Rope, which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary, might be the crowning example of style-over-substance in director Alfred Hitchcock’s career. Adapted from a stageplay by Patrick Hamilton, Hitchcock wanted to translate the theatergoer’s experience by having the whole film shot in a single take through the front hall and dining room and parlor of a sprawling Manhattan apartment where two young men, sophisticates (lovers whose relationship was made clear in the play but only suggested in the movie), have strangled their close friend, David, with a length of the eponymous rope. His corpse is hidden in a large decorative trunk in the parlor. Tempting fate — and ostensibly for some sort of sexual thrill — the young killers throw a tablecloth over the trunk, set some hors d’ouvres on it, and invite the victim’s friends and family over for a party.
The film was slammed by critics, some renouncing it on the basis of the gay relationship between the killers, but most of them complaining about the confined setting. Few of them mentioned the camera technique — the single 80-minute shot which, ultimately, is an illusion. That the camera should move so gracefully in what feels like an eternal dance with the actors is a huge feat, for which Hitchcock and his DPs, Joseph Valentine and William V. Skall, deserved more plaudits than they got. But a reel of film ran roughly ten minutes long at the time. Hitchcock had the ambition to do a whole film in one take, but not eh technology. So whenever a character passes so closely in front of the camera that, if only for a second, we see a flash of darkness as their outfit presses up against the lens, Hitchcock is cutting the film and loading up a new reel.
Jimmy Stewart plays a former teacher of the two killers and their friend. He’s an author of books on philosophy (an enterprise described by one character, with equal parts brevity and truth: “big words, small print, no sales”). He’s the sleuth who, sensing something too giddy in one host and too anxious in the other, begins to unravel the situation.
Stewart would also say, later, that he didn’t like Rope (though he clearly didn’t have any hard feelings about it, as he went on to make Rear Window and Vertigo with Hitchcock over the next few years), and even Hitchcock himself, so embarrassed by the final product, had the film withdrawn from circulation.
Both reactions are unfortunate. Rope shows laudable departures for both men. Stewart, with touches of gray in his hair, had recently returned from World War II, where he’d been elevated to the rank of brigadier general (a military rank — somebody points out on Wikipedia — surpassed by only one other actor in his generation, who went on to become Commander in Chief), and he plays the jaded, misanthropic, pedantic philosopher with annoying persuasion. It’s an interesting departure from his earlier, baby-faced, aw-shucks performances in stuff like Destry Rides Again and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. And, with the war behind him, this bit of an edge to his character feels earned. A window into the character, actor, and era all in one.
As for Hitchcock, he lives up to the challenge. Apart from the camera’s dance with the characters, Hitchcock was sensitive about the skyline we see through the front window, a meticulous mat painting, made lively with plumes of smoke and an elaborate display of lights, whose construction — as Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto confirms — subjected the lighting crew to a special kinda hell.
Much of the joy in watching Rope today, however, comes from the vibe of discovering a missing gem that, without showcasing the greatest work of its stars — front and back of the camera — does display their distinctive touches. It’s funny, clever, and should appeal especially to the sort of cinephile who’d read a filmmaker’s collected letters or production notes. It’s an ambitious and provocative movie that feels a bit like something we were never supposed to see. A storyteller playing with a scenario, bringing it just up tot he line of total realization, and then abandoning it. It’s easy to imagine Hitchcock being halfway into production and realizing — only now that it’s playing out before him — that this was a bad idea, that having a few cuts might’ve really helped to define the shape and space and tone, but then deciding, having come this far, to just finish it.
The whole thing feels pretty slight, story-wise, but this early example of a feature-length technicolor film is beautiful to look at, with some of the elaborate and sustained camera movements showcasing the grace, versatility, and cadence of beautiful prose, with a final product that illustrates, in a stimulating way, that a genius in constant motion will occasionally do something silly.
But even the silly things are interesting.