“Based Upon A True Story”: Leopold & Loeb & Hitchcock’s ROPE (‘48)

“Based upon a true story”, “inspired by actual events”, those phrases are often used in Hollywood films that only bear a basic, crude resemblance to the real stories they are based upon. This phenomenon has really ramped up in recent years with “found footage” films like The Blair Witch Project (’99) and Paranormal Activity (’07).

The horror and thriller genres tend to capitalize on this “based upon a true story” idea more than others, but often change crucial details: The Exorcist (’73) was based upon the actual exorcism of a boy in St. Louis, Missouri (not a girl in Maryland as in the film); there is no real cannibal family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (’74), this film, like Hitchcock’s Psycho (’60), is based upon the life of paranoid schizophrenic Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein (we will be examining Psycho in two weeks for TCM’s #Hitchcock50 event); even A Nightmare on Elm Street (’84) was based on the true story of Laotian refugees who died in the midst of nightmares, and Child’s Play (’88) was based on the true story of the script author Robert Eugene Otto, interacting with a nurse who allegedly put a voodoo curse on his childhood doll that made it a nighttime terror.

It is important in looking at “based upon a true story” films that we realize they are very often only loosely based on a true story. Yet, we shouldn’t let this fact deter us from enjoying them as thoroughly as we can. What is important, as in every film we watch, is how effectively the director tells the story he or she is presenting.

Philip (Farley Granger) opposite Brandon ( John Dall) in “Rope”.

This is very much the case in the latest Alfred Hitchcock film examined here for TCM’s #Hitchcock50 July event: Hitchcock’s first color film, 1948’s Rope starring James Stewart, John Dall, and Farley Granger. Rope is another film in the infamous “5 lost Hitchcocks” that went out of theater circulation for over 30 years when their rights reverted to his daughter Patricia Hitchcock. It can be viewed Wednesday, July 19 at 8:00 PM on TCM.

The film is based upon the true story of the 1924 murder of young Bobby Franks by lovers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, a case that infuriated the entire country and even brought that great champion of civil rights, Clarence Darrow (the attorney of teacher John Scopes in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial memorialized in 1960’s Inherit the Wind, with the great Spencer Tracy brilliantly playing Darrow), into the fray to defend both men; ultimately getting them both life in prison and not the hangman’s noose.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, circa 1924.

Rope tells the tale of erudite, brash, academic man Brandon (John Dall) and his room-mate the more timid pianist Philip (Farley Granger), who plot and carry out the murder by strangulation of their classmate David Kentley (Dick Hogan) in their Manhattan apartment, covering up the crime by hiding the body in a trunk placed prominently in their living room on the night they are having a dinner party in their apartment. The purpose of the party is undoubtedly for Brandon to flout his brilliance by not getting found out for his crime, despite the two other reasons mentioned in the film.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two teenagers who grew up in Kenwood, an exclusive Jewish neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. The boys had a history of delinquency and sexual abuse (as would come out in the trial), yet both were brilliant students: Leopold having matriculated at the prestigious University of Chicago at the age of only 15. Leopold held a narcissistic self-delusion about “being the perfect criminal” after committing assorted small time burglaries and fires with Loeb who himself held this odd need to be “the perfect slave”. The crimes soon escalated to kidnapping for ransom and murder, when they found Leopold’s cousin from an affluent family: young Bobby Franks, abducting and murdering him with the blunt end of a chisel in late 1923.

Brandon (John Dall) opposite Philip (Farley Granger) as they linger by the trunk containing their classmate.

This is where a fascinating parallel with Rope comes into play. Nathan Leopold believed rather sternly in the Nietzschean ideal of “the Superman”, that because he is a superior being to other “inferior” men, he can kill with impunity, basically on a whim. This idea of killing “inferior beings” on a whim is echoed in Brandon’s character rather extensively throughout the film, especially when he discusses the ethics of murder with his old school master Rupert (James Stewart), who may or not bust Brandon and Philip’s crime wide open.

Brandon and Philip opposite Rupert (James Stewart).

The film was very controversial for the time for its not so latent portrayal of Philip and Brandon as homosexuals, as Leopold and Loeb were. The myriad of innuendo pointing towards this sailed past the censors at the Hays Production Code office but was not lost on theaters in a number of cities that banned the film for this very reason.

Hitchcock shot and edited it to look like the events happened over about 100 minutes, when in reality, they only happen over about 80 minutes. Hitchcock employed a number of tricks to achieve this like shrinking the length of the sunset and of the dinner. The September 2002 issue of Scientific American completely analyzed this technique and even found that most people nevertheless thought they watched a 100 minute movie.

Behind the scenes black and white still photograph from “Rope.”

There are only 10 shots within the entire film, timing in at 9:34, 7:51, 7:18, 7:09, 9:59, 8:35, 7:50, 10:06, 4:37, and 5:40. Hitchcock called this his “ten shot experiment.” This necessitated that the crew move fast over long shoots. This even went so far as gagging and dragging a cameraman off set when one of the dollies for a pan shot ran over and broke his foot. This take is preserved in the final cut.

As to the “ten shot experiment”, Hitchcock said it failed. James Stewart also feels he was rather miscast as Rupert, this being the only film he did with Hitchcock that he did not like. This should not deter the audience, however. Rope is a taut, well executed, and not to be missed murder mystery from the Master of Suspense himself.

“Rope” (1948)

What is your favorite “based upon a true story film? Tell us @thenuromantics on Twitter using #NuRfilm!