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Rope (1948)

Rope (1948)

Rope was Alfred Hitchcock’s first film after his contract with tyrannical producer David Selznick was up after nearly a decade. It was also his first Technicolor movie and was based on Patrick Hamilton’s play “Rope’s End” which in turn was inspired by the real life infamous Leopold-Loeb murder case. The film opens with David Kentley, a Harvard undergraduate, being strangled by his “friends” from his prep school days Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger). Heavily influenced by their former house master’s Nietzschean belief in the right of “superior” beings to eliminate those whom they deem “inferior” beings Brandon and Philip have now acted upon what house master Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) only intellectualized in an abstract manner.  They’ve carried out the murder as an experiment. Interestingly enough the filming of Rope was also something of an experiment. Hitchcock wanted to film the movie in one continuous shot as if it were a play and it does have a stagey yet cinematic feel to it. However, back in 1948 each film reel was only 10 minutes long so Hitchcock had the actors perform for close to 10 uninterrupted minutes and then would nearly seamlessly edit the scenes by having the camera close in on the back of someone’s jacket. This was the first and last movie Hitchcock filmed or edited in such a way.

Rope David Kentley

Rope homosexuality

Although the filmmakers had to be very careful with the censors in 1948, there is obvious homosexual subtext. In fact, right after the murder Brandon lights a cigarette while Philip asks him “How did it feel?” As the movie progresses it becomes obvious to the viewer that Brandon and Philip are a romantic couple. The real life wealthy college boy killers Leopold and Loeb were lovers and Hamilton’s play makes it clear that not only are Brandon and Philip lovers, but Rupert was also a former lover to one or both of them at one time.

Brandon and Philip hide David’s body in a cassone, a large old chest. They will dispose of the body later that night while on their way to Connecticut where Brandon’s mother lives. There, while on vacation, Philip, an aspiring concert pianist, is to practice for an upcoming Town Hall performance. Brandon has organized a “going away” party for the occasion and among the guests is David’s father Mr. Kentley (Cedric Hardwicke) who also wants to look at some first edition books Brandon owns. Other guests are David’s fiancée Janet (Joan Chandler), Kenneth (Douglas Dick) Janet’s ex-boyfriend and David’s best friend. Because Mrs. Kentley is home ill with a cold, Mr. Kentley brings instead his gregarious sister-in-law (Constance Collier). There’s one more guest; the former house master from their prep school days, Rupert Cadell. The news that Rupert has been invited to the soiree unsettles Philip as he believes that Rupert will sense something is wrong and their crime will be discovered. Brandon assures him they’ve committed the perfect murder and as long as they keep their cool and don’t say anything no one will ever know.

rope brandon narcissist

rope-ex-lovers

rope guests party

As the evening progresses it becomes obvious that Philip’s remorse, nerves and excessive drinking accompanied by Brandon’s reckless narcissism will be their undoing. Case in point; in a sick twist Brandon brings the dishes and silverware from the dining room to the living room and rearranges everything over the large trunk as if it were a  buffet so that the party guests (all people who loved David) dine from food served atop David’s dead body. Killing another human being isn’t enough for Brandon, he needs to “outsmart” everyone to truly enjoy his crime. The guests, Mr. Kentley and Janet in particular, are increasingly worried about David’s conspicuous absence. Both his absence and not calling to inform of his whereabouts are out of character with the punctual and responsible David everyone knows. This as well as Philip’s barely restrained agitation and Brandon’s more than usual excitability which only Rupert (who knows both boys very well) is aware of make the former head master realize his former charges are responsible for David’s absence.

rope buffet

hitchcock housekeeper

rope david's father books

The guests eventually leave the dinner party. As Brandon congratulates himself on everything going without a hitch and both boys prepare to put David’s body in their car to dispose of it on their way to Connecticut, the building doorbell rings. It’s Rupert who claims to have forgotten his cigarette case. Once inside the apartment he “finds” his cigarette case and asks if he may have one more drink for the road. It’s obvious to the boys that their former house master is on to them and knows the truth, but can he prove it? What follows is a tense cat and mouse game between Rupert and Brandon. Before the film is over and while the police are on their way, Rupert protests that he never taught them that they had the right to decide who was inferior or superior or who had the right to live or die. He says this as he’s bandaging his bleeding hand (after wrestling a gun away from Brandon). I don’t know if the director intended that as visual symbolism but I found that image rather symbolic because while Rupert may not have intended his cavalier abstract ideas to be taken literally he planted those poisonous seeds in fertile soil years earlier. In some way he too has blood on his hands and he knows it.

rope granger stewart

rope stewart dall

hitchcock rope

rope hitchcock police

Largely ignored by critics upon its initial release Rope is an underrated dramatic thriller that deserves a more appreciative audience.

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