The film, based on a stage play by Patrick Hamilton, was inspired by the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case. (In 1923, two wealthy young men from Chicago kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy “solely for the thrill of the experience.”¹)
So. Our first fascination with Rope is John Dall‘s performance as a smarmy sociopath who thinks he’s superior to everyone around him, except his companion (Farley Granger) and his former teacher (James Stewart).
Dall and Granger play rich and spoiled New York socialites hosting a dinner party in honour of their friend named David. However, they murder the unfortunate David just before the other guests arrive.
The pair are not motivated by hatred or jealousy. Nay, their goal is more scientific – lofty, even. They want to prove the Intellectually Superior have the right to kill those they regard as inferior.
They dump the deceased into a large chest and cover it with a tablecloth upon which they serve dinner, but that’s not the worst of it. The party guests include David’s relatives and fiancé, all of whom grow increasingly anxious about his absence.
Meanwhile, Dall is exhilarated by the act of murder, and he’s dying to gloat about it so everyone can marvel at how smart he is. When Stewart voices his suspicions, Dall’s excitement intensifies. Someone’s on to him! Whee! It’s the best night of his life!
Superior intellect, indeed.
The second fascinating aspect, to us, is one that’s been heavily criticized; namely, the techniques Hitchcock used in this film.
Hitchcock treated Rope as though it were a live stage play, creating the illusion of one long, continuous action, broken up by 10-minute takes. “The only genuine cuts were dictated by a length of a film reel, with the breaks between reels usually disguised by an actor passing in front of the camera just as the footage ended,”² writes Patrick McGilligan in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light.
The film was shot on a set with a felt-covered floor and collapsible walls mounted on rubber wheels, which moved to the side when the camera followed the actors from room to room.
The set also included an expansive living room window, showcasing the New York skyline, “complete with miniaturized buildings and clouds of spun glass hung on wires, to be moved between reels to simulate a shifting sky.”³
To choreograph the movement of the set and the actors, the action was blocked out beforehand on a blackboard. “Even the floor was marked and plotted with numbered circles for the 25 to 30 camera moves in each ten-minute reel,” said Hitchcock.4
Here’s a diagram of the set:
“It was hard to see how the picture was going to work even while we were doing it,” said Stewart. “The noises made by the moving of the walls was a continual problem, and we would have to do scenes over again just for sound reasons, using only microphones like in a radio play.”5
Then there was the prop staff, who constantly moved and rearranged furniture off camera. “One of my biggest problems,” said Farley Granger, “was having to trust that when I sat down, there would be a chair under my rear end, that the stage hand had gotten it there in time.”6
Some film critics feel Rope is gimmicky, but French film director François Truffaut praised the effort, saying it should not be seen as a foolish endeavour. “A director is tempted by the dream of linking all of a film’s components into a single, continuous action,” he told Hitchcock. “In this sense, it’s a positive step…”7
If you haven’t yet seen Rope, you ought to take a look. Even if you don’t feel the result is entirely successful, you’ll marvel at the logistics – and the stellar performances.
Rope: starring James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Arthur Laurents. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1948, Technicolor, 81 mins.