Hitchcock gives plenty of “Rope” in excellent interior murder mystery

Alfred Hitchcock, “Rope” (1948)

Adapted from a play by Patrick Hamilton and based on an actual murder case in which two young men strangled a teenage boy, “Rope” deserves to be a better known Hitchcock film than it is. Shot on one set, the movie is a series of several mobile 10-minute “takes” artfully put together so that the action more or less looks continuous to viewers. This method of filming and structuring the script so that the action took place in real time put a great deal of strain on the cast, especially the lead actors, and on the props people moving furniture during filming so it’s a measure of their ability and composure that most of the seven actors in “Rope” look composed and show tension and strain only when required to by the dialogue-driven plot.

Rich young flatmates Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger) have just killed their friend and former classmate David and stashed his body inside a chest. Their housemaid Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanston) returns from shopping and the three prepare a party for David’s family and friends who include his fiancee Janet (Joan Chandler) and his best friend Kenneth (Douglas Dirk) who happens to be Janet’s ex-boyfriend. The flatmates also invite their old university teacher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) who taught David as well. The chest is used as the buffet to serve the food. While the party guests wonder why David is taking so long to arrive and if he’s been held up somehow, the hosts steer the small talk to the art of murder and the argument, based on a popular interpretation of Nietzschean philosophy, that it’s not murder for someone of superior quality or character to kill a lesser being. Cadell gradually becomes suspicious and deduces from the mix of talk of strangling chickens, David’s absence, Mrs Wilson’s mention that she had the afternoon off to go shopping and circumstantial visual evidence that his old students have indeed applied his teaching literally.

Dall and Granger as the two gay flatmates are great in their roles: Brandon (who may be slightly sociopathic) valiantly strives to maintain an air of cool smug composure and even delight but as the day passes, cracks appear in his pretence as he becomes nervous and starts to stutter at odd times. Conscience-stricken Phillip becomes more agitated and confused and acts in strange ways that arouse Cadell’s suspicions; Granger perhaps starts too early in the film having qualms about his role in the murder and some of his acting verges on the hammy but his overall performance is good. The other guests don’t notice the hosts’ bizarre behaviour: the older people are worried about David, and Janet and Kenneth stare daggers at each other. Stewart, perhaps miscast for his role, affects a kind of stand-offish avuncular intellectual stance which fades out once he suspects his old students are up to something; but his investigative side is well done. Chandler and Dick as the estranged couple don’t have much dialogue together but still put up a credible if sketchy job sorting out their differences amid mutual suspicion and at least agreeing to be friendly again when they leave the apartment.

The film falls flat at its climax when Cadell berates the two flatmates, back-tracking and arguing against what he originally taught the two in his lectures. The suggestion is that philosophy itself as an intellectual exercise, and Nietzschean philosophy in particular, leads people into dangerous and amoral ways of thinking and behaving. The climax might have been stronger if Cadell had not only emphasised David’s humanity but made his argument against murder using the same philosophy and concepts that Brandon and Phillip had used to justify killing their friend. Cadell could have shown them that it is their narrow egotistic and self-serving interpretation of the Nietzschean idea of the Superman that has led them to murder, and in this way the flatmates learn they must be solely responsible for their actions and accept all the consequences, including a possible death penalty, that arise from them. (True Nietzschean Supermen gladly accept everything that life throws at them, including pain, isolation, shame and humiliation if necessary, as a test of their mettle and as something that guides their evolution to a higher state of being and living.) The scene could still be one full of anguish for Cadell and he could still feel guilty for his part in David’s murder, as he comes to realise that perhaps he’s not as good a teacher as he thought.

The use of one set with a constantly roving camera gives a claustrophobic feel to “Rope” and there are many touches of macabre humour in the dialogue, replete with double entendres that add more tension and make Phillip more nervous, and in the dinner party conceit itself: it is more than a farewell party (Brandon and Phillip are planning to drive to Connecticut after the party finishes), it is David’s wake as well. And what could be more gruesome and funny than to serve the food off David’s coffin?

The homosexual relationship of Brandon and Phillip is a definite subtext – Brandon as the more assured, dominant partner, Phillip as the more submissive partner – and the movie suggests they killed David because, apart from being “ordinary”, he is heading for a married life with Janet and can have what Brandon and Phillip can’t have. On the other hand, Brandon and Phillip might regard themselves as “superior” because as homosexuals they need not bother with finding marriage partners and conforming to social mores but can pursue a hedonistic high-society life-style and be and do what they like. Romance, marriage and family life are an important theme in Hitchcock’s work and here it plays out in converse ways in the form of a gay couple, in David and Janet’s engagement and in Brandon throwing Janet and Kenneth together as if they were puppets (and the film suggests that’s exactly what Brandon enjoys doing: playing people against each other).

“Rope” attempts to criticise Nazism and concepts of elitism that led to the Nazi pursuit of racial hygiene policies in which people were graded into a racial hierarchy and those deemed “inferior” were killed though whether Hitchcock misinterpreted Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman is another question. At the time the film was made (the late 1940’s), most people including the Nazis themselves did misinterpret the concept in a simplistic way (people who are Supermen can do what they like and are not bound by conventional notions of morality) so it’s understandable if Hitchcock did also.

“Rope” features excellent acting performances from its three lead actors (Dall, Granger, Stewart) and from support actor Chandler in a plot that combines suspense, tension and subtlety. The visual flow that comes from the unusual filming technique used in the 1940’s adds to the audience’s sense of being voyeurs, with camera reels changing every time the camera “bumps” into the back of one of the male characters or into the furniture; it also reinforces the tense nature of the setting. The background scenes that show day changing to night and the lighting up of the New York City skyline, thanks to the Cyclorama technique used, are interesting to watch.

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