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26 August 2011

Rope (1948)

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: James Stewart, John Dall, 
Farley Granger, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, 
Joan Chandler, Constance Collier
This is the month Alfred Hitchcock died. Like much of my early taste in music, books, movies, and poetry, I was introduced to Hitchcock by my father. I have a strange fascination with Hitchcock's treatment of suspense - the fascination of the chicken for the snake. 

Hitchcock's movies play with my mind; even with repeated viewings, I am still caught unawares by certain scenes. The shower scene in Psycho, for instance.  The scene from Spellbound where the little boy comes sliding down a snowbank only to impale himself on the pilings, for another. Settings, scenes, dialogue, background music - they all work on my nerves. I am, in fact, the perfect audience for a Hitchcock movie - the person who is frightened by the suspense, but still watches with bated breath so she can be frightened some more.

Rope is a movie that was intriguing for very many reasons. For one, there are just three 'sets' in the movie. A living room, a dining room, the corridor between the two, with doors at either end hinting at, but never really showing the exits. And there is a view of the street from the living room window. All the 'action' takes place in this small space. 

Secondly, Hitchcock experimented with suspense not just in confined space but in limited time; the movie is one uninterrupted sequence - the whole movie takes place in real time (about 85 minutes of movie time versus the 100 minutes or so of action), and you can see the sun set through the windows of the apartment.

This is a sparse film, and inverts every rule of a suspense thriller. The murder is committed in the first scene, and we know who committed the murder and why. The crime, the motivation, the criminal are all there - and we are still pulled in to the cat-and-mouse game that will go on for the next hour or so; the question that is thrown at the audience is how long they can go on without being found out. 

There are but three main characters, with two side characters - and one of the side characters is the corpse, who before he died had a two-second scene and no lines. And most of the suspense comes from the dialogue, or suddenly, the lack thereof. There is a ninety-second scene that has the camera focusing on one object; and the suspense that that scene builds up brings you to the edge of your seat. 

The film begins on a Manhattan street on what seems to be a normal afternoon. Then the camera pans to an apartment window and we hear a man scream. It belongs to Brandon Shaw (John Dall), and we see Brandon and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) strangling David Kentley (Dick Hogan), a classmate.

Brandon and Phillip consider themselves 'Supermen', an idea they get from their old school master Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), who is wont to spout such Niestzschean philosophy about how people of superior intellect cannot be bound by ordinary rules and conventions. How murder is not really a crime when committed to remove 'inferiors'. He has no clue to what extent his lectures have influenced two of his students. Improving upon the theme Brandon and Phillip conspire to strangle Kentley and hide his corpse in a cedar trunk. 

Phillip is scared stiff, but Brandon is pretty blasé;  he, in fact, has already organised a dinner party to which he has invited not only Kentley's parents, but also his girlfriend, her ex-boyfriend, and their old teacher. It is almost as if he seeks not only an audience but also appreciation - he leaves the murder weapon, the rope, out in clear sight.

Brandon and Phillip remove all the food from the dining table where Mrs Wilson, Brandon's maid had set it out, and place it on the wooden trunk, now covered with a tablecloth. Mrs Wilson does not understand the need for the change.

They wait for their dinner guests to arrive. The waiting preys on Phillip's nerves; he is the weaker of the two, and there is quite a bit of sparring between him and Brandon, especially when he realises that Brandon has invited Rupert Cadell.

He is also the more decent of the two, the one who has some morality left. Brandon is completely amoral (as opposed to immoral).

Then the guests troop in. First to come is Kenneth, a college friend; then comes Janet (Joan Chandler), Kentley's girlfriend. There is some momentary awkwardness when Janet runs into Kenneth, since they had been involved before. Janet had dated Brandon for a while, and she knows he invited them all only so he could enjoy their discomfiture.

As she pointedly tells him "This is a new low even for you, chum."  The talk veers to Rupert Cadell and some of his theories.

Then comes Kentley's father (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), and his aunt (Constance Collier) - his mother is ill and at home in bed. Phillip, who is already discomposed, becomes even more so after Kentley's folks arrive. Rupert Cadell only comes in half way through the evening. Brandon is ecstatic. After all, it is Rupert's theory about murder that Phillip and he have put into practice. Brandon, on the other hand, is so excited that it makes his stutter more pronounced.

