My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 98, Rope

98 – Rope:

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Mention ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ among film buffs and what usually happens? There’s a lot of the slow nodding and that ooh-ing and ah-ing of appreciation. The name Hitchcock is almost synonymous with eerie respect. He was a filmmaker that was, by all accounts, quite unnerving to work with. If one watches his films, that shouldn’t be surprising. In his heyday, he was thought of as only an entertainer, rather than the respected director he is today. But what’s not surprising is the intense amount of work and innovation that went into each of his films. The surprise may come from the experiment he tried with today’s piece. Based on a British play with the same name, Rope was Hitchcock’s attempt at replicating theatre on the big screen. He wanted a film to unravel completely without any cuts. While the technology of the time didn’t allow for such a thing, it didn’t stop Hitch from trying. Let’s get started then, shall we?

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We open with the only exterior shot in the film, to show the opening credits. Hitchcock makes his cameo in record time as a man walking a dog. But what we’re really interested in is that scream that comes from inside a high rise apartment. Cut to the inside and we meet two men: Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger). There’s a third man too – David (Dick Hogan) – but he doesn’t really count, as they’ve just strangled him to death with a rope. Right from the beginning of this scene, Hitch lets us know exactly what we need to about the two men. Philip is in shock at what they’ve just done, while Brandon is positively delighted. After they stuff the body in a chest, Brandon even insists on leaving it unlocked – as it’s apparently more fun when it’s dangerous. He calls it “the perfect murder”

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What’s also evident in this scene is the subtext between Brandon and Philip. The thing is that it wasn’t subtext in the original play. Brandon and Philip’s equivalents were a functioning gay couple. The film implies it but relegates it to subtext. After all their apartment has more than one bedroom (Mrs Wilson later makes mention of “the first bedroom”) and Brandon alludes to a past relationship with Janet. But the interactions between Dall and Granger indicate that there’s definitely something going on.

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It might be just my opinion but I personally think relegating it to subtext adds to the story – because there’s a lot of potential for interpretation. On many watches, I’ve noticed that Philip is the one of the two who is definitely gay. You could interpret that Philip has a thing for Brandon, requited or not. And he might have even gone along with murdering David out of this single-minded crush. It’s possible that Brandon could be straight but yet aware of Philip’s feelings – and thus exploits them for his own benefit. The film never outright tells us anything, which makes the interpreting all the more fun – for me at least. Uniquely despite keeping it to just subtext, plenty of audiences did figure it out – and the film got banned in several cities as a result.

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Not here though. For obvious reasons.

Brandon opens a bottle of champagne and toasts the late David. Philip asks Brandon how he felt when he was doing it. Needless to say, Brandon quite got off on it. We then find out that they’ve planned a dinner party with David’s family and friends – with the chest to be in the room. Brandon is struck by a sudden brainwave – and begins to set up the cutlery and crockery on the chest. As in the chest David is stuffed in.

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Philip goes pale when he notices the offending rope still sticking out of the chest. Brandon yanks the rope out and keeps setting things up. The way I’ve just described it doesn’t sound spectacular. But keep in mind that this whole time Brandon and Philip have been moving in and out of the living room, dining room and kitchen – with the camera following them continuously. Throughout this shoot, there were stagehands off screen rearranging the furniture and equipment to allow these takes to happen. One instance even had a camera man break his foot off a dolly – and he was just gagged and taken off set. They even used the take in the finished film.

Anyway we now meet Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanson), the nagging and blustering housekeeper. She has quite the cute overreaction to the change in the dining arrangements but she perks up when Brandon mentions that he’s invited a Rupert Cadell. Philip has a different reaction as, according to him, Rupert is the one who is most likely to suspect the crime. Brandon says that Rupert might just appreciate what they’ve done, more so than anyone else. By this point, we can clearly see that Brandon is excited and Philip terrified. The bell rings and the first guest arrives.

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Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick), an old friend of Brandon, Philip and David’s from prep school. When he notices the champagne and asks if it’s someone’s birthday, Brandon replies that it’s almost the opposite – which you admit made you laugh more than you expected. The boys’ cover story is that it’s a farewell party for Philip – who has to go up state to prepare for his upcoming musical debut. Kenneth doesn’t make him feel much better by offering the most obvious words of encouragement for a film such as this:

“I hope you knock em dead.”                                                           

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Brandon reveals the rest of the guests who are on their way – and Kenneth is troubled to hear about a Janet Walker. Apparently they used to be an item – emphasis on ‘used to be’ – and she’s supposed to be marrying David soon. Janet (Joan Chandler) arrives and is equally troubled to see Kenneth there. As soon as she gets Brandon alone, she chews him out for inviting him. Brandon pretends not to know about her engagement to David – also getting in a barb about Janet maybe being a gold digger. Conversation now turns to that Rupert Cadell, who still hasn’t arrived yet. He was apparently house master for all four boys back in prep school – Brandon, Philip, Kenneth and David – and Brandon would hang on his every word. When Brandon mentions a few words from Rupert’s philosophy – that murder is a crime for some and a privilege for others – we start to get an indication of who put that idea into Brandon’s head.

