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?”
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.
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