Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rope - 1948

"Rope" - 1948
Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock - 1 hr. 20 min.

Official Trailer

Here's what I knew about this movie going in: it stars James Stewart, and it's the Hitchcock film where he tried to edit it so that it looked like one continuous shot.  "Rope" is about a pair of post-collegiate men who decide to murder a buddy, and then host a dinner party atop the corpse (the guests are unaware of this, of course) in an attempt to elevate the murder to the level of art.  And at first glance, "Rope" might appear to be nothing more than either a kind of perverse suspense film (the murder occurs literally at the beginning of the film - the question is whether or not any of the guests will catch on) or an academic exercise in pushing the technical limits of film-making.

Instead, there are several things going on here.  There is, of course, the notion of making a film appear to have been done in one long take, in real time.  While it might seem absurd now (digital storage destroying the upper time restraints), filmmakers were limited to filming on actual film reels at one point, each of which ran around 10 or 11 minutes long.  Hitchcock didn't strictly adhere to this, but he does mask a handful of cuts by closing in on the back of an actor's suit until it momentarily blacked out the screen.  The rest of the cuts aren't hidden (but aren't particularly jarring, and were dictated by the need to change reels while projecting the film.  A list of the edits can be found in the Wikipedia article for this film.  What this results in is a series of long takes around the apartment that "Rope" was set in.  It's fitting, the source material for this film was a play, and there's definitely a theatrical feel to the presentation.  Not only that, but the long takes serve to build suspense; it gives a feel of your gaze bearing down on the subjects in the film, increasing the pressure they must be feeling.

Getting into the meat of the film, there's a definite, intentional homoerotic context.  Big deal, you might say.  I would say, have you heard of the Production Code?  Running afoul of it meant that your career could be over (or at least severely stalled), and your film would never be seen (which would piss off your studio to no end).  And that's not to mention the more public consequences of being outed (or smeared, as the case might be).  Although never explicitly stated, the two main characters, Brandon and Phillip (played by John Dall and Farley Granger, respectively) are a same-sex couple (and both actors were gay in real life).  There are moments in the film where things make a lot more sense as a couple arguing rather than just good friends with a difference of opinion.  It's not that there weren't gay actors or subtexts in films at the time, but it was pretty bold of Hitchcock to include both together.

The other big subtext to "Rope" is one of Nietzschean ideals - the idea of a "super man," or superior and inferior people.  It's the stated reason why Brandon and Phillip go ahead with the murder; they consider themselves superior (particularly Brandon), and commit the murder to prove it.  They invite to the party James Stewart's character, Rupert, who is an old headmaster (at the least, there are implications there as well), figuring that he would be the only one who could appropriately appreciate the art and cleverness of their scheme.

There is a scene in the middle of the film where Rupert somewhat jokingly advocates the murder of lesser people (Stewart's character exhibits a delightful asshole-ish streak), egged on by Brandon.  The father of the murder victim (I told you this movie was a little perverse) takes deep offense at the idea of one man deciding another man's fate, eventually just standing up silently in pure fury.  This is someone who's been around long enough to know that this is something that people shouldn't be joking around about.  But they all, should really.  "Rope" was released in 1948, just three short years after the conclusion of World War II.  There's more talk of Nietzsche than of Hitler (who is mentioned, briefly), but it becomes abundantly clear that this murder is not just a metaphor for Nietzsche's philosophical leanings, nor a fanciful retelling of the Leopold and Loeb murder that was the basis for this story, but a denunciation of Adolf Hitler himself.

Sixty-plus years later, that may not sound like the most radical thing.  But once that idea sets in, and you realize that this was about as quickly as anyone could have made a meaningful response to that sort of madness at the time, the complete last act of the film is a complete "oh shit" moment.  Things get heavy, and when Rupert returns to the apartment after all the guests have left, and Phillip's drunk beyond composing himself, and Brandon's pocketed a gun in case Rupert has figured out what's going on, the tension is fantastic. And Hitchcock gives us what we need from this story.  James Stewart's monologue at the end is full of righteous fury, delivered to the very face of evil.  It promises retribution, that people will not stand for this sort of behavior.  It's the message that every tyrant, petty or otherwise, should have shoved down their throat, that when you disregard your fellow man, you will pay.

"Rope" isn't the best Hitchcock film I've seen, but it's kind of like they say about sex and pizza.  There's a lot to recommend this film, even beyond the structural gimmickry it trying to look like one long camera shot.  It's a clear notch below "Vertigo" or "Psycho," but more than worth the 80 minutes.

4 / 5 - Theatre

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