The doorbell rings again and we now meet David’s father Henry Kentley (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and his aunt Anita Atwater (Constance Collier). David’s mother was invited too but she’s in bed with a cold. At this point I want to mention that the film has now got most of its cast together in the one room – with Rupert coming along later – and they are the ones that have to carry it. After all the entire point of the tension is whether or not the body in the chest will be discovered. But in the meantime you get so caught up in these characters interacting with each other that you almost forget about it. That’s a credit to how entertaining and interesting these characters are. The writing isn’t exactly Freudian levels of deep, but the characters are all enjoyable to watch – and I have great fun watching them go about their business. Mrs Atwater in particular is a very fun, bubbly presence – and Constance Collier commands the screen whenever she takes the centre.

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Another thing she commands is Philip’s nerves; she shouts out “David!” when she walks in. Although she just mistook Kenneth for David, it spooked Philip enough to break the glass in his hands. Things turn a little suspicious when Mr Kentley wonders where David is, but they assume he might have stopped by to visit his mother. Brandon continues his attempted matchmaking by ensuring Kenneth and Janet go into the bedroom together – Janet to use the phone and Kenneth to take her a glass of champagne. Meanwhile Mrs Atwater freaks Philip out for the second time in two minutes by reading his palms. “These hands will bring you great fame” for some reason strikes a nerve. And you’ll be forgiven if you forget that Philip is meant to have a cut on his hand from the broken glass just a few minutes ago. But since they were from different takes, the continuity department just plain forgot. Maybe Mrs Atwater had a different kind of great fame in mind for those healing hands…

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But now the final guest has arrived. It’s Rupert Cadell, played by James Stewart in the first of his three collaborations with Hitchcock. Although Stewart is given grey roots, he’s clearly the same age as the rest of the cast. Brandon is practically like a giddy school girl at the sight of Rupert – as is Mrs Wilson. Rupert is already a bit suspicious that they’re eating dinner off the chest, but the conversation is swept up by a discussion about the movies between the two women. Janet fangirls over Cary Grant, while Mrs Atwater muses that James Mason would make a great villain…

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You don’t say…

That’s doubly hilarious if you know that Jimmy Stewart was meant to have that Cary Grant role at first. Janet also remarks “how queer” when Philip says he doesn’t eat chicken. I’ll just choose to ignore that. Rupert and Brandon – against Philip’s will – tell the story of how he used to strangle chickens. This clearly sparks a nerve for the poor man, since he strangled something else not too long ago. Rupert once again seems to read between the lines in that little argument, and uses that as an excuse to start explaining his theory that murder is a privilege. Now this little scene would be something great in the hands of another actor. However this is unfortunately the wrong role for Jimmy Stewart to play. Mr Stewart was America’s favourite wholesome leading man. So for him to attempt to go radically against type – playing an ambiguously gay cynic who feels life is meaningless – is a big mistake. As such there’s a huge dissonance between what Rupert is saying and how Stewart says it. I for one don’t get that he genuinely believes his philosophies. Neither does Mrs Atwater, as she feels he’s just joking. Mr Kentley on the other hand takes issue with Rupert’s philosophy and a heated argument breaks out. Before things get too awkward, Brandon apologises and Mr Kentley just goes to telephone his wife.

Brandon switches motivations to Kenneth and Janet, making sure they’re left alone together. Despite Janet’s reservations about Kenneth, they actually do have a heart-to-heart. Brandon had been under the assumption that Janet dumped Kenneth for David because of the latter’s bank account. But actually it was Kenneth who dumped Janet. She claims that she loves David for who he is, rather than money or anything else. Kenneth is surprised by this, as Brandon had joked earlier that his chances with Janet were quite good. Janet is equally shocked – as Brandon had pretended to be ignorant of her and David’s relationship earlier. The two of them call Brandon out on this. Janet is likewise suspicious of why David isn’t here yet; he’s never this late. Rupert overhears this but Brandon deflects his questions. Mrs Wilson now pops up to complain once again about how oddly he and Philip have been acting all day. Especially with regards to how and where the food was being served. Little does she know, she’s giving Rupert even more suspicions.

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Philip starts playing the piano to clear his nerves, so Rupert of course goes to work on questioning him. He’s noticed that Philip is quite on edge, so he asks where David is. When Philip continues to be evasive, Rupert changes the subject. He brings things around to that chicken strangling story. He witnessed Philip strangling a chicken personally – and noticed how good he was at it. All the while Rupert is grilling Philip, there’s a piano timer ticking back and forth in a clear reference to The Tell Tale Heart. But Philip goes white as a sheet when he sees Brandon giving Mr Kentley the books…

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Everyone in the audience’s hearts do a sudden jump as the camera pans over to the chest, where Mrs Wilson is now clearing up the dinner stuff. She also said earlier that she would be putting the books in the chest. While this is happening, there’s a big discussion in the background about David’s whereabouts. My writing can’t really do justice to how masterfully this is done. Especially when Rupert offers to help Mrs Wilson put the books away…

But Brandon steps in and prevents this from happening. Mrs Atwater comes back in with news that David’s mother is frantic. She’s been phoning everywhere she can think of and now she’s worried David might have had an accident. The rest of the guests decide to go back to see she’s alright. Janet offers Kenneth a ride too. It seems that in spite of everything else, the two of them at least managed to patch things up. Rupert goes to leave as well, but Mrs Wilson goofs and gives him the wrong hat.

