The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: Brandon and Philip share a New York apartment. They consider themselves intellectually superior to their friend David Kentley and decide to murder him. Together they strangle David with a rope and after placing the body in an old chest, they host a small party. The guests include David’s father, his fiancée Janet, and their old schoolteacher Rupert from whom they mistakenly took their ideas. As Brandon becomes increasingly more daring, Rupert begins to suspect.
Jason: I’ve seen Rope a couple times, and the first thing that struck me this viewing is that it’s vastly different from anything Hitch had done before. And yet, having said that, it contains a lot of Hitch trademarks—the dry and dark wit, the confident camera movement to generate suspense, the murder that starts everything in motion. Rope is an intricate thing that makes you study its novelty—a story told in real time over 80 minutes, shot in entire 8- to 10-minute reels (the length of a magazine of film), with many of the cuts occurring in the middle of the action (as the camera passes across a character’s dark jacket, for example). It’s a stage play filmed just as it might have been staged. But as fun as that is to watch, Rope tells a fairly mediocre story.
James: I like this film. I feel it has good tension surrounding a morbid premise.
Jason: The movie definitely has a nice sense of morbidity. If you step back from Rope and consider it, it seems more effective than it really is. I just never felt that I was experiencing a real story. It always felt forced, much like stage plays feel to me, and I guess that’s the whole point.
James: I agree that the characters don’t stand out as strongly as they should, but that can easily be attributed to the fact that the movie is shot in essentially one take. That’s a lot of lines to memorize. For what it’s worth, I think the actors did a great job in those 10-minute chunks.
Jason: I’ve been trying to figure out what didn’t work for me, and it might be the fact of the novelty of it. It feels gimmicky. And the story seems in service of the gimmick, never feels really natural. The characters never seem real to me. In Hitch’s words, it’s just “pictures of people talking.” Or maybe it’s because the main characters, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), are despicable, and the character we should be rooting for—Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), their former prep-school teacher—to discover what they’ve done, is almost as responsible for the murder as they are!
James: Agreed. Still, I liked the drama. I mean, look, the story is about a couple of boys murdering a schoolmate, then entertaining the victim’s friends and family in the room where his corpse is hidden. That’s great stuff.
Jason: Okay, the crux of the film occurs at about the halfway mark, when the boys and Cadell really lay out the “art of murder.” This was the most interesting aspect of the film for me, the way the young men have taken to heart Cadell’s teachings and put them to practice by killing their schoolmate, David Kentley (Dick Hogan). Some of the dialog here is fascinating, obviously inspired by Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman: “Moral concepts like right and wrong don’t hold for the intellectually superior.” Cadell himself, in the middle of the party, says, “Murder is—or should be—an art, and as such, the privilege of committing it should be reserved for those few who are really superior individuals.” So Brandon and Phillip have killed for the simple experiment of committing murder. And they’ve done it in accordance with the teachings of their mentor, Cadell.
James: I’m not sure I completely buy the reason for the murder. Now, I like the fact that the boys have killed simply for the excitement of the kill, to see if they could do it, but David, their victim, doesn’t seem to be a man of lesser class. Brandon and Phillip continually say that murder should be reserved for intellectual superiors, but wasn’t David in their little circle, which makes him their equal? Sure, you could say these two see themselves as the top dogs even in their upper class, but there are a few lines in the film that don’t jive with their reasoning.
Jason: I think their reason for killing David was wrapped up in their petty social squabbling. I got the sense that these upper-class schoolmates were really bitchy to each other all the time, so I never had a problem with their motivation. A quote that speaks to this is when Brandon says, “The Davids of this world merely take up space.” When Phillip objects, Brandon gets all smirky and says, “Whom would you have preferred . . . Kenneth?” Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick) is one of the party guests, and it’s obvious they feel a bit of contempt for him.
James: We need to talk about whether the device in the original stage play (Patrick Hamilton’s Rope’s End)—never showing the actual murder—would’ve worked better in the film. As it stands, the tension comes from the tightrope the killers are walking . . . will they get caught? In the other version, it would be more centered around, “What’s in the box? Did these two really kill that man?” I think both versions would have worked, but I actually liked following the story to see if they would break, make a mistake, and get caught. That tension seems to be more real. Sure, there’s no mystery, but it’s good suspense.
