Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope was based on a 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton of the same name, and Hamilton’s play was based on the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder of 14-year-old Robert Franks. In the film Rope, two schoolmates, Brandon and Phillip, decide to pull off the perfect crime and then have a party to celebrate it with the victim’s family and friends. They also invite their former teacher, Rupert Cadell, from whom all three took inspiration, to show him how smart they are. The visitors quickly realize that the victim, David Kentley, is not showing up, and they try desperately to call him. The teacher senses that something is off, getting more and more suspicious that something really sinister has happened.
You cannot really talk about the film Rope without talking about Leopold and Loeb. Leopold and Loeb were wealthy students doing postgraduate studies at the University of Chicago; they were also gay lovers.They were both precocious, attending college at an early age, and they aimed to prove their intellectual superiority by committing the perfect murder.1 Various aspects of the movie are tied in to the Leopold and Loeb story. In Rope, Brandon seems to be almost ecstatic about the murder, whereas Phillip seems to have almost immediate repentance and becomes a basket of nerves. This reflects the real-life case; Leopold was the more sadistic of the two, and the one who came up with the idea of the murder.
The movie reflects attitudes of the time in which it was filmed - 1948. By 1948 Hitchcock had been film-making in America for some time, having relocated there from his native Britain, and the film starred the highly-acclaimed American actor, James Stewart. Also starring were John Dall and Farley Granger. Rope was filmed just three years after WWII ended, and the world was still trying to come to terms with the atrocities that had been committed by the Nazi’s, and this film is basically about Hitchcock’s philosophy on Nietzsche, whose theories at this time in history were still associated with the Nazi doctrine. This has been disproved since, as Nietzsche in reality despised nationalism in all its forms and considered it a false state to control people. At this time, however, Nietzsche and Nazism and elitism were thought to be one and the same.
Hitchcock saw that Hamilton’s play could address this elitism. The play was based on two rich rich young men who considered themselves the epitomy of elite. They commit a murder, but their rich parents could afford to hire Clarence Darrow, considered by many to be the best lawyer in the country. Darrow managed to stave off the death penalty for them, even though they had confessed to the murder.2 In the film there is a specific mention of the Nazi philosophy where Jimmy Stewart says that some people are just better than other people, and shouldn’t that give them the right to kill if they wish. What has to be remembered in the movie is that all the three young men had idolized their former teacher, Rupert, played by Stewart. This reflects Hitchcock’s rejoinder on what he feels about the elitism of the Nazi philosophy and the violence it spawned. This film shows what Hitchcock felt about what happens in dictatorships, and how seemingly normal people will try and do bizarre things, such as kill a friend because they thought he was inferior intellectually. The current thought on Nietzsche is that he deal more with individualism, and he does propose that there are people who are better at things than others, and because of this these people should be in charge. He also says that you need to reject what society tells you is right, and that you need to figure it out for yourself. In this movie, though, there is a disconnect from any aspect of the Nietzsche philosophy, as Brandon is not as individualistic as he thinks he is. As the movie progresses, there are indications that he is not as single-minded an elitist killer doing it just for the experimental value of it as is first presented, as there is a relationship that has bearing on the murder. The victim’s girlfriend is invited to the dinner party, and it turns out that she is actually Brandon’s ex-girlfriend, whom he still appears to have emotions for, and which likely played a part in his decision to commit the murder. He is also not as cool about the murder as it first appears; there is a scene where he struggles to light a cigarette, and there is also his near hero worship of his former teacher, Rupert Cadell.
There is also another subtext in the movie that deals with homosexuality. In an interview, the screenwriter for Rope, Arthur Laurents, says that Hitchcock specifically said that he wanted to make a movie about “It”, which was the term used at this time in history for homosexuality. Laurents said that Hitchcock became interested in basing a movie on Hamilton’s play as he wanted to make a movie about gay killers. There was conflict between the screenwriter and Hitchcock on Jimmy Stewart’s performance, or even, perhaps, on Hitchcock’s choice of Stewart for the role of the teacher. The screenwriter said that he was disappointed with Stewart’s portrayal in the movie regarding his connection to the homosexual aspect of the movie, as there was a possible back story that indicated a homosexual relationship between Rupert and the three friends. He thought in this way that Stewart was not a good choice for the role of the teacher, as that nobody would believe that Stewart would have sex to begin with. Laurents sums up Hitchcock’s take the portrayal of homosexuality in the movie in his interview: “The thing to me that is best about the picture is not the technical side. That may be called ahead of its time, but it was never used again. [...] What is extraordinary about it is its treatment of homosexuality. I mean, today it still is one of the most sophisticated movies made on that subject. [...] Hitchcock certainly knew that and it certainly attracted him. And what he liked was not that they were homosexuals, but that they were homosexual murderers."3
This is also Hitchcock’s first color film, and overall his most experimental film as a director. The most famous part of this movie is that it was all filmed in one simulated long shot. Hitchcock tries to mask the obvious cuts by focusing on some object during the cut, such as on someone’s suit jacket. This film also marks the end of his formal experimentation in filming, likely because the experiment with the long shot in the movie was considered to be somewhat of a failure.
The film itself was considered to be somewhat of a failure. It was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award of Best Picture in 19494, but it was not a financial success. It is estimated to have cost anywhere from 1 to 1.5 million dollars to make, but, as given in the January 5, 1949 issue of Variety magazine, it only grossed 2.2 million, the 56th spot for the year 1948. This was less than half of what the top grossing film, Road to Rio made, coming in at 4.5 million. The film critics overall looked on the long shot technique used in the film as a gimmick. They thought the story was thin. Also the screenwriter was disappointed that Hitchcock changed things in his script. One of the things that disappointed him most was that Hitchcock inisted on showing the murder.
I, myself, find the movie very rewarding aesthetically. There are so many brilliant shooting techniques used. The most obvious one is the long shot. Hitchcock was very intent on having the setting of the film reflected in the cinematography. Rope is a movie that takes place all in this one apartment, and is an intensive character study of two men breaking down, and having a desire to control a violent world. So here, the setting reflects the cinematography, and the cinematography reflects the setting. A particularly good use of the long shot is the scene in which the housekeeper cleans off the table, that is the trunk in which the body has been put. Hitchcock uses this to intensely build up suspense, as the audience holds their breath, wondering if she is going to open the trunk. There are also other clever things done in the shooting. Although the film is basically a simulated long shot, and the cuts are hidden, a critical point in the film occurs in which Brandon tells a story about how Phillip had to at one time strangle a chicken on his farm, and Phillip yells out that that was a lie. It is right at this moment that the movie has its most overt cut, landing on Stewart, who at this exact second realizes that something is up, and the story is subtly shifted at this point to Stewart. At this point Stewart claims himself to be the protagonist of the movie.
This is a movie that is a discussion of individualism, and whether some people are born better than others. Hitchcock appears to believe that they are not. The movie is a philosophical discussion, and it is supposed to be intimate, for which Hitchcock’s experiment with the long shot is so well suited; it emphasizes the space, and the people inside the space. By being in simulated real time, it lets the audience live with them and experience time the way they experience it. The film is about a crime committed by supposedly normal people, and this has the audience relate intensely to the movie and the suspense which is created so expertly by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.