Ahhh, Rope. I really love this movie. The first time I saw it was back in undergrad. A friend of mine reserved the common room in his dorm and we, budding film students, watched it completely enraptured by the story. We also were a little nerdy about Hitchcock’s attempt at one continuous shot throughout. Sadly, without digital technology, he had to stop to swap out film rolls every once in a while. But the technique Hitchcock used to hide this necessity was great and really led to the illusion that it was just one long sweeping shot.
The reason (I’m assuming) Hitchcock wanted to go for this stylistic choice was because Rope is an adaptation of the stage play of the same name by Patrick Hamilton, which came out in the late 1920s. This is very interesting to me, because it hearkens back to Hitchcock’s earlier work (like Juno and the Paycock) when he would take on more stage play adaptations and shot a room from one angle, creating the illusion that the audience was simply watching a play. I am not really a fan of this style (just read my Juno entry above), but luckily for me that is not what Hitchcock did with Rope. While the entire story plays out in one small apartment in one fluid camera shot, there are many camera moves and angles that feel much more modern. It’s a brilliantly updated way to pay homage to the stage play and retain some of that feel while also making it clear that this is a film meant to be seen on the big screen in a theater. I love it!
Rope was my favorite Hitchcock for years. It might still be, but I love so many of his (and keep discovering more that I enjoy) that it’s hard to say I have a favorite anymore. However, I cannot stress enough how badly you need to see this movie. It’s fucking amazing. GET READY FOR THE SPOILER TRAIN COMING TO TOWN CHOOCHOO!
The plot…oh man this plot. This film and its source material take inspiration from the real Leopold and Loeb murder case that occurred in Chicago in 1924. If you’re a Murderino like I am, you’re going to just love this connection. The Leopold and Loeb case was absolutely massive at the time and called the crime of the century. Unfortunately, there was still a lot of the 20th century left to go an a whole lot of unspeakable crimes that would sadly bump these two down several hundred notches, but still. The case centered on two rich assholes from the University of Chicago who kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old kid just to prove their intellectual superiority. Well, joke’s on these dudes, because they got caught. Lucky for them, however, Clarence Darrow took their case and used it as an influential platform to push for transformative justice over capitol punishment. They both got life in prison. Loeb was murdered and Leopold was eventually released and died in Puerto Rico.
So, the film opens with a murder carried out just for murder’s sake by two college buddies, Brandon and Phillip. Well, technically three college buddies. The other one, David (Dick Hogan), is on the receiving end. There is no real reason why this murder happens except that Brandon (John Dall), the mastermind, has latched onto some romantic idea that murder is not a crime, and that it is, in fact, a privileged for a select few who are worthy. Everyone else who is not one of these select few are all disposable. Phillip (Farley Granger) is not so sure they did the right thing. This bad gut reaction to their crass entitlement only increases as Brandon’s twisted plan carries on throughout the night. See, it’s not enough for Brandon to commit the perfect murder for murder’s sake. He must also literally dance on his victim’s grave and shove it in his family’s face. How does he do this? He throws a party that very night for the victim’s family, fiance, and friends and serves food off of the large chest they’ve hidden the body in. WHAT? Amazing.
But guys, it gets better. Their guest of honor for the party is an old prep school teacher of theirs, Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart). Phillip is incredibly nervous about having Rupert over because he’s sure he’ll smell the murder on them. Why? Because it was Rupert who put those nasty ideas in their heads to begin with! THAT’S RIGHT, JIMMY STEWART IS A DOG! Back in school, Rupert apparently would spout on about these disgusting ideas concerning a sociological hierarchy where some few were allowed to murder pretty much anyone else they wanted. It would, in his words, “solve a lot of problems.”
So many things to unpack here, where to begin. It’s hardly worth me mentioning that the people involved in this conversation are all white and mostly male. It also is important to remember that in 1948, World War II was barely cooled off. An important result of WWII in America was the strong beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. When you fight fascists, you have to take a good long look at yourself and be honest about what you’re allowing on your own home turf. So here we have an old white dude saying it’s cool to murder people because as a white dude of the upper middle class you are part of a privileged few who are allowed to make those decisions. Everyone else doesn’t have personhood or worth, so don’t feel bad who you pick to knock off! They all deserve it because they aren’t you. This is an interesting critique of the mentality America was struggling with at the time.
…And we still are. Look at what’s happening today in politics and society. Notable conservatives telling the world that Democrats aren’t people, the NRA saying whatever garbage they say, Democrats telling fellow liberals that if they aren’t pro-choice they can’t be a Democrat, white women erasing the value/lives/personhood of women of color in feminism, corporations destroying the land and resources of our native populations, rampant gentrification in cities (like my own Pittsburgh) that is openly saying “we value a certain type of human’s personhood over the personhood of the certain types of humans already living in this space, so you all have to go so these other humans can have this cheap property and convenient location.” Like, we haven’t changed.
