Rope (1948)

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Synopsis: Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) think they’ve got it all. Both with genius IQs and coming from well-to-do families, they wholeheartedly believe in Nietzsche’s theory of the “Superman,” one who is so superior to other human beings that he is not required to abide by their laws. To prove their superiority, the boys plot to commit the “perfect murder,” strangling their friend David Kentley and concealing his body in their apartment. However, Phillip is horrified when Brandon takes their scheme a bit too far and invites David’s friends and family over for a dinner party, serving the food from atop the trunk containing David’s body. One of the guests is the boys’ philosophy professor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the man who taught them Nietzsche’s theory. Will Rupert be able to see through the boys’ so-called “perfect crime?”

Here on Garbo Laughs, I’m dedicating the entire month of June to the topic of Queer Cinema (LGBTQs, and depictions thereof, in classic film). This includes reviewing one relevant film from each decade from the 1910s to the 1990s. This is all leading up to my Queer Film Blogathon on June 27th. Won’t you join me in celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month by contributing a post or two (or three)?

It always astounds me that Rope isn’t thought of alongside Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo as one of Alfred Hitchcock‘s best films. While it gets a lot of play in film classes due to Hitch’s “revolutionary” method of limited cuts, making (most of) the entire film feel like one continuous real-time take, out in the real world this is often looked down on as a distracting “gimmick.” I would argue that the point of view in Rear Window is also a gimmick, but that film doesn’t get nearly as much flack as Rope does. Maybe that’s because the Rear Window gimmick is more deftly executed than the Rope gimmick; I’ll give you that one. Regardless, it’s beyond my comprehension why some people apparently find the editing in Rope so distracting that they can’t realize what a fascinating film it is. In fact, it’s my favorite Hitchcock thriller. (We even recreated it with toys once!) But maybe that’s because I appreciate in Rope something that not all viewers can see, or want to see, and that is this: Rope is really, really gay. And that’s what I like best about it.

“It’s only a piece of rope, Phillip.” Sure, and you two are “only” friends.

The story of Brandon and Phillip (played by gay and bisexual actors, respectively) is based on the eponymous 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton, which is loosely based on the real-life case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two wealthy University of Chicago students who murdered a fourteen-year-old boy in 1924 under the pretense of committing the “perfect crime.” Leopold and Loeb, like Brandon and Phillip, believed themselves to be Nietzschean Supermen who could get away with murder due to their perceived superiority. Of course, they weren’t, and they didn’t, both being caught, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Given that Leopold and Loeb were known to be lovers, and that gay screenwriter Arthur Laurents (who passed away this year, as did Farley Granger) penned the script, the queer subtext that permeates Rope was absolutely no accident. According to Hitchcock, both Montgomery Clift (offered the role of Phillip) and Cary Grant (offered the role of Rupert Cadell) turned down the film because they feared this particular subplot would tarnish their public image.

Of course, in seeking to include a queer subtext in his film, Hitchcock (who would further utilize homosexual themes, again with Granger, in 1951’s Strangers on a Train) had to code his scenes in a way that could slip past the censors but still be “read” by the audience. Brandon and Phillip share a very dirty secret, and both are in danger of being “found out.” Brandon is the dominant one, masterminding the murder and carrying it out to its gruesome end, when David’s friends and family are served luncheon from the trunk containing his dead body. Phillip goes along out of admiration (or is it love?) for Brandon, and he is the one who eventually cracks under the pressure. Just do me a favor: the next time you watch this film, go into it assuming Brandon and Phillip are boyfriends, and tell me if it doesn’t make just as much if not more sense under that assumption. The opening scene of the film, in which the murder is committed, has always struck me as especially blatant in its homoeroticism and sexual undertones.

The excitement? The panting? The post-climactic limpness? Phillip asking Brandon not to turn on the light? Brandon lighting a cigarette? I don’t want to get too explicit, but if you interpret this scene in a certain way, it’s amazing it got past the censors.

Not only does Rope have this deliciously-subversive subtext, it’s a just plain wonderful movie. I realize that setting the whole thing in real time in one apartment makes it feel quite hermetic, which often bothers me in other films, but because it’s part of the “gimmick” of Rope I’m really not bugged by it here. And sure, examining it now we can see the seams and the cracks in editing, but this was an experiment, and I don’t think enough people realize just how monumentally difficult it was to pull off. Actors used to as many takes as they wanted having to play ten minutes straight of dialogue without flubbing, giant camera dollies having to swing around the room without revealing crew members or other equipment, and that backdrop! That backdrop alone is an utter masterpiece! I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this film, but the scene where the camera locks on the housekeeper quietly removing the dishes from atop the trunk and bringing over the books with the intention of putting them in the trunk always has me on the edge of my seat. The way Hitchcock slowly, painfully lets the tension build, with no background score or frills of any kind, letting the audience gradually come to the realization of what’s about to happen, is truly torturous – suspense at its very best. I know exactly how it’ll go and how the movie ends, but my stomach just automatically ties up in knots the moment she carries those books over. I don’t feel Rope gets the credit it deserves for being not only a beautifully-directed and well-written film, but for just being plain ol’ fun to watch.