Jason: Yeah, the writer, Arthur Laurents, thought Hitch had a “failure of nerve” when he filmed the murder. I think not knowing whether a body was really in the trunk would have increased the suspense, so in a way, I agree with Laurents. It’s interesting to think that one little scene affects the mood of the entire film. Not knowing whether they really murdered David throws everything into a different light—the dad worrying about his son, Cadell glancing at the box with suspicion, the sequence with the maid clearing off the dinner plates . . . and even if we’re not sure the body is in there, I think the suspense that’s already in the film would remain, and perhaps be intensified. It would give the Cadell-opening-the-box scene a whole new energy. I’m reminded of Detective Mills in Se7en: “What’s in the boooooxxx???”
James: I’m still not sold on this. I mean, imagine the film without the opening murder scene. Are you suggesting that the tension of them cracking under the pressure would remain? How could it if we don’t know if they really did it? I agree that the opening of the box would have had a much bigger impact this way, but I’m not sure about the rest of the film.
Jason: Well, no question that it would be a different kind of suspense. I’m just leaning toward feeling it would be more powerful in the other direction. In a way, the suspense would be more on the part of the audience than on the part of the main characters cracking. Instead of Brandon and Phillip feeling the suspense, we would feel it more. Just my two cents.
James: Okay. Another plot point I really enjoyed is the fact that Brandon ends up making a mistake in his perfect murder because he has this need to let someone else know what he’s done. That was brilliant. It’s like painting a masterpiece that no one sees. It can’t be appreciated. Ah, I loved it.
Jason: You touch on a terrific aspect of Brandon’s character, and it feels perfect, considering his reasoning for the murder itself. He believes himself to be the intellectual superior of everyone at that party, except perhaps for Cadell, who is the one person whose “audience” he desires. A part of him wants Cadell to figure out what he’s done. He wants to impress his teacher. You’re right, that whole notion is one of the highlights of Rope.
James: I was definitely able to step into Brandon’s shoes. I could imagine myself writing a perfect novel but not being allowed to show anyone. That simple characterization or plot point actually made this film for me.
Jason: But at the end, when Cadell realizes that Brandon and Phillip have murdered David as a result of his own guidance, the film’s drama should have become downright Shakespearean, and yet despite Cadell’s little speech, the ending feels strangely empty.
James: What do you mean by Shakespearean?
Jason: I’m just saying that when Cadell opens the box, sure, he’s horrified and he condemns the boys for what they’ve done, but I wanted to see Stewart play it even larger, with more of a sense of tragedy, that he’s the one who ultimately caused this murder. I’m thinking a different actor in the role of Cadell might have pulled this off better, because Stewart is just too nice. Then again, this is a fairly light-hearted black comedy, so I’m not sure that would have worked either. Still, the ending seemed a bit flat. However, I liked the shot of Cadell firing the gun through the window and attracting a crowd and the cops.
James: The ending is a bit flat. Stewart is too nice, too clean. And I think he underplayed it a little. There certainly could’ve been more emotion there. There was buildup upon buildup about opening that box, but when it happened, what came next wasn’t on par with what we expected. You know what I think Stewart’s real problem with Cadell is? Cadell never really seems to totally buy into his own beliefs. He seems more like a joker, a fun person—laid back, almost. Yet he has these crazy beliefs about murder and society. I wouldn’t say it hurts the film that much, but it does feel off.
Jason: We’re in tune on Stewart. He’s wrong for the part.
James: He seems too young, also.
Jason: Did you catch the scene where the camera follows the memory of the murder, late in the film? Cadell is talking through the events of the murder, and the camera glides across the furniture, following his gaze, just as it did in Rebecca . . .
James: You know, I didn’t like that shot very much. It worked okay, but there was something clunky about it, mostly because of the one-shot gimmick. The camera angle seemed off. But yeah, it did match the similar sequence in Rebecca. Good catch.
Jason: As I said, I’ve seen this one a few times, and this viewing, I remembered something I read long ago—that the film has a homosexual undercurrent. So, this time, I watched with that in mind, and indeed, the gay subtext is subtle, but there are a few scenes that are a riot if you’re paying attention in the right way. Even the way Brandon and Phillip express themselves is filled with gay subtext. There’s an exchange after the opening-scene murder of David when they’re breathing hard and considering what they’ve done, and I was laughing at the double-meaning of their dialog: “Let’s stay like this for a moment,” Phillip says. Brandon nods, says, “Pity we couldn’t have done it with the curtains open, in the bright sunlight.” And later, Phillips asks, “How did you feel, during it?” Brandon answers, “I didn’t feel much of anything until his body went limp, and then I felt tremendously exhilarated!” Once you’re watching for these undertones, they’re obvious, but if you’re not looking for them, I’m sure you could watch the film and not really notice it.
