When you see lists of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movies, you usually find “Psycho,” “Rear Window” or maybe “North by Northwest,” but you rarely see “Rope,” which has become my favorite, topping the former contender, “The Birds.”
Released in 1948, “Rope” would be the first of four Hitch movies starring Jimmy Stewart, followed by “Rear Window,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “Vertigo” (neither of the latter two I’m crazy about. “Vertigo” fans, forgive me).
“Rope” is the retelling of the infamous Leopold and Loeb thrill-killings of the 1930s. The film opens with a scream from a New York City apartment window. The camera cuts to a man being strangled by two of his “friends,” Philip and Brandon played by Farley Granger and John Dall, respectively. By the way, people being strangled can’t scream, but whatever.
Hitch tried a gimmick with this film, using only a sound stage and filming in continuous takes, roughly 10 minutes long, or as much time could be stored on a film reel of the era. He would end the scenes by transitioning into a close-up on someone’s back and hiding the film cut. This was also Hitchcock’s first color film.
That being said, the long-take gimmick was something the director was toying with and really doesn’t add much to the film, and he wouldn’t try it again.
Warning: spoilers galore.
The plot of the film is increasingly disturbing and downright cruel. The killers stash the dead man, David, in a wooden chest, only minutes before a planned party takes place in the same apartment. Invited guests include the victim’s parents and girlfriend.
Brandon, the alpha ringleader of the duo, takes evil a step further and decides to serve dinner on the very chest the dead man is entombed in.
Champagne is served to the guests as they arrive. The first is Kenneth who was the former suitor to the dead man’s girlfriend, Janet. The exes have an awkward reunion just as the victim’s father and aunt arrive. (Supposedly Hitch thought it would be too cruel to have both parents at the party, so mom was replaced by the aunt.)
The last guest to arrive is Rupert (Jimmy Stewart), the young mens’ former housemaster, who Brandon thinks would appreciate the killing based on his mentor’s outlook, as the superior intellect over people he deems inferior (Rupert won’t be impressed.)
As the party continues, people repeatedly ask “Where is David?” as Rupert become more and more suspicious something is amiss. He relates Brandon’s favorite story, about a young bride who accidentally locked herself in a chest and died. When Philip says he doesn’t care for chicken at dinner, Brandon relates the story about how Philip was once adept at strangling chickens for dinner on the family farm. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t like chicken anymore, either.
As the party breaks up, Rupert is given the wrong hat, which has the dead man’s initials inside. He also notices the increasing unease of Philip, the weaker member of the killing duo (who actually did use the rope to kill David as Brandon held the victim).
But, it’s when Rupert sees the death rope used to wrap antique first-edition books ironically given to David’s father by Brandon, he’s convinced that David is dead and has been in the chest all along. He and all the guests leave, and an overconfident Brandon begins lauding their party as a brilliant success.
Then, the phone rings, and it’s Rupert, claiming he left his cigarette case behind at the party. Philip gets unglued and begins to panic. Brandon tries to calm his roommate as it becomes clear that Rupert is just returning to find the truth about the fate of David.
Brandon conceals a loaded revolver in his suit jacket pocket. When Rupert returns, a cat-and-mouse game begins. It becomes clear the trio knows everyone is lying and ultimately there’s a brief struggle for the gun. It fires once, and Rupert gets hold of the pistol, takes control and finally opens the chest. Fade to closeup of chest lid.
When the lid falls, a shocked Rupert launches into a two-minute tirade about right and wrong, berates Brandon on his disregard for human life and his pseudo-intellectual egotism. “You’re going to die! Both of you!” he promises the pair in his best Jimmy Stewart voice.
He fires three shots out the window to alert the police (not the greatest plan), leaving two bullets in the gun to keep the murderers at bay.
As the approaching police sirens are heard, credits roll.
A great little movie ends, only 80 minutes in all. One thing worth mentioning is the killers, albeit impossibly evil, are also openly gay (just as were the real killers.) Pretty forward-thinking for the late 1940s. All their heterosexual friends treat the pair as an ordinary couple and although Janet uses the words “gay” and “queer,” they are used in their old-timey meanings as happy and odd. Wink-wink, maybe? Although several American theaters did ban the film due to the homosexual overtones.
Farley Granger would later appear in the 1951 Hitchcock thriller “Strangers on a Train” and John Dall would go on to co-star in the cult classic “Gun Crazy” in 1950. Dall, like Joan Chandler who played Janet, would both die relatively young, only in their 50s. All nine members of the cast of “Rope” have passed away, with Douglas Dick who played Kenneth, the last to go, at age 95 in 2015.
An interesting side note, you can find the original movie trailer on YouTube, where Hitch actually filmed an extra scene of a pre-party meeting of Janet and her doomed fiance in the park, hours before David is killed.
Janet says, “I’ll see you tonight at Brandon’s party.”