Horror & Suspense in Hitchcock's Taut "ROPE" [REVIEW]

December 3, 2012
There aren’t many horror films that portray their first and only murder within the first five minutes of the film, but then Alfred Hitchcock was never much one for convention. Rope’s singular hapless victim is dispensed with quickly and efficiently just as the first scene opens, setting the premise for the entirety of the film. Two schoolfriends take it upon themselves to dispose of a third they deem inferior to themselves for a bevy of shallow reasons and, in a macabre experiment in human indecency and perhaps even one man’s sick version of a practical joke, hold a small dinner party with the corpse as a hidden centerpiece, inviting their victim’s closest family and friends.


Brandon and Phillip, played by John Dall and Farley Granger respectively, show shades of infamous real life murderers Leopold and Loeb as they callously kill their supposed friend and stuff his corpse into a wooden trunk in their penthouse parlor. Their banter makes it clear that it is the fruition of a long-held plan to take the life of a man they considered to be inferior to themselves, based on a philosophy they had inherited from a boarding school teacher. It quickly becomes clear that Brandon is the alpha of the pair, with Phillip bowing to his whims and seeming far more nervous than his counterpart, and even at times somewhat repentant.
The relationship between the two murderous friends helps cast an interesting light on the psychological aspects of the film. Phillip’s fears of being found out drift in and out of repentance for the actual act, and he spends a good deal of the film jittering around like a hamster on a hotplate. Brandon remains far more cool and collected, often steering his weaker friend into different actions, leaving the viewer to wonder if Phillip had ever truly been inclined to take the life of their old friend at all.
As well as staying calm throughout much the film, Brandon exhibits almost childish glee at the entire event, arranging it so that the evening’s dinner guests – their recently deceased friend David’s fiancée, father, aunt, and former best friend – will be taking their meal from atop the very chest that holds his corpse. He is laughingly cheerful throughout the film, constantly dangling the truth of David’s disappearance right in front of the noses of his guests while sure to slickly pull it back before they realize it. He even goes so far as to use the very rope that had strangled David to bind a gift of rare books for David’s father. Brandon nearly wants someone to guess, all the while celebrating his own superiority, both to David, to Phillip, and to the dinner guests.
Hollywood legend James Stewart (more colloquially known as Jimmy Stewart) takes on the role of Rupert Cadell, the former boarding school teacher of both the murderers and their victim, a quiet and methodical man who makes constant study of his surroundings and companions. Brandon has invited their old teacher not only to justify his actions – for it was Cadell’s late night philosophizing that had set the idea of superiority as justification of murder in young Brandon’s mind. Throughout the film it is clear that Cadell knows there is much more going on than is evident on the surface, and his drive to figure it all out sends Phillip into convulsive fear.

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A true testament to artistic filmmaking, Rope takes place primarily in a single setting: the penthouse parlor. This treats viewers to unique camera angles that follow players as they move, even in the round, and pass behind them in an attempt to portray the film in a single, uninterrupted shot. The claustrophobic feeling created by holding most of the action in a single room helps to amp up the general feeling of anxiety that the film creates, leaving the audience as edgy and nervous as the guilty Phillip. Throughout the film, the audience knows that David’s body is hidden in plain sight, just waiting to be discovered; each time someone edges towards the trunk, touches it, sets down their drink, or moves to reach inside, the tension grows. It is truly a fabulous piece of psychological film work.
While many other Hitchcock films have gained far more praise and renown, Rope is definitely not a film to be overlooked. It’s not necessarily one for consummate gorehounds, but if you’re looking for a great suspenseful horror film with substance, this one is for you.
 

 Rope (1948)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Hume Cronyn (Adaptation), Arthur Laurents (Screenplay), Patrick Hamilton (Play), Ben Hecht
Stars: James Stewart, John Dall and Farley Granger
Studio: Warner Bros.
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