James: I can see the homosexual undertones, but I definitely don’t think it’s as big a deal as the screenwriter made it out to be in that documentary. He harped on that continually.
Jason: The gay subtext is subtle, and you can watch the film completely unaware of it. But you can’t deny that Hitch was fascinated by the concept. From what we’ve seen in Murder! and others, we know that Hitch has a fascination with unusual sexual personae. Rope itself is based on the Leopold and Loeb murders in Chicago, in which two gay men committed a murder in the name of intellectual superiority but ended up committing a string of stupid mistakes and getting caught. (Ah, delicious irony.) Also, he hired Laurents specifically because he was gay, and because Laurents was currently involved with the star Farley Granger. John Dall was also a gay actor. Speaking of all that, I read that Cadell himself was intended as a gay character who would complete a homosexual triangle between the three leads, but the casting of Stewart, an all-American “boy scout,” basically wrecked that concept.
James: I hear you, but I just don’t see why the homosexuality element was necessary. Sure, I can see it in the film, and I don’t doubt that it was intended and all that . . . I just don’t think it added anything.
Jason: All I’m saying about the homosexual undertone is that it adds an intentionally outside-the-norm sexual vibe to the film, in tune with Hitch’s past and future work. Definitely something to keep watching for as we move forward.
James: The best shot in Rope is when all the party guests are off to the right, talking, while the camera just watches the maid clearing the dinner plates from David’s casket. That’s great, great stuff, classic Hitchcock.
Jason: That shot is fantastic. You’re right, it’s quintessential Hitch suspense. I kept wondering when the boys were going to step in and stop her from opening the box, but Hitch takes us to the absolute last moment before discovery. And it’s funny that part of you wants David to be discovered, but another part of you is rooting for the maid to be stopped from opening the lid, even though the protagonists are murderers! Or maybe it’s just that we know that Hitch would never allow the box to be opened so soon and we’re just enjoying the willing suspense of it. And I noticed something interesting in the conversation burbling off-camera to the right. Voices kept saying “David,” repeating it with subtle increases in volume, much the same way the word “knife” is repeated in Blackmail.
James: I noticed that a lot of the words in Rope revolve around death, choking, ropes, murder, and so on. Mundane, everyday tasks are described with words that hint at death. I really like that aspect of the movie.
Jason: Yes, the vocabulary of the film is completely morbid, and yet in a light-hearted way. I guess that sums up a lot of Hitchcock’s work, but in this film, the dark comedy is particularly dark. I bet we’ll be able to draw some parallels between Rope and The Trouble With Harry. There are quite a few surprisingly morbid shots, too: I like how Brandon ties up a stack of books for David’s dad, using the very rope he used to strangle his son.
James: Another good shot is the one in which Brandon drops the rope into the kitchen drawer. His smile is perfectly sinister. Plus, the timing is flawless. The opening between the swinging door and the doorjamb is very brief, so he had to drop it at just the right time.
Jason: And another: Cadell discovering David’s hat in the hallway, with the initials DK.
Jason: Did you find the film’s book-collecting angle interesting? It’s mostly a background thing, but do you think it had any symbolic meaning? Maybe just a reminder of the “scholarly” nature of the murder?
James: I thought the book collection was more of a plot device. It worked, but it didn’t really add anything for me.
Jason: Regarding the film’s technical experiment, I think it’s interesting that many people consider Rope to be one long continuous shot, broken only by subtle cuts against dark surfaces, but I counted three traditional cuts in the film. Here are the cuts I noticed, and they occur about 8 to 10 minutes apart, so I’m pretty sure I got all of them:
- A cut from an outside window that takes us from the opening credits into the apartment for the kill
- A terrific, subtle cut against the back of a jacket
- A straight dramatic cut to Janet, who has just entered the room
- Another good, subtle cut against the back of a jacket
- A straight dramatic cut to Rupert, who has begun to suspect the boys of a crime
- An awkward, diving cut against the back of a jacket
- A straight, rather undramatic cut to Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) to announce a phone call
- An awkward cut against the back of a jacket, causing a bad camera shadow
- A good cut against the back of the lid of the chest that holds David’s corpse
James: The more I think about it, the more I realize that the gimmick sort of ruins this film—or rather, hampers it. Had Hitchcock let the camera go into the kitchen or the bedroom . . . well, there could’ve been room for expanding characters and amplifying some of the drama/tension. I don’t like to think of how a film could’ve been, but when you think about it, Hitch really limited himself here. Perhaps with today’s technology he could’ve used the entire apartment and still used the “one take” gimmick, but back then, it was certainly a hindrance.