But back to the movie for a hot second. When Rupert arrives, Brandon decides to bring up this murder subject/theory, and I’ll be damned if Rupert doesn’t just lay out the entire concept for the Purge movies. He says, and I am paraphrasing because I don’t remember his exact lines, that he’s not totally down with murder all year round, but perhaps we should have a murder “season.” He suggests “slash a throat week” or setting aside a month or so to strangle whomever you desire (this reference to strangulation really sets Phillip off, as that’s how they committed their own fresh murder). So Jimmy Stewart’s Rupert Cadell is the godfather of the Purge, and I like to think that these worlds are connected and it’s this moment that sets into motion the implementation of the Purge by Cadell fanatics in the near future. Obviously, this whole things doesn’t go over too well with everyone at the party, which insults Brandon to a hilarious degree. Heaven forbid not everyone subscribe to your warped Utopian ideology.
So as the party continues. Phillip acts weirder and weirder, Brandon becomes more and more brazen, and the entire time all the guests are wondering where David is. David was invited to the party, obviously, and he’s never late. He always checks in if there is a problem, but no one has heard from him. The party gets weirder and weirder, and Rupert starts to become suspicious that Brandon, a known prankster, has done something to David. Not necessarily murder, but maybe a light kidnapping or something of the sort. Obviously, Rupert more or less catches on that it’s more serious than that. When he makes a move to confront the young men, Phillip breaks. I mean, Phillip has been drunk since like second one after the murder occurred, so I’m surprised he lasted that long.
The confrontation is glorious. Rupert makes a sweeping soliloquy, decrying his much beloved theories of human superiority and murder (which is funny because he was pretty adamant about them just an hour earlier). He scolds the youngish men, saying they twisted and perverted his words (not really though, I think they just took them at face value there dude), and he ends it by declaring that all people are humans and deserve their humanity. No one is deserving of careless murder. Once this sanctimonious show is over, Rupert decides that the best way to call the cops is to shoot a gun out the window a couple of times. Eye roll emoji for days.
All I can say is, wow. Wowowowowowowow, Rupert. This is in the film for obvious reasons, like giving a “good triumphs over evil” show and once and for all putting the youngish men in their place, but it also acts as an allegory for America at the time. As I mentioned above, WWII had just wrapped up and America was turning its new perspective on itself. Rupert is the new America, and the youngish men are the old America/fascism. But wow is this garbage, because it deflects all blame. Rupert blames the youngish men 100% and never apologizes to them for the harm he did. He shows remorse, kind of, but he doesn’t really take responsibility.
This is how America did and does still deal with the injustices that are raging in this country. We have a lot of sick ideas that are really burnt into our society that we acknowledge are harmful (well, sometimes we acknowledge them), but we don’t want to look at the root of the problem and how it got there. It’s important to think about Rupert’s role here, because he did the same thing a lot of politicians and leaders are doing right now. They are feeding a toxic rhetoric to the people of this country, a people I believe are inherently good, caring, and level-headed, and they’re turning them into fanatics. I see this happening on all “sides,” in all communities. But then when someone actually acts on that rhetoric in violent and devastating ways, the one spewing it rarely steps up and accepts that they had a real influence on the situation. Watch what you say, and watch what you get sucked into, folks. Make a conscious effort to listen to people who don’t think the same way you do, and actually entertain that their opinions are valid. You don’t have to agree with them, and at times you shouldn’t agree with them, but listen to them so you know what others may be thinking. Then take the conversation from there.
So, Rope is pretty cool, right? There’s so much there to talk about! Please watch it so we can chat more about it together. And there’s more than just political commentary to get into. Not only did this film break a lot of conventions (to glorious effect), it also has a pretty heavy homosexual subtext. Brandon and Phillip live together, travel together, and interact together as a couple would. Phillip is incredibly dependent of Brandon and easily influenced by his sociopathic tendencies. Not saying you have to be romantically linked to fall under a sociopath’s control, but the codependent nature of it seems to imply a closer connection than just friendship. This must have been difficult to pull of in the ’40s, as the production code would not have allowed anything LGBTQ on the screen. Very interesting stuff!
I know I’ve been really checked out of The Hitchcock Haul the past couple of years, but I’m finally back in a place to make it a regular thing again. Luckily for me, my local library and place of employment owns pretty much all of his films, so I should be able to knock them out pretty easily. Stay tuned for more murder, mystery, and weird commentary by yours truly!