ROPE is considered a misfire from Alfred Hitchcock. Based on a play inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case, it stars Farley Granger and John Dall as two pals (gay, but you couldn’t say it at the time) who murder someone for kicks. They place the body of in a chest in their apartment and proceed to have a dinner party attended by the victim’s father and fiancé. Also in attendance is the murderers’ former house master at school, played by Jimmy Stewart. During the party and its aftermath, Stewart suspects that the boys may have taken to heart Stewart’s teaching of the Nietzschean philosophy of superior people being allowed to do what they please — including murder.
Rope is known for being Hitchcock’s first color film and one of his experiments in style. There are only a couple of obvious cuts in the movie, from the first shot to the murder itself and from the killers to Stewart as he begins to think something is up with these two snobs. Otherwise it is a series of long takes that end with the clumsy gimmick of the camera moving to a character’s back to cover the transition to the next reel. It’s considered lesser Hitchcock, but it has much of interest, including the uncommon theme of the responsibility of those who dispense philosophy to impressionable school kids. Stewart is a sort of detective who discovers that the ultimate culprit in the murder is himself. Rope is a distant cousin to Vertigo in that the hero is a pretty despicable person, in this case a nihilist whose idea of dinner conversation is a serious discussion of why intellectuals like himself should be allowed to bump off the rude and the useless members of society.
The ‘one shot’ gimmick works to create a sense that we are in this apartment with these people for the shortest, least-fun dinner party in history. The view of New York outside the large windows is spectacular, though it is about as realistic as the similarly-hued Cloud City matte paintings in The Empire Strikes Back. The dreamlike look of the world outside is important for creating visual interest when the whole movie takes place in one apartment.
John Dall is a classic snob villain. Farley Granger looks like he’s going to crack from the opening seconds, and he’s very good, but Dall looks like he’s getting a suspiciously sexual high off what they’ve done together. You instantly believe that this guy would knock someone off for kicks, and that if Granger doesn’t get his act together he’s going out that big window.
Much of the focus of discussion of the movie these days is the homosexual connection between the Granger and Dall characters. While it is obvious — the screenwriter spells it out for those who want to pretend folks didn’t even THINK of such things back in the good old days — it is just part of the whole. This angle grew in importance in succeeding decades, putting the other subject matter aside. Now that homosexual liaisons are no longer controversial movie material, the movie’s true identity has re-emerged. It’s not about homosexuality, it’s about elitism and the dangers of being an intellectual. The main characters are well-bred and/or educated folks who would kill the rest of us like vermin if they had their way. Hollywood’s traditional anti-intellectualism is the real backbone of Rope. An easy target, yes, but a valid one. It’s significant that Nazis are referenced, as the killers and their old mentor are fascists in all but name, believing they have the right to decide life or death for those beneath them, even if in Stewart’s case this belief is unrecognized until now. Stewart is revealed as a useful dupe, who doesn’t even realize he supports the equivalent of ‘death panels.’
Rope may not be a classic but it’s not the failure it has been made out to be by all but the Universal publicity department (it’s labelled ‘An Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece’ on the DVD case). It’s not a deep examination of its issues but it uses an interesting theme to support a talky 82-minute experiment in style that deserves more love than it gets.