Film Score: David Buttolph Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine
Starring: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger and Cedric Hardwicke
Rope is the famous one-take film in which Hitchcock make lengthy eight to ten minute takes and edited them together by having the actors step in front of the camera and fade out. He would then fade in with a fresh roll and resume as if no break in the action had taken place. One would think that this would draw more attention to itself than it does, what with almost no cuts at all. But the film flows surprisingly well, and has some great moments of suspense as a result. It’s generally considered one of the master’s lesser films, and the first time I watched it I was disappointed. But this recent viewing has given me new respect for the attempt and a new appreciation for the film in general. It’s an intimate film, based on the Leopold and Loeb case, and adapted from a 1929 stage play by none other than Hitchcock alum Hume Cronyn.
The film opens with the credits over a stationary shot from a roof down to the street below. It’s here that Hitch makes his cameo to get it out of the way early, as he would do the rest of his career. After the credits the camera pans up to closed blinds and the sound of a scream. The cut to the inside of the apartment was one of only a few that Hitch left in because projectionists in the theaters had to change reels. John Dall holds up Dick Hogan while Farley Granger finishes strangling him. When he is dead they deposit his body in a chest that sits in the front room of the apartment. Dall is thrilled, but almost immediately Granger is has regrets, which will become more acute as the night wears on. They are throwing a party for Hogan’s parents and his fiancée, and also among the guests is her former boyfriend Douglas Dick and the boys’ prep school headmaster Jimmy Stewart. The center of the story is the philosophy espoused by Stewart that some people should be allowed to murder others. He has no idea, however, that Dall and Granger have actually acted upon what he has merely considered a philosophical posture. As the party progresses, however, Granger begins falling apart and arouses the curiosity of an already suspicious Stewart.
Unlike most trailers for films, which simply use portions of the film to entice viewers, Hitchcock did something utterly unique. He begins the trailer in Central Park on a bench where Dick Hogan is talking to Joan Chandler about their engagement. It’s actually a wonderful sequence. But when he leaves to go to the party, Jimmy Stewart cuts in to tell the audience that’s the last time he was seen alive and the last time the audience will ever see him alive. It’s a wonderful preview to a less than stellar film. In the first place, unlike Dial M for Murder, which was also based on a stage play, Hitchcock’s voluntary limitations create a real claustrophobia because of the inability to leave the apartment or even cut to a different location. It’s incredibly impressive in an artistic sense, but also limits many of the entertainment possibilities of the piece because of it. The one terrific sequence is when the housekeeper, Edith Evanson, is clearing away the plates of food from the chest where Dall has decided to serve dinner from. As she goes back and forth to the kitchen the rest of the party continues off screen until, just as she is about to open the chest, Dall barely stops her in time.
Another consequence of the long takes is that the actors had to play their scenes almost as though it were a stage play. But they weren’t the only ones. Walls and furniture had to be moved out of the way and then replaced as the camera was wheeled silently across the set. While Hitchcock called the film an “experiment that didn’t work,” he wasn’t quite accurate. The experiment itself, with the long takes, certainly did work and is one of the main reasons for watching the film. It’s the story itself that didn’t really work for Hitchcock. There’s no real suspense, considering that if the body is found too quickly then the film is over. But the acting is pretty good. John Dall does a marvelous job and prefigures the work he would do two years later in Gun Crazy. Jimmy Stewart also does a nice job as a run up to one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, Rear Window. Farley Granger, while tremendous a few years later in Strangers on a Train for the director, is severely hampered by the script, which leaves him little to do but fall apart for ninety minutes. Cedric Hardwicke is also onboard as the dead boy’s father, but it’s a tiny role. Rope is not for casual fans of Hitchcock, but for those who can attenuate their expectations accordingly, it can be a rich cinematic experience.