Rope

Rope

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Have you ever wondered if you could commit murder and get away with it? Ever thought that some people contribute so little to the world that they might as well be killed? Brandon and Philip have. With the former, at least, it has become an obsession. Rope opens as they tighten a piece of rope around the neck of their unfortunate friend, David. But this isn't enough for Brandon. Determined to vaunt his supposed intellectual superiority, he holds a party, with David's father and girlfriend amongst the guests, in the very room where the body is hidden. The deception is almost perfect - but he has reckoned without the keen intellect of his former house master, Rupert, whose growing suspicion triggers mounting suspense.

Based on the play by Patrick Hamilton, which was itself based on the famous Leopold and Loeb case, Rope is one of Hitchcock's true masterpieces. It is remembered primarily for its technical brilliance - it's immaculately lit, and the camera never stops moving around, following the guests from room to room, with the few cuts hidden almost to the point of invisibility.

Copy picture

In doing this, it makes the viewer feel very much like another guest, and the illusion it creates of passing time is genius - after just one hour you'll feel as if you've spent the whole evening at a stimulating party, with the guests' getting ready to depart seeming entirely natural.

Yet despite all this, Hitchcock's style comes across as relaxed and unfussy - he leaves his actors alone to do their thing. Most famous for his visual work, he was also an outstanding director of actors, and this is a film where it really shows.

Cast against type as the cynical Rupert, James Stewart steals the show, alternating savage wit with a curious emotional vulnerability which may just be what makes the difference between him and his former charges.

There's a delicious scene in which he intervenes in the women's discussion of the actors who have recently succeeded him in leading man roles, but this very different performance really suits him, and he brings a dark edge to it which a lesser actor might have eschewed.

A fine cast of supporting actors perform perfectly on cue, with every motion beautifully choreographed to fit in with the movements of the camera, and Stewart's work is ably balanced by that of Dall and Granger (as Brandon and Philip respectively) - the former perhaps sociopathic but still, on some level, afraid for himself; the latter a tangle of nerves and moral confusion. If there is a flaw here, it is perhaps that Philip can be a little too sympathetic; we need to be reminded from time to time of the enormity of what he has done.

The other important thing about Rope is its homosexual subtext. Though Hitchcock was, at the time, unable to raise such things directly, he presents us with a relationship between Brandon and Philip that is almost certainly romantic in nature. There are occasional giveaway lines, like the former's remarks on the latter's charm, but for the most part it's conveyed in little glances, casual intimacies, and the unquestioned assumption that what they do in the future they will do together. Yet, despite the context of the murder, there's nothing exploitative about this portrayal. There's a hint that Brandon is also attracted to Rupert (who shows no interest in women) and that this is a factor in his desire to impress him.

Skilfully composed, expertly performed, Rope is so immaculate that it barely leaves room for real emotion - the shock of that, complete with the full realisation of what has occurred, must wait until the very end, when the tone changes abruptly. It's Hitchcock's willingness to gamble on this inspired course that really marks him out as a visionary filmmaker.

Reviewed on: 13 Jan 2009
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Rope packshot
Two young men strangle a friend and then hold a party in the room where his body is hidden.
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Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Hume Cronyn, based on the play by Patrick Hamilton.

Starring: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Cedric Hardwicke, Constance Collier, Douglas Dick, Edith Evanson, Dick Hogan, Joan Chandler

Year: 1948

Runtime: 80 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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