Jason: I’m in total agreement. Rope feels experimental, to the detriment of the story.
James: I did, however, really like how the city turned to night outside the window. In one scene, you could see some lights turn on in the building out the window . . . nice touch.
Jason: The gradual fade of light throughout this “real-time” movie was pretty amazing, technically, and this brings up something we haven’t mentioned yet: This is Hitchcock’s first color film. Apparently, one or two entire 10-minute takes had to be trashed because his cinematographer screwed up on the color timing of the sunset, which he made way too orange.
James: Ah, his first color film. Did you see the pictures of how big the camera was?
Jason: It was a behemoth, an enormous Technicolor camera. Amazing that the crew could move that thing around quietly while shooting commenced …
James: I was paying attention to the color in the film, but really couldn’t come away with anything. Everything is fairly muted (I’m assuming because bright colors would look bad).
Jason: I read somewhere that Hitchcock’s preferred color palette is muted, throughout the rest of his career. Not sure why, maybe just an old-school director favoring something closer to a monochromatic look.
James: I noticed that Brandon has a much brighter suit on than the others. I’m sure there’s a reason for this, but it’s not coming to me.
Jason: What did you think of the women in the film? I think you could say that David’s aunt, Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier) is there mostly for comic relief. She reminded me of the annoying Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates) at the beginning of Rebecca. But she had a fun line when she says, “Cary Grant was thrilling in that new thing with Bergman,” obviously referring to Notorious.
James: I picked up on that Notorious reference too. Well done.
Jason: As for Janet Walker (Joan Chandler), David’s supposed new flame, she’s kind of a non-entity, which gives more fuel to the homosexual subtext. Hitch doesn’t really care about her, storywise.
James: The women are all pretty secondary, except maybe the specter of David’s mom. David’s a momma’s boy, which I thought was kind of funny. But yeah, the aunt is all about comedy relief, and Janet, while definitely a knockout, didn’t do much for me. I think her sole purpose is to continually note that Brandon is always scheming and up to something. She could’ve been a strong character in a movie that took place over many days, but in this one setting, she felt underused.
Jason: Yep. Inconsequential women …
James: Too bad Hitch backed out of the cameo showing himself as a flashing neon light outside the window.
Jason: Yeah, at the last minute he changed his mind on the cameo and just ended up being an extra on the street below, under the credits. Boring.
Jason: Excellent catch! Phillip’s ever-present hands emphasize the fact that he and Brandon used their hands to commit murder. And there’s a nice connection between playing the piano and the “art of murder” we talked about! Also, it’s interesting that the tune Phillip is constantly playing on the piano is Poulenc’s Mouvement Perpetuel (perpetual movement), which nicely comments on the way the camera is moving.
James: Interesting note about the piano tune. I would never have known.
Jason: Having watched Under Capricorn, it’s interesting to think about Rope as the first film (of two) produced by Hitch’s personal production company, Transatlantic, which he imagined as a “studio” for making US and UK films jointly. Unfortunately, Transatlantic failed after Under Capricorn because of investor disinterest and the poor reception of Under Capricorn. I think it’s also a matter of Hitch getting a little too big for his britches, thinking he could handle all aspects of a production on his own.
Jason: Want to talk about Rope’s unique trailer? How often does a trailer actually contain footage that feeds into a film that way? I thought that was pretty remarkable. It’s the only time we really see David alive.
James: I loved the trailer. It’s unique and powerful when you consider it in connection with the film. I think movies today should use ideas like this. Hitchcock’s trailers are always good. This one also added some needed depth to the film, giving a little more emotion to Janet’s loss.
Jason: How about the story that Brandon tells about Phillip, about strangling a chicken three years earlier? Not only does that story echo the strangling of David and cause Phillip to start really breaking down, but the dinner served over David’s body is cold chicken.
James: How could you not catch the film’s only bird symbolism? Tsk tsk tsk.
Jason: Oh my god, I did. I just laid out that story, and I completely missed the bird symbolism. What was I thinking?
James: It was too obvious, perhaps. But I thought that was fabulously done. Choking a chicken, choking David. Good stuff. Dark humor at its best.
Jason: “Choking the chicken,” yeah. Little masturbatory joke there, too. Intentional? Their whole rationale for committing the murder feels masturbatory.
James: You have a point, my friend.