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Rupert leaves nonetheless and the two men can relax. Well Brandon relaxes, while Philip just drinks. He now says he’s half hoping he’ll wake up in the morning and discover they hadn’t actually done it. Not because he’s remorseful about killing; but he’s afraid that they’re going to get caught. After Mrs Wilson leaves for the night, Brandon calls for his car to be brought around – so they can dispose of the body. But the phone rings – and Rupert wants to come up to collect his cigarette case. Brandon allows him to come up, despite Philip’s terror. Within seconds of arriving, we quickly learn that Rupert didn’t forget anything. As such, we know that Rupert knows something happened to David. So the following sequence of Rupert and Brandon going back and forth with the cat and mouse games is expertly done. When Rupert is describing a hypothetical sequence of what might have happened to David, it’s accompanied by a brilliant tracking shot going around the room. Throughout this, we can’t be sure if Brandon wants to get away with it or actually wants Rupert to guess correctly. The gun he’s keeping in his pocket argues for the former; though when Rupert notices it, Brandon casually takes it out and claims it’s for his trip to the country. Rupert turns his back to them and takes something out of his pocket.

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Philip knows the jig is up and grabs the gun, all the while chewing Brandon out for having to invite Rupert along. Rupert uses this as a chance to grab the gun, which goes off but leaves no one injured. Rupert now has the gun and orders Brandon to open the chest. Rupert is shocked and outraged to discover that Brandon and Philip actually did murder David. Brandon tries to preach Rupert’s own teachings to him – but Rupert’s having none of it.

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And with that line, the story unfortunately falls apart. Let us remind ourselves of Rupert’s backstory. He’s spent his whole life preaching his philosophy about how the social elite should be entitled to murder whoever they want – because they’re superior beings. And now he’s horrified that someone actually listened to his words? As in someone he spent hours lecturing about it back in school. Rupert essentially poured poison into the ears of an impressionable child and corrupted him into believing this horrible philosophy. Brandon is partially the man he is because of Rupert. So Rupert is therefore just as guilty of the murder as the other two. But the movie turns around and seems to present Rupert as the hero. Or at least James Stewart plays him as a heroic presence. I get the feeling we’re meant to sympathise with Rupert – for getting a harsh dose of reality and being shocked out of his ideas. However he has been an entirely unsympathetic character up until then.

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As Rupert is chewing Brandon out, the lights flash red, green and white as an obvious symbolism to the danger of the situation. Rupert then opens the window and fires the gun into the air. From outside we can hear people wondering where the gunshot came from. Brandon pours himself one last drink and Philip sits down at the piano for one last tune. The film ends as we hear police sirens approaching the apartment block.

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Alfred Hitchcock never looked too fondly on this particular outing. His intent was to create a film that unravels with as few cuts as possible, like a stage play. Although there are only ten takes, there are still a few normal cuts – and he regarded it as a failed experiment. Despite relegating the gay stuff to subtext, the film still ended up being banned in several cities. James Stewart himself regarded Rupert Cadell as one of his weaker performances. But as is usually the case, the film became better thought of as the years went on. Personally I think it’s a great piece of work. It’s always tricky adapting a film from a play, given that what works on theatre often doesn’t work on the big screen. This I think keeps the essence of what makes the play special – while also changing just enough to stand on its own. Most notably in the play, the murder is in constant doubt. The whole play has you questioning whether or not there could be a body in the chest. The film instead shows the murder from the start and the tension is instead centred on whether or not the men will get away with it. But alas the trailers spoiled that – consisting entirely of the climaxing scenes between Rupert and the men. Would this also be a bad time to mention that Dick Hogan’s role as David’s corpse was his last appearance in a film?

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And now time for the perfect grades for the perfect movie.

*Story? A very good idea and almost expertly done. It sadly falls apart with the 180 it does with Rupert towards the end, but the rest of the film holds up pretty well. B+

*Characters? Again a very likeable cast of people whose banter passes the time well. A

*Performances? John Dall and Farley Granger should have got awards for their performances, Dall especially. Constance Collier was lovely as Mrs Atwater. James Stewart was sadly miscast though. B

*Visuals? On a superficial level, the apartment was nice to look at. On a more technical level, the camera work and craftsmanship is genius. Nice amount of symbolism in the closing scenes too. A+

*Special Effects? N/A

*Anything Else? Well they don’t call Hitchcock the Master of Suspense for no reason. The air of tension is extraordinary. A

We move onto something a little more light-hearted. I said ‘a little’ – it’s Seeking A Friend For The End of the World.

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