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Alfred Hitchcock was the first celebrity director. Sure, Frank Capra and Howard Hawks were the first directors to claim that a film was specifically theirs, but Hitchcock was the first director that people actually knew. From his unique physique to his even more unique film making style, you don’t have to be a film geek to know a Hitchcock movie when you see one.
Hitchcock always tried something different whenever he set out to make a film, even though you could still tell that the final product was clearly a Hitchcock movie. In 1948, after completing Notorious and The Paradine Case, the Master of Suspense decided to do something very different. He decided that he wanted to make a filmed play, something he always wanted to do, that takes place in real time and in one long take. He chose Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play Rope and enlisted Hume Cronyn to adapt it and future West Side Story book writer Arthur Laurents to pen the final script. The result was a thrilling film that lasts just 80 minutes, but keeps you on edge like few other films.
Rope centers on the story of two young men, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger), who decide to kill a former schoolmate moments before they are supposed to host a party. Why do they kill him? Because they can, and besides, trying to hide the murder will be just as fun as doing it, right? It’s the “perfect murder.” At least, that’s what the over-confident Brandon thinks. On the other hand, Phillip is nervous and nearly gives it up several times. None of the invitees can figure out that there is a murder and even Rupert (James Stewart), their former headmaster, is fooled. Rupert begins to see through them, though, eventually finding out. Rupert also questions his own role in the murder. After all, he taught them that survival of the fittest applies everywhere in life, even between humans.
Hitchcock is known for iconic moments in his films, whether it be the Mount Rushmore finale in North by Northwest or the shower scene in Psycho. For Rope, the entire film is iconic, since Hitchcock decided to make the entire film take place in one scene. The entire film takes place on one set and almost all in one take. He decided to experiment with this idea, but since a reel of film is only 20 minutes, this isn’t entirely possible. There are more than a few awkward moments where the camera has to zoom into someone’s back to ‘mask’ a cut. Today, these moments are obvious and it has to be the one negative aspect of the film. As innovative as the idea is, it gets in the way of the storytelling.
Still, like most Hitchcock films, his technical wizardry does not get in the way of his actors’ performances, especially in Rope. This is the first time Hitchcock worked with James Stewart, who pulls off one of the most nuanced performances in his career. Stewart Granger might be a little over-the-top at times, but he does a fine job and more than makes up for his shortcomings here in Strangers on a Train in 1951. I found John Dall’s performance surprisingly striking. The supporting cast is filled with fantastic actors, especially Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who plays the father of the murder victim.
Rope may be about as obscure as a Hitchcock film can get, but it is still a thrilling film. It’s not in the same class as Vertigo or Psycho thanks to the obvious technical limitations of Hitchcock’s ambitious plan. Still, the performances and Hitchcock’s signature moments of suspense don’t have a problem overcoming that.