Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Jimmy Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger
The idea behind Rope is a perfectly scrumptious one for a film; a pair of handsome young men, Brandon (Dall) and Phillip (Granger), decide to kill one of their friends for the thrill of it and then host a party immediately after, with food served from atop the chest where they’ve hidden the body. No one goes into it, not in 1948, but they are almost certainly an item. They are roommates at an age when other men are focused on their heterosexual domestic prospects; Brandon dominates Phillip in the way that love affairs often devolve inequitably; Leopold and Loeb, whose story Rope borrows from, were gay. The guests include the man’s father (Cedric Hardwicke), his aunt (Constance Collier), and his probable fiancee (Joan Chandler). This is lurid stuff: in many ways it’s better tabloid fodder than Leopold and Loeb because Brandon and Phillip have the style to throw a dinner party after the killing. At its best, this might be the foundation for a marvelously demented John Waters screenplay.
But the movie is disappointing largely because of the material it was adapted from even more than what it is; it’s a play by Patrick Hamilton (who also wrote Angel Street, which was adapted as Gaslight), and the play, alas, is from 1929. Rope thus feels hopelessly outdated, even though it’s in color and has been edited to make its eighty minutes feel like a single take. That is a daring gesture by Hitchcock, and to some extent it works; I’m not sure how the pressure would be maintained in the pressure cooker without a strategy as bold as this one. Long takes do it even more than the sense of real time; the choreography, which is simple, is still obviously practiced, and in some ways too practiced to be natural. When Brandon paces, he paces with the sureness of a man who has paced two steps forward, two steps back two times too often. What should be a fairly taut film is bogged down by a screenplay which puns endlessly on words like “kill” or “hands” or “strangle” in a way that must have felt clever when they were first written but in practice feel as obligatory as Brandon’s pacing. Granger and Chandler in particular are as wooden as marionettes, line-saying their way into prosaic performances. Dall gives a reasonably strong performance as the carefree, guiltless killer, and Hardwicke and Collier are, in a sea of young people, lent additional weight because of their age. (It’s not just their age, but how professional they are; Hardwicke was, at the time, the youngest knighted actor in the Commonwealth, and Collier was a well-regarded acting coach.) Henry Kentley, who is worried that his usually punctual son has not called to say he’ll be late (though not nearly as worried as the boy’s mother), is dignified, a collector of first editions, and despite being a traditional sort he also gives his son David a free rein. He is hesitant to begin looking for him because he doesn’t want to smother the boy. Mrs. Atwater, David’s aunt, is a good-natured older woman, and while she gives off the effect of someone who might turn nasty if the conversation turned to “communism” or “civil rights,” in Rope she is harmless, mostly concerned with horoscopes and Hitchcock movies. There’s underreported comic relief in the movie in which no one can recall the name of movies like Notorious or Shadow of a Doubt. The best part is watching Stewart stiffen at the mention of Cary Grant.
While the younger set debates about whether or not it might be morally acceptable to murder someone, Mr. Kentley is simply aghast, asking more than once if they might not switch to a less objectionable topic. Of course it’s never acceptable, he says. Brandon is all too happy to argue his position – that superior types are not bound to the rules for the middling proletariat – and, oddly enough, his former housemaster joins his side. Rupert Cadell (Stewart) is idiosyncratic and outspoken and, apparently, has provided much of the philosophical basis for Brandon’s ideology. He’s also a profound hypocrite; he sniffs out that something suspicious has happened, has that suspicion confirmed when he accidentally puts on David’s hat while he’s leaving the party, and in the end sees David’s corpse in the trunk. Rupert becomes gun-shy at Brandon and Phillip’s praxis; he admits to them that he may have argued that murder could be acceptable, but that he never could have committed one himself.
(The idea that there are super-human men for whom morality is but the rules of a parlor game is attributed to Nietzsche by both Brandon and Mr. Kentley, and Mr. Kentley, of course, ties Nietzsche to Hitler in the way people have done since the Third Reich was formed. The Ubermensch is not my favorite Nietzschean idea, but then again, what Brandon and Mr. Kentley and Rupert get into an argument over really has nothing to do with Nietzsche. Nietzsche described the Ubermensch as a futuristic ideal, as a goalpost by which to judge one’s own life, as a mechanism which would help us as we manage the death of God. In short, what Brandon, Mr. Kentley, and Rupert are talking about has nothing to do with Nietzsche but everything to do with Ayn Rand. Rand, whose The Fountainhead was published in 1943 and was turned into an unusually schlocky film by King Vidor in 1949, is the one who makes philosophical arguments with the same timbre as Brandon or Rupert’s. Rand’s heroes, who are profoundly talented or somehow spectacular, and often wealthy like Brandon and Phillip, believe that their exceptional natures somehow makes them blameless. In The Fountainhead, superman Howard Roark blows up a building and rapes a woman in the interest of pursuing his vision. Rand is the one with a destructively individualist worldview, not Nietzsche. Anyway!)
The film’s saving grace, in the end, is not its technical mastery or its endurance testing, but a moment of realization for Rupert Cadell. For most of the movie his personality seems very much at odds with Brandon and Phillip’s. He is able to sense that something is up if for no other reason than he has a deeper background knowledge of them than, say, Mr. Kentley. Having taught them as boys, and having influenced Brandon pretty seriously, Rupert remembers that Brandon stammers when he’s excited. He knows that Phillip’s temperament is more mild, and that lashing out as he does from time to time is unusual for him. He knows that David is a punctual fellow. And even if he had forgotten that he’d poisoned Brandon’s mind at an age when the darkest and most sinister ideas find fertile ground, Brandon was good enough to revive that particular line of thought earlier in the party. Rupert spends the last half of the party or so wondering if Brandon and Phillip haven’t kidnapped David in order to set up Janet with her ex, Ken (Douglas Dick) while David’s not around. It’s the kind of mistake that one expects a person who believes himself to be very smart to make; you might recognize them as the ones who brag about having read The Art of War. He does not have the intelligence and foresight to go whole hog, to really commit to his imagination. When he is forced to admit his culpability in the scheme, a culpability that he probably baked into his life a decade ago, there is a glorious moment which we very rarely see in film. Redemption is popular, but this is not redemption. Rupert’s discovery of David’s body won’t save him from whatever turmoil he’ll feel, or even from whatever legal consequences a smart lawyer might be able to dream up for him. This is about accepting responsibility, without hope of praise or glory. As the sirens come closer, no one leaves the apartment. Brandon stands and mixes himself a last drink. Phillip sits forlornly on the piano bench. And Rupert surveys it all. He could leave – it’s obvious that Brandon and Phillip recognize the futility of running or hiding – but he won’t. He’ll be forced to see his own wickedness through.