Hitchcock Collection: Rope Review
The years following Shadow of a Doubt were very productive for Hitchcock. He experimented with minimalist suspense in Lifeboat, made an all-out loony melodrama – the highly enjoyable Spellbound - and Notorious, a film which, for me, remains his most completely achieved work and a masterpiece that ranks alongside Vertigo as Hitchcock’s finest. However, his next film for Selznick, The Paradine Case, was a dreary mess and it was becoming clear that Hitchcock was a director who was capable of shaking hands with greatness but would, given the wrong project, turn out mediocre work that demonstrated few of his talents. What perked him up was the formation of his own company, Transatlantic Pictures. This eventually emerged out of his 1942 talks with the British impresario Sidney Bernstein and was designed as a way of producing independent pictures in both Britain and America. Hitch wanted to make Under Capricorn with Ingrid Bergman but she was unavailable so he and Bernstein decided to make a stop-gap picture in the interim. This turned out to be Rope, an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s popular 1929 play.
The story of the play is, in itself, pretty sensational and, for 1948, on the verge of the unacceptable. Philip (Granger) and Brandon (Dall) are successful men who live together – this being one of the allegedly grey areas of the film which is actually not grey at all. Together, they plot and perform ‘the perfect crime’ in which the victim is
a young friend named David Kentley. Hubris leads them to immediately follow the crime with a dinner party while the body is lying in a chest upon which dinner is served. Delighted at their own cruel ingenuity, they invite David’s parents, his fiancé, her ex-boyfriend and their old schoolmaster Rupert Cadell (Stewart) whose teaching has inadvertently influenced them to commit the crime, sure of their own superiority.
This is loosely based on the case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, postgraduates at the University of Chicago who killed their young neighbour Robert 'Bobby' Franks. The crime itself is different but the planning and motivation was the same. They believed themselves superior to the run of ‘normal’ people and considered that murder was an art which should be practised by superior beings who were above the conventional morality of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. They were also homosexuals whose sexual games placed them alternately in the roles of master and slave. Experts have suggested that the portrayal in Rope - where Brandon is dominant over Philip – is simplistic since both Leopold and Loeb had dominant and submissive tendencies. Watching the film now, it seems blindingly obvious that Brandon and Philip are meant to be gay even while the film glides over the subject completely, for reasons of censorship and, one must assume, popular taste. The fact that the subject was even implicit was fairly extraordinary for the time and one can easily imagine Hitchcock’s glee at getting one over on the Legion of Decency – especially when the film opens with a shot of David Kentley being strangled while his two killers seem to be in some kind of momentary orgasmic ecstasy. Brandon and Philip are the first major homosexual characters in Hitchcock’s work and some have suggested that if you group them with Martin Landau’s sadistic killer in North By Northwest and, possibly, Norman Bates, then you can see Hitchcock’s homophobia coming into the open. I wouldn’t go so far. If Hitchcock was prejudiced against gay men (and I’m not sure these examples prove it) then this probably reflects the attitudes of his generation rather than any specific personal animus.
In addition to his interest in a macabre murder story, , Hitchcock approached Rope as a somewhat artificial technical exercise which would extend the challenge of Lifeboat in a revolutionary way. It would be shot in a series of ten-minute takes, that being the length of a Technicolor reel. The only cuts would be those necessitated by changing the film in the huge Technicolor camera. Why Hitch chose this, of all films, to be his first in colour is a mystery but it certainly added to the complications. The whole mystique of the ‘long take’ has become a little lost during our own time when lengthy unbroken shots are fairly common – filmmakers such as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma pride themselves on their ability to produce them. The Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov has even topped Hitchcock by making an entire film, Russian Ark, in one continuous 96 minute shot. However, digital video and the Steadicam help to make this more practical than it was in 1948 and we shouldn’t underestimate the amount of skill and preparation which Rope required. The result, Hitch hoped, was a simulation of the experience of watching a stage play, and although it’s become fashionable to pour scorn on the artificial reel changes (close-ups of someone’s back and suchlike), I find the technique fascinating. The camera prowls around the single set on elaborate tracks, picking up details (Philip’s cut hand, Brandon’s increasing number of edgy mannerisms) with unerring skill. The camera seems to become a character in the film, judging and selecting in the manner of some omniscient detective. This really does build up considerable dramatic impetus and it’s quite fun trying to spot how the transitions are going to be made. The final transition – when the chest is flung open – is a marvellously old-fashioned coup-de-theatre, played for all it is worth.
