Alfred Hitchcock once said that the key difference in creating a successful atmosphere of suspense is to “keep the audience informed.” In his famous “bomb under the table” example he showed that while the explosion may provide 10 seconds of shock, it is the knowledge that there is a bomb under the table and that it might go off that can create an atmosphere of torturous tension and excitement that can last much longer. And it is his adherence to this theory in his movies that earned Alfred Hitchcock the moniker of “The Master of Suspense”.
In Rope, Hitchcock takes his theory of suspense and pushes it to its absolute limit. Within the first five minutes of the movie, Hitchcock provides us with all the information we need. The movie opens immediately with a murder in which we are introduced to our murderers, the victim, where the body is hidden, and what the motive was for the murder. The clearly closeted couple Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) murder their close friend David and their reason for doing it is reprehensibly for their own entertainment and intellectual curiosity. Spouting pop-Nietsczhian philosophy, they commit the murder to prove that they are superior creatures who are able to get away with the “perfect murder.”
(As an aside, there is some delight in seeing Hitchcock portray an obviously homosexual couple during a time when such depictions were explicitly forbidden. As was his usual practice, the man was a genius at skirting around the Production Code’s rules so that there is nothing so explicit that he could be called out for and punished, but his intent is still clear. It’s just another example of the sheer stupidity of censorship and of those who try to enforce it.)
The murder represents not the culmination of their intellectual exercise but the beginning of their intellectual exercise as they hide David’s body in a book chest and then proceed to hold a dinner party with David’s family and some of their mutual friends. It is here that it becomes apparent that Hitchcock is shooting the movie as a continuous shot, without any visible cuts or breaks. Besides being a technical marvel to look at for the time, it creates a boiler plate atmosphere as our eyes and the camera are never more than a few feet away from the enclosed chest and the body. The movie then takes great macabre delight with providing several near misses as the guests come perilously close to stumbling upon the body.
The tension is further exacerbated by the two murderers who in their own way threaten to give the game away. Phillip, the more timid and emotional of the two, is wracked with the fear of being discovered and the guilt of killing his friend. He threatens to fall apart with every interaction he has with his guests, and proceeds to get more and more drunk the further the party goes along. But Phillip’s nerves are nothing compared to the actions of Brandon, who treats the whole proceeding like an intricate game of cat and mouse. Manipulative and charismatic, he holds court in the party and takes great delight both in provoking his guests but also in seeing just how much he can get away with. He uses the chest as a dining table, for the sick delight of having David’s father get food mere inches away from his hidden body. He also draws attention to the fact that David, an expected guest of the party, is uncharacteristically missing. In a final act of true gall, he uses the same rope that he strangled David with to tie up some first edition books for David’s father to carry home. It is as if the man is so proud of what he did that he wants to get caught so that other people may admire his genius and superiority. Unfortunately for Brandon almost everyone doesn’t notice that something is amiss, simply confirming his view that they are inferior creatures and thus worthy of his cruel manipulations.
The one exception is their former prep school housemaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) who is the one who introduced this concept of the validity of murdering inferior beings for the benefit of superior creatures, even if for Rupert the discussion was only ever academic. Rupert is yet another in a long-line of dark characters that Stewart would embrace after his post-War service. He is an arrogant intellectual who like Brandon and Phillip thinks most of society is beneath him. He pokes fun at the vacuous conversations of his fellow guests and in a key scene in the middle takes great delight in provoking and offending his audience as he waxes poetic about his views on the art of murder. Brandon and Phillip’s admiration for Rupert is apparent as his appearance forces Brandon’s cool facade to give way to nervous excitement and stammering. It is clear that of all the guests at this party, it is Rupert’s approval of their heinous act that Brandon seeks the most.
And yet it is Rupert whose suspicions are aroused as the party progresses, and he slowly turns the screw on the two murderers by interrogating the nervous Phillip, questioning the housekeeper, and paying close attention as the worries about David’s absence grows. Ultimately the untimely discovery of a piece of clothing confirms his suspicions much to his horror. He is especially horrified that in some small part his intellectual hypotheticals have caused some real world tragedy. This movie was made a few short years after the end of World War II as the full horrors of the Holocaust were being unearthed. So it would not be too far a stretch to read into Hitchcock’s movie a damning critique of the rights of “superior beings”. And in Rupert, he reminds us too that the repugnant philosophies of Nazism and its ilk often aren’t birthed by the proletariat but from the hallowed halls of academia.
The movie is an audacious experiment by Hitchcock, if not an altogether successful one. In trying to film the movie as a continuous shot, he commits the same sin that Brandon does in wanting to show off. Once you know what Hitchcock is doing, it becomes almost impossible not to pay attention to the scene blocking, camera placement, and subtle use of cuts which in turn draws attention away from the story itself. In addition, though the gimmick is quite ingenious its novelty wears off fairly quickly. In fact there are moments where a closer camera placement would’ve been more beneficial to the telling of the story but the constriction of movement forces the camera to be further back. Throughout the eighty-minute runtime there are many moments where the story drags and would’ve benefited enormously from a clean cut. And by confining us to a single apartment, the movie gives us little in terms of visual flair, as the blandness of the colour palette on display simply induces boredom.
It is somewhat ironic that a movie which argues forcefully of the potential malevolent results of thought experiments comes across as an intellectual exercise for Hitchcock himself. While the movie produces strong performances from Stewart and especially from Dall, the rest of the cast are glorified cardboard cutouts and Granger’s performance as Phillip is disappointingly one-note. By the time we reach the conclusion of the story, our exhaustion at the format detracts from whatever pleasure we may derive from seeing the criminals caught. But ultimately while Rope is not wholly successful in its goals, it is still gives us fascinating insight into the craft of Hitchcock and helps us understand exactly why he remains one of the greatest directors of all time.