and Phillip are lovers is clear, and could have caused the film to have fallen foul of the censors in the 1948) it also happens to be extremely funny. Brandon and Phillip may think they're supermen, but all their crime does is reveal their innate flaws - baseless self-confidence and toxic narcissism in the case of Brandon, and cowardliness and a hankering for the demon drink in the case of Phillip. Another example of Hitchcock's humour: his blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo, where his profile appears on a neon sign for a fictional slimming product called Reduco.

Admittedly, not everything in Hitchcock's experiment works perfectly. The tendency for the camera to home in on characters' backs could be described as distracting, and a late, moralising speech from Rupert feels like a strange fit in an otherwise slickly-written tale. Yet it's still a superb thriller, and while Hitchcock himself may have been dissatisfied with it, Rope remains both pioneering and inspiring: films like Silent House and Gravity, with their long and apparently seamless takes, surely owe a debt to Hitchcock's film. With its macabre humour and great performances - especially from John Dall as the cold-blooded Brandon - is a short, brilliantly sharp exercise in suspense. In Hitchcock's hands, murder really can be art, too.

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