Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Dreaming in Technicolor. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock’s first color film, is a lurid tale of two friends, Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger), who decide to murder their friend and former classmate David (Dick Hogan), whom they have deemed an inferior human being. They strangle him and shove his body into a large chest they plan to use as a buffet table for a dinner party later that night. As guests arrive, Brandon, cool and collected, relishes the pitch-black humor he finds in knowing that David’s friends are unknowingly eating off of his corpse; Philip is a nervous wreck. Both men await the arrival of Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), their former headmaster, a man known for his firmly held theories about the superiority of certain men over all others. Brandon has taken these theories as more than mere philosophy, and is excited by the ever-present temptation to reveal to Rupert what he has done.
Sexual attitudes in Hitchcock’s films tend toward immaturity, a trait that has been generally criticized, though the contrast between his messy psychosexual issues and the incredible control he has over his craft is always fascinating.
Though Hitchcock had been impressed by both the 1929 stage play and 1939 television broadcast on which Rope was based, he felt the play was far too gentle in regards to the relationships between the leads. Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents, both of whom worked on the screenplay, noted that they were as blatant as they could possibly be in 1948. Some of this manifests as a surprisingly sophisticated and matter-of-fact approach toward Brandon and Philip being lovers. But this is a Hitchcock film, thus much of the sexual implication in Rope is conveyed in dark humor and silly puns. Sexual attitudes in Hitchcock’s films tend toward immaturity, a trait that has been generally criticized, though the contrast between his messy psychosexual issues and the incredible control he has over his craft is always fascinating.
The resultant screenplay was certainly shocking; the relationship between Brandon and Philip could hardly be more explicit. Their dialogue and shared looks are transparent, and there is of course the little matter of the chicken-choking anecdote that features so heavily in the film. Mentions of Philip having choked a chicken while in school are striking to us today, given our modern euphemisms for a variety of sexual acts, but in 1948, the meaning was somewhat obscure. Still, the symbolism would have been easy to suss out: by calling attention to Philip’s history of strangling chickens just after we’ve seen him strangle David, murder is bluntly equated with sex and masturbation.
That is not a surprise, given the opening lines of the film immediately after David’s murder are undisguised pillow talk between Brandon and Philip. It is a surprise, though, when their former private school headmaster Rupert reminds Philip that he knows he is “quite a good chicken strangler.” In Rope, it is not the fact that Brandon and Philip are gay that is shocking, it’s that Rupert would so cavalierly refer to what was apparently a sexual past that the three had shared while at school, while the boys were teens and Rupert was decades older.
One of the most intriguing things about Rope is that, despite the relatively blatant portrayal of homosexuality, the duo’s sexuality is not used as a reason for their psychopathy.
Their relationship is a metaphorical love triangle; in fact, it’s the second metaphorical love triangle in the film, the first being Brandon, Philip and David. Once David is dispatched and dumped into the buffet, the tension in the film arises from the friends awaiting their new third. Though Philip and especially Brandon want to impress, or perhaps get one over on, their former headmaster, it’s possible that they are in fact acting out after what might have been an inappropriate sexual relationship with this older man who presumes himself so morally superior that he should be able to decide who lives and who dies.
One of the most intriguing things about Rope is that, despite the relatively blatant portrayal of homosexuality, the duo’s sexuality is not used as a reason for their psychopathy. After the crime is revealed, Rupert starts his nervous lecture and mentions repeatedly that Brandon and Philip are evil, but without a single euphemism to indicate being gay is what made them evil. Given the script is packed to bursting with puns, darkly humorous turns of phrase and immature metaphors, there is a startling lack of such innuendo in the finale. This change of tone in the script feels deliberate, done to prevent any unnecessary equating of sexuality with psychopathic behavior.
Rope was Hitchcock’s first color film, reportedly at his insistence, though in later interviews he would claim that he “never wanted to make a Technicolor picture merely for the sake of using color.” In Rope we see the first iteration of Hitchcock’s famous “neutralized” palette, which the director felt allowed for a continuous flow of the eye without distraction, the muted greys and browns creating a visually flat surface on which the action would take place. This was a technique he would repeatedly return to over the years, arguably perfecting it in his 1962 classic North by Northwest. Just as Eva Marie Saint’s red rose gown stood out amongst the drab men of North by Northwest, Joan Chandler’s deep maroon dress in Rope draws the eye to her. But it’s clear that Hitchcock wasn’t entirely in confident with his technique, making sure to add extra poufs to Chandler’s dress and give her a thoroughly complicated (though, it must be noted, brunette) hairstyle that would also draw the eye.
In order to convey the impression of one continuous take, Rope was comprised of a series of lengthy single takes up to ten minutes long. Cinematographer Joseph Valentine, who had turned in extraordinary work in the black and white Shadow of a Doubt (1943), struggled with coordinating the movement of setpieces, walls and cameras in order to film for minutes without a single cut. In fact, all of the cast and crew were put through their paces during this shoot; tempers flared, and injuries and exhaustion were common.
It was hard work and ultimately remains an impressive technical feat, but it’s equivocal whether it was truly successful. There is a lot of bounce as those huge Technicolor cameras wheel all over the set, often casting shadows over the actors as they slide in for a close-up. The tricks used to make the reel changes invisible, such as zooming in on the back of an actor to create a kind of black-out, are equally obvious. Yet one cannot help but appreciate the cyclorama just outside the apartment, an exact duplicate of the New York skyline, equipped with nearly 10,000 lights and 150 neon signs. Clouds made of spun glass float overhead, gently floating west as the light of day fades.
Rope is generally considered a lesser Hitchcock, though recent reviews have been far more kind than those published on the film’s release. Much of this is due to the performances, especially that of John Dall who is smug intensity personified, playing Brandon as someone who truly believes he’s the charismatic center of attention, unaware that everyone else regards him from a cool, safe distance. Every hair on his head and every stitch on his suit is impeccably placed, tailored for maximum effect. Farley Granger is fantastic as the emotionally unstable Philip, so tightly-wrapped he looks like he’s about to vibrate right off the screen. Also of note is Joan Chandler, whose sophistication and cool delivery pairs beautifully with her big, innocent eyes.
Also fascinating is the puzzling relationship between Rupert, Brandon and Philip, never fully explained within the film, though the implications are disturbing. Once Rupert realizes his bluster about superiority of certain men has contributed to the crime, he acknowledges this, yet never truly accepts it; crucially, he wants only to distance himself from the murder. Fans and critics argue about Rupert’s role in the crime, but it seems that, by the finale, we’ve learned he’s a closet sociopath, and his lengthy moralistic speech is just Rupert’s fancy way of admitting he’s operating only on the first level of Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development: avoidance of punishment.
It’s that appearance of morality that we’re left with as the final scene fades out; in Rope, appearances are more important than human beings. The characters are deliberately crafted like expensive hand-made chess pieces, the elegant apartment and over-designed set the playing board. The film is exciting when those pieces are played, and falls into tedium when Rupert suddenly converts to a pro-humanity stance, demanding Philip and Brandon — and those of us in the audience, by extension — cease treating human beings as though they were objects. Had Hitchcock been as interested in the story as he was in how to film it, we might have gotten more insight into how Hitch himself reconciled his own dehumanizing filmmaking techniques. Then again, this is the man who famously said that all actors should be treated like cattle. Perhaps there was never anything inside Alfred Hitchcock that needed to be reconciled at all.
In Rope, appearances are more important than human beings. The characters are deliberately crafted like expensive hand-made chess pieces, the elegant apartment and over-designed set the playing board. The film is exciting when those pieces are played.