d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 81 mins.
It's sometimes easy to forget from the "Master of Suspense" moniker that Alfred Hitchcock was also a master of cinematic experimentation, and Rope, much like the single-stage Lifeboat four years prior, is one of his most successful sleights of hand. Famously told through eleven unbroken shots and made to seem as if it were entirely continuous, today the film is either hated or adored based solely around its camera technique. I side with those who like and admire it, although ironically it's the shots Hitchcock tries to hide (zooming in someone's back and zooming back out to "conceal" the cut) that are the most noticeable.
Leaving critical opinion aside, let's chew on this idea: in the strait-laced studios that dominated Hollywood in the 1940s, what other marquee-name director would have attempted something like Rope? John Ford? William Wyler? John Huston? Billy Wilder? Probably none of these men, and for the similar reason (mostly due to an instinctive feeling that audiences and critics might not like it). Of all the big names working in Hollywood at the time, I suppose I could have seen Orson Welles try it, but it was Hitchcock who took the dream of filming in long-takes to a new reality. Years later, the director would admit he didn't understand why he found himself so drawn to the possibility of a long-take film. Biographer Patrick McGilligan poses a number of potential reasons, all without answers: Was he trying to prove something in the form; was he trying to be intentionally, and defiantly, artistic in the sparsity of the studio system; was he simply trying his old trick of getting around the censors, by drumming up attention to certain elements so others would slide through? It's just not clear, but it's mighty to behold.
Buoyed by the support of Sidney Bernstein and Warner Bros. (this would be his first film with the studio), Rope, and all its technical wizardry, began to take shape. But technique alone cannot carry a film, as we know, and fortunately the script – adapted by Hume Cronyn from Patrick Hamilton's stage play of the same name – is devilishly smart, dabbling in philosophy, intellectualism, and the boundaries of human behavior. Title aside (all the shots are "roped" together with little seams), it might have been the best possible script for this sort of film: two Nietzsche-loving egotists, presented as good friends, conspire to pull off the perfect murder and then flaunt their crime to the victim's family, friends, and their former prep school housemaster as an expression of their own genius. The story has roots in reality, with two gay University of Chicago students named Leopold and Loeb who kill an acquaintance in "perfect crime" style, only to be caught in their mistakes. (With the combination of murder and homosexuality, many producers in Hollywood were understandably scared of Hamilton's play, and it's no surprise the director proudly seized upon that fact in interviews.)
James Stewart, in his first Hitchcock film, gives a surprisingly wry and cynical performance as Rupert Cadell, the former prep school housemaster of Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) who are the philosophy-obsessed murderers. Brandon and Phillip have thrown the body of their friend David inside a trunk that they set in the middle of their apartment for a party. Rupert swirls wine and skeptically eyes Brandon, who is the more flagrant of the two in his hint-dropping, while Phillip holds steady and begins to be eaten alive from the inside by his guilt and the possibility of being caught. The party continues and seems to come to an end, with everything seeming to go the way of the killers, but the wheels have been turning in Rupert's head and he pins down Brandon and Phillip for their erratic behavior. Dall, it should be said, is great, but the same can't be said though for the comical overacting of Granger, who deflates a lot of kinetic energy between Stewart and Dall.
Hitchcock had intended Rope to be a Cary Grant film (after scrapping an idea of putting Grant into a production of Hamlet), and envisioned Granger as Phillip and Montgomery Clift as Brandon. Grant and Clift, however, slowly began pulling away from Rope (Grant even falsely avowing never to work with Hitchcock again), and today rumors of their respective sexualities shine a great deal of light on their decisions. (Ironically, however, Granger – also gay – stayed on and the part of Brandon went to Dall, another gay actor.) Although Rope is relatively bowdlerized of its billboard-style sexual elements, much has been written about the homoerotic undertones in the movie, and, from a critical standpoint, much of it seems quite valid. Rope does indeed go out of its way to skirt against the acceptable limits, which, in 1940s Hollywood, was basically nothing. Hints are dropped here and there, but while residuals remain on Brandon and Phillip, it seems to be removed from Rupert. Knowing Hitchcock's proclivities toward all things taboo, it shouldn't surprise anyone that he knew what he was doing the whole time.
Rope was another first for Hitchcock: his first film in color. Although he had wanted his potential remake of The Lodger to be his first film in color (McGilligan notes the director saw it as a way to revamp the entire production, and he had long visualized a scene where red blood drips onto white flower pedals), it wasn't until 1948 that he made a production in Technicolor. For Hitchcock, color was an extra – a narrative bonus, so to speak, that could influence an entire production of the film. "Color for reason, not just color to knock people's eyes out," he said. "Make color an actor, a defined part of the whole. Make it work as an actor instead of scenery." Rope is memorable for being in color, although it is certainly not the director's best use of the medium; the whole palette seems flattened and drained, often without any sort of life in itself. Both Vertigo and Marnie use color the best as an effective narrative tool; The Trouble with Harry is certainly the director's most painterly film, with the gorgeous Vermont landscape beaming in color; and while Rear Window could possibly have been in black-and-white, its veneer seems to benefit the most from Technicolor that is not directly tied to an emotion or a sensation.
And the film works – quite well, too, if I can add. Perhaps I'm lured into complacency by Hitchcock's tricks, or, to be more benevolent to the director, his style and talent. The suspense hits all the right buttons, and Stewart is at once both suave and shrew. Regardless of its reception today, the one thing undeniable aspect is that Rope took a great deal of the director's attention and focus; it was a behemoth to stage and film, requiring all the actors to be at their prime and the crew to flow like clockwork. The camera had to move at the right time, and the sets had to pull apart and come back together to accommodate its movements. The script, too, is subtle and suggestive but in no way do we read into it our social perceptions anachronistically. While I firmly believe Rope is not one of Hitchcock's masterpieces, in the end I must say I do think it is a highly successful film, and being his most experimental, certainly worth an examination.
21 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 81 mins.