It is clear that Kentley is expected. And his father becomes increasingly anxious as the evening goes on. And it's Brandon's macabre humour that serves an old man a meal from over his son's final resting place.  The suspense ebbs and flows all through the dinner chatter. Kentley's absence is remarked upon by almost everybody, and the reasons for his non-appearance are debated and dropped.
The after-dinner conversation gets the topic of murder going. Once again, it is Brandon who sets the topic in motion by telling a story of Phillip strangling chickens. Phillip is mortified and his instant repudiation of the story sets off Rupert's antennae.
Then Rupert joins in to expound his theories; when Brandon joins in, the conversation becomes rather heated, and Mr Kentley is rather incensed by what he sees as Brandon's contempt for humanity. Rupert soothes the old man, and they all troop in to the dining room to take a look at the first editions that are displayed on the dining table.

Janet and Kenneth are left alone; they are a bit embarrassed, but as they continue to converse, Janet realises that Brandon knew more than he let on about the way things stood between Kenneth, David and her.

Rupert is interrogating Phillip who is becoming more and more upset. And Rupert's suspicions, vague though they were are coalescing into something more coherent. Brandon is also upset, but in his case, it is anger that Phillip's uneasiness may let the cat out of the bag.
When the dinner is cleared away by Mrs Wilson, the suspense builds up again. She is removing the tablecloth, and now she is bringing back a stack of books - to be put into the chest. David's absence is now quite noticeable, and is the only topic of conversation.  The tension builds in silence, as we, the audience, come to the realisation of what is going to happen... when it doesn't, we realise that we have been holding our breath all along.

Finally, Mr Kentley leaves, heartsick at the thought that something may have happened to his son. Brandon bids him adieu, giving him a stack of first editions - tying the books up with the rope that he had used to strangle Kentley being the ultimate cruelty. In one fell swoop, he's getting an intellectual thrill out of the whole episode, and getting rid of the evidence. Or is he?
This is a film that relied extensively on dialogue to set the suspense. And the talk veers to murder, the ethical implications of such an act, and the audience tension mounts with the increasing tension in the room. It is like Phillip is representative of the audience - every nervous tic of his resonates with us. Brandon is calm, too calm, and in the end, it is this arrogance that proves his undoing. 

Rupert begins to get suspicious, picking up on the little asides between Brandon and Phillip. The verbal sparring between him and Brandon only increases Phillip's nervousness. And you can see Rupert play on Phillip's weakness in the scene where he pushes the point -  until Phillip's frail hold over his nerves shatters. 

It is ironic that after all this, it is a tiny mistake that sets Rupert on the right track, When he returns to the apartment, it is to see Brandon in a congratulatory mood - they have pulled off the perfect murder! And he is happy to see Rupert back - for, after all, their views mesh.

Until he learns that it doesn't! But Brandon has a gun, and Phillip is desperate... will murder beget murder?

Rope was based on Patrick Hamilton's play 'Rope's End', which in turn was based on the infamous Leopold-Loeb trial of 1924. (The two college students murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago.) But the setting was changed from London to Manhattan, and the homosexuality that was an obvious part of the play is only implied in the film, perhaps to escape the censors. Hitchcock's film was an interesting character study of Brandon and Phillip, and the obvious difference between the two. 

It also highlighted the eccentric, cynical Rupert, and his reaction to his realisation that since it was his semi-philosophical and cynical ramblings that led to such tragedy, he bears a moral, if not legal culpability for the murder. And it forces him to look beyond his academic ivory tower and realise that in the real world, actions have consequences. This was James Stewart's first collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock; it was a role initially offered to Cary Grant. For a character who only comes in when half the movie is over, Stewart's Rupert Cadell makes an impression.

John Dall was brilliant as Brendan Brandon, the more dominant of the two murderers. He is arrogant, callous, and amoral. He is also super-confident in his assurance that he will not be caught. 

Farley Granger, on the other hand, is perfectly cast as the weaker partner. He is so paranoid, and begins to fall apart with guilt and fright that they might be caught, that by the end of the film, he is a nervous wreck.