Rope strikes me as an underrated film. Although it’s obviously stage-bound and a little too pleased with itself – as filmic experiments often are – it’s got a strong script and manages to etch in characters with a few ingenious strokes. I particularly like the way that the killing is shown at the beginning so the suspense is directed towards when the killers will get found out – Hitchcock did this again in Frenzy when it worked even better. Apart from Farley Granger, whose can’t make much of his irritatingly neurotic character, the cast have a field day, especially the excellent John Dall (an actor who never fulfilled his potential) and Sir Cedric Hardwicke who is very touching as David’s father. Particularly noteworthy is James Stewart as the bookish, naïve Rupert who can’t see that he is implicated in the crime through his casual teaching of some pretty dubious Nietzschean views to a couple of very impressionable teenagers.
It’s a tricky part because Rupert is apparently intended to be a hero despite being – from a certain point of view - partly responsible for the murder of David. There are interesting subtexts here. When a crime is committed, how much blame do we apportion to the influence behind it? Should a teacher be delivering knowledge or providing an intellectual model to be followed? How precisely did Rupert intend Brandon and Philip to take his teachings? None of these are followed up – the tight 81 minute running time doesn’t allow that – but that they are raised is just about enough to give Stewart’s performance some unusual edges. Towards the end, he is made the voice of conventional moral authority and Stewart manages to pull this off, although at the end most of our questions about his character go unanswered.
Alfred Hitchcock retained a fondness for Rope, its misanthropy probably proving congenial to his darker moods. It didn’t do too well at the box office however and several critics considered it little more than a failed experiment. The next film he made for Transatlantic was Under Capricorn which reunited him with Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton. It was a huge flop, critically and commercially. Fifty years on, Under Capricorn looks like a film that touches greatness so often that it’s in need of a complete reappraisal. But it made three commercial duds in a row for HItchcock and this seems to have led him to rethink certain aspects of his career. When we pick up the story again, with the brilliant Rear Window, six years will have passed and Hitchcock is entering his decade-long golden age.
The new disc of Rope in Universal’s “Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection” has been re-mastered and looks very good indeed. Whether it’s a great improvement over the earlier release is a moot point. I haven’t seen the original disc myself but the consensus amongst reviewers seems to be that it’s a little bit sharper but that’s about it.
The 1.33:1 colour transfer is generally pretty good. The colours aren’t knock-your-eyes-out rich but this may well have been intentional. The slightly muted tones suit the film very well with occasional reds and yellows standing out. There is some print damage but nothing too serious. I did notice a certain amount of artifacting cropping up here and there but, again, it’s not a deal-breaker.
The mono soundtrack is, as with the other discs in this set, very good indeed. Dialogue and music are in perfect accord and there is little hiss or distortion.
The extras are not generous but they are well worth a look. As usual, we get a making-of documentary from Laurent Bouzereau – “Rope Unleashed” – and it’s a good one. Not because it gives a thorough account of the production but because it contains an interview from screenwriter Arthur Laurents which is jaw-droppingly bitchy and often very funny. How much of it you take as gospel is up to you but it’s great fun to listen to him. We also get comments from Hitchcock’s daughter and the adapter of the original play, Hume Cronyn. Along with this, we get some interesting production photographs, brief but diverting production notes and the excellent theatrical trailer. This is fascinating because it introduces the character of David Kentley, stops and then states “That’s the last time he was seen alive”. Such an elaborate conceit was unusual even in 1948 and this makes the trailer a lovely period piece.
The film has optional subtitles and once again, this extends to the extras – something for which Universal deserves a good deal of credit.