Rope (1948) – 5/5 stars

7 Comments

  1. Caroline, your take on ROPE is brilliant! I’ll admit I figured from the start that Brandon and Phillip were secret lovers, but then, growing up in our iconoclastic family allowed me to get to know an interesting variety of people. :-) I agree that the relative clunkiness of the ten-minute take gambit might have put off some people, but I was so intrigued by the plotting and acting that I got used to it fairly quickly. I also loved your hilarious POKEMON spoof of ROPE; it had me laughing out loud! But why are the comments closed down? Did the POKEMON people give you a hard time or something? If not, can you open the comments again so everyone can see it — it’s too devilishly clever and funny not to show the world! Great work!

    • Glad you liked it! It’s actually all the brilliant work of my girlfriend Molly. I had forgotten I closed down the comments; I think I was just getting a ridiculous amount of spam on it, and instead of dealing with the comments one by one I figured I’d close commenting down entirely. Anyway, now that I’ve brought the post back up again comments have been enabled. Thanks for letting me know about the problem! :)

  2. Brandie

     /  June 14, 2011

    I enjoyed reading this post! I’ll admit that Rope is not one of my favorite Hitchcock films, though I have seen it several times. For me, the weakness of Rope is that it never really moves beyond the boundaries of a “stage.” It’s based on a play, and it’s staged like one, so the film feels stifled, in a sense (in much the same way as Dial M for Murder, which was also based on a play). I suppose that in some way that claustrophobic feeling of we’re-never-leaving-this-apartment works for building tension. But the lack of cuts means we’re subjected to a lot of walking. Walking across the apartment, walking back. Walking to answer the door. Walking back. I haven’t ever thought to do the math, but I wonder how much of the screen time is devoted to simply watching these characters move? Overall, it does seem that Hitch was more concerned with his technical “experiment” than with telling a really strong story. To me, that’s what makes Rear Window far superior–it’s a gimmick, too, but it does so much more with its set-pieces. Yes, we spend an inordinate amount of time looking out at the world from the perspective of Jeff’s chair, but the film also gets us out of Jeff’s apartment and shows us the other inhabitants of the neighborhood and makes us invested in their lives. When I watch Rope, I don’t feel invested with any of these characters, not even Rupert.

    Speaking of Rupert … do you think he’s also meant to be “read” as homosexual? From what I recall of the original play, the character was (originally) deliberately painted as gay, but the movie seems eradicate almost any hint of this. I wonder, though, if that may be due to Stewart playing the role. I always thought it would have been interesting to see someone like George Sanders as Rupert. It would have made the character’s sexuality somewhat more ambiguous, at least.

    Excuse my rambling! I’ll shut up now. :)

    • Ramble all you want, honey. :) See, everybody seems to get so stuck on the gimmick, and somehow it just doesn’t affect me in the same way. I think maybe once I caught on to the deliciously-cheeky undertones running through the whole film I was won over by that and didn’t care about the claustrophobic feeling anymore (yes, I really am that easy). Yes, it feels clunky and experimental and sort of awkward, but somehow I just… accept it. I’m not saying I’m right and everyone else is wrong, I’m just trying to figure out why this movie is perceived so differently by different people. I suppose that’s the joy of cinema, though!

    • Regarding somebody else playing Stewart’s character in this film:Regarding somebody else playing Stewart’s character in this film: I’ve heard James Mason might’ve done that part better. What do you think? I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ll be looking forward to it.

      • Don’t know if you’re asking Brandie or me, but I’ll throw in my two cents anyway. :) I have always found Mason to be sort of inaccessible — high and mighty, if you will — so I think Stewart was a better choice for the part. The audience has to be able to relate to Rupert as the voice of reason and morality. I think Stewart really brought out the humanity in the character. Maybe with another actor it would’ve been a different, but still successful, film; but as it is I have a hard time imagining anyone else in the part.

  3. This is also my favorite Hitch. Well, that changes a lot; sometimes it’s North By Northwest, sometimes Shadow of a Doubt, but usually it’s Rope. On my first viewing, I went into this without having heard much about it, and I’m so glad I did because it kept the so-called gimmick of it all being in one take from overwhelming the actual film. Yet now that I know and watch for it, it doesn’t bother me much, and I’m like you in that I can’t figure out why so many people are stuck on it.

    John Dall is a terrific actor, he is just delicious in this role. It’s one of the most perfect pieces of acting I have ever seen. Granger is very good, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke is heartbreaking. The little bits of background business when he’s looking out the window worried are amazing.

    Jimmy Stewart is so out of his depth here, though, at least at the end when he’s supposed to realize what role he (inadvertently) played in all this. You can see in his performance that he knows he’s not really pulling it off.

    I love Mason but I think he and Dall would have been too much of the same type. I think Ray Milland might have been good in Stewart’s role.

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