Rope is a psychological drama that draws on the age old debate of right and wrong. It involved the audience in a much more sinister way than any film before - you have witnessed the murder, and are now holding your breath wondering when Brandon and Phillip will be caught - or whether they will be caught at all. And, what is more disturbing - do you want them to be caught? The film forces you to analyse some of Rupert's theories: Is murder inherently wrong? Society's rules - are they only for the inferiors? And when these theories cross over into the realm of reality, then what?


  1. Anu, my favourite Hitchcock movie, after Notorious. (I never did like Psycho.) I didn't know Rope was based on a true-life murder. Thanks for the trivia. You really know your movie lore, don't you?

  2. Blame it on a misbegotten childhood filled with movie viewing, Tina. :) And on a fascination that has remained until now. I think Rope was one of Hitchcock's most under-rated movies. Everyone talks of Psycho, North By North-West and Suspicion. But The Man Who Knew Too Much, Thirty Nine Steps, Spellbound and Rope are equally good, and in some cases, even better.

  3. An Alfred Hitchcock movie I have missed seeing! And me, with the hugest crush on Jimmy Stewart, ever! I think I saw this in my local library - I will snap it up on my visit there tomorrow. Hopefully, the DVD is still available.

  4. Yup, one of the less well-known Hitchcocks, and I think too that that's an undeserved obscurity - Rope is very, very good. (And, like Tina, I don't much care for Psycho either). Nor, actually, too much for North by North-West or Suspicion. I like his British films better - the ones you've mentioned, plus Rebecca, Frenzy, Family Plot - and the fantastic The Trouble with Harry. Love that one!

  5. Ruhi, oh you should see this one. And not just for James Stewart, either, though he is one of my favourite heroes from that period (along with Cary Grant and Gregory Peck). John Dall is fantastic, and so are everyone else. Farley Granger surprised me.

  6. Madhu, I agree with your opinion of North by North-West and Suspicion. I did like Psycho. And you are right about his British films being much better. It is sad that even among Hitchcock fans, Rope is dismissed as an experiment.

  7. Gosh okay I just watched this film and I was unable to stop laughing at the fact that Jimmy Stewart was eating ice cream. I don't know what in the whole wide world is wrong with me but I found that scene attractive as anything. I must also confess that I ended up simply staring at him for most of the film. :P I always used to do the exact same thing with Dev. Gosh, self.

    I also ended up giggling like a total idiot over the fact that he got shot in the hand. Just. Wow, good job, Jimmy. Okay so if you get shot in the hand, you shouldn't clench your fist because it will make it hurt more, right? And guess what he does? Clench and unclench his fist. :P Oh best part. He doesn't bother with telephones and instead fires three shots out of the window. -applauds-

    But hey, I love him. <3 :D Now, the only thing that could've made the film better was if he had a striped tie. He always pulls off striped ties well! And just now I was helping my aunt to assemble a loveseat for the porch and we were unwrapping stuff and there was rope everywhere and it freaked the living daylights outta me. Another thing Hitchcock has ruined for me. (He has ruined birds, crop dusters, motels, visiting uncles from afar, and cars driving at high speed as well.)

  8. You found yourself laughing while watching Rope? *face-palm* Bombaynoir, girl, there is something seriously wrong with you... [grin]

    Anyway, what are you doing assembling loveseats and such? Is your arm back in action, then?

  9. Yes, and I have been giggling nonstop today as well! What is
    so attractive about Jimmy Stewart eating ice-cream?! I love him to death but what is so attractive?! Oh my goodness. And that scene where he lit his cigarette with a candle. I just found myself squealing and everything. :D Yup, there is something wrong. My dad keeps joking (or not joking, I really dunno)
    about sending me to a doctor. And I'm just like, "NOOOO, You know what happens in doctors' offices? Have you watched Spellbound? You know what happens to Greg? He can't remember who he is! You don't want that to happen to
    Oh, more or less. My left hand (with the broken finger) is quite all right, but my right hand is still bandaged. I can type with it, though. And I was the only one at home with her so I had to help. I basically sat in a corner and made horrified faces at the rope and told her how to assemble it by reading the instructions. :P

  10. BombayNoir, tell your father that I second his opinion; nay, I urge him to get you to a doctor. Pronto!

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