Alfred Hitchcock’s Experiment
The famous director challenged himself in one of his best films: “Rope”
On a cold, January day in northeast Illinois, Richard Loeb died in prison. His death stirred up emotions, nationwide, of his decade old crime. Loeb was half of the Leopold and Loeb duo — the murderous pair who wanted to commit the perfect crime. The two men kidnapped and killed teenager Bobby Franks in 1924, only to confess days later. Unsuccessful at committing the perfect crime, their trial became a media frenzy. Both men were convicted and sentenced to life in jail. (Loeb, attacked by a fellow inmate, died in jail in 1936. Nathan Leopold lived to be 66, released from prison in 1958).
Only five years after the trial, English playwright Patrick Hamilton, supposedly, took notice. In 1929, Rope premiered in London. Thought to be based on the Leopold and Loeb case, the play tells the story of two college students who believe they can commit the perfect crime. The play ran for six months in London and was a part of New York’s Broadway scene. In the 1940s, the play caught the attention of a rising filmmaking auteur: Alfred Hitchcock.
By 1948, Hitchcock witnessed major successes. Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound and Notorious excited audiences. (The first three of those films gave Hitchcock a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards). With those successes, Alfred Hitchcock’s name become gold. Whenever, he was attached to a film, audiences began to recognize his name and appreciate his work. Hitchcock’s 1940s films gave the director filmmaking freedom, as well. Experimenting with different ways to film a story always interested Alfred Hitchcock.
Rope is my favorite Hitchcock experiment.
Released in 1948, and based off of Patrick Hamilton’s play, the film unravels the story of two young men in New York City who, as an intellectual exercise, commit the perfect murder. Brandon Shaw (played by John Dall) and Philip Morgan (played by Farley Granger) strangle their former Harvard classmate David Kentley (played by Dick Hogan). After committing the murder, the duo stuff the body in a wooden chest — the centerpiece of a party at their apartment. Invited to the party: David’s father, aunt, fianceé and close friend. The idea for the murder, partly, came from conversations with their prep school housemaster Rupert Cadell (played by James Stewart). Conversations at the party range from philosophy to the strange disappearance of David. Brandon, calmly, interacts with guests. Philip becomes nervous and wracked with guilt.
Rope is in my top three of Hitchcock films (Psycho and The 39 Steps are the other two, for those who are curious). Hitchcock deviates from his normal filmmaking practices in Rope, expertly creating a world steeped in tension. His use of long takes and “limited setting” perfectly add to the dysfunction of the situation. Though this film is mostly discussions between the characters, Rope is never boring. The dialogue is interesting, along with wonderful performances from the cast.
Rope takes place in one setting — the duo’s apartment. Each shot runs for 10 minutes, or the length of a film camera magazine. (Some scenes were trimmed to around 8 or 9 minutes). Having only one setting creates an familiarity with the story and the characters — especially Shaw and Morgan. The audience knows the duo’s point-of-view, creating a more in-depth relationship than with the other characters. Though we may not agree with their actions, audiences are given a fuller explanation to their motives because of the exclusive time spent with them.
Hitchcock decided not to cut, or have the film look as seamless as possible. In addition to the seamlessness, the film is shot in real time — meaning every minute the audience watches is a minute in the film’s world. These choices came from the auteur himself. Shot on a single set, the walls of the apartment were on rollers. When the camera needed to move to fulfill the shot continue, the walls were moved to accommodate the camera. To move the furniture, prop men snuck out of sight and moved the furniture. Their timing needed to be impeccable, as the pieces needed to be in the right place when the camera was moved again. These filmmaking aspects help aid the tension. A lot of the scenes feature the chest in which David lies on camera, knowing that audiences knew what the chest represents. Audiences watch in bated breath to see if any of the characters figure out what is inside the chest. By not deliberately cutting, Hitchcock keeps audiences focused on the characters and the tension. The director did not want the typical filmmaking techniques to lessen what is happening at the apartment.
Hitchcock’s attention to detail is marvelous. The backing of the New York skyline is detailed and large. The cyclorama — a large curtain or wall at the back of the stage — is the largest display ever constructed on a sound stage. The Empire State building and Chrysler building gloriously overlook the modest living room. Throughout the film, a sunset slowly changes color and clouds change shape. Hitchcock said the film’s final segments were re-shot many times because the director did not like the color of the sky. Among the vast New York Skyline is Hitchcock’s famous cameo — which he makes in most of his films. Around the 55 minute mark, a red sign is apparent and shows Hitchcock’s profile. These are fun tidbits of information, but they illustrate Hitchcock’s dedication to his vision. He cared about creating the perfect mood and setting to go along with the tension in the performances and script.
With the filmmaking decisions perfect to capture the story, the film needs the acting to deliver. For me, the highlight of the film is Joan Chandler, who plays David’s fianceé Janet Walker. Chandler displays infectious charisma and charm. While the murderous duo struggle with their inner emotions of the crime or discuss philosophy with Cadell, Chandler possesses the lively heartbeat of the crowd. Quick-witted and smart, Chandler is a standout performance.
The rest of the cast does well with what the film needs them to accomplish. Farley Granger expertly displays guilt of the crime; John Dall does his best to calm him down. Though not a huge James Stewart fan, the acclaimed actor gives a solid performance. Stewart’s performance is gradual. It moves from a cold, distant figure to the man who realizes what the duo are hiding. I appreciated Stewart’s capabilities to display the evolution of Rupert Cadell.
Overall, Rope is a magnificent achievement. The film comes on the brink of Hitchcock’s most acclaimed feature films — Psycho was still 12 years away. I loved the different style of Hitchcock experimented with in Rope. The films displays some of the best tension ever filmed, expertly showing that sometimes conversations make for a dynamite film.