United States, 1948
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
With James Steward (Rupert Cadell), John Dall (Brandon), Farley Granger (Philip), Edith Evanson (Mrs. Miller), Douglas Dick (Kenneth), Joan Chandler (Janet), Cedric Hardwicke (Mr. Kentley), Constance Collier (Mrs. Atwater)
A distressing closeup and then a tracking out movement that takes the victim and the killers in a medium shot: the crime story begins in a remarkably savage and precise manner while the attention is drawn on the camera’s motions as means to widen the picture and getting the telling details. Yet this is not the callous death of David Kentley that turns out to be the most shocking element of the first part of the taut (just 80 minutes) narrative. It is actually the long talk smoothly initiated and articulated by one of the killers, who casts himself unashamedly as the mastermind, or rather artist, behind the gruesome fact. Suave and glib, Brandon argues he and Philip have just carried out a perfect murder, if only because of the complete wantonness of it, an artistic gesture aiming to get the world rid of an inferior person thanks to two superior minds standing above ordinary and mediocre moral standards and entitled to act and live as they please because of their fortune – indeed, for a couple of students in the America of the 1940s they are doing pretty well given the sprawling, swanky penthouse where they live in, and are going to throw a party to honor, in a bold refinement of Brandon’s outstanding cynicism, of the victim’s father, Mr. Kentley.
Brandon’s point is made again later in the party, as a pleasant aside to a general conversation between the two killers and their guests: Mr. Kentley, Mr. Kentley’s sister, Mrs. Atwater, Janet, David’s fiancée, Kenneth, a friend, and the last one to show up, Rupert Cadell, formerly the headmaster of David, Brandon and Philip; the tongue-in-cheek, nonchalant, and sceptical chatter of the headmaster has prompted Brandon to stir the general chat to the grim issue of murder, in a most provocative way, that is with a complete lack of taste.
But it is the conclusion of “Rope” that revisits the argument. Rupert Cadell’s suspicion compels him to move back to the apartment to check if the worst did happen. He unfortunately finds out it has and must face the devious reasoning of Brandon who refers to old conversations with the headmaster. Beyond the disgust felt in the face of a heinous and wanton crime lies the unexpected moral responsibility of stoking perverse thoughts – Rupert must suddenly grapples with the fact that ideas do beget monsters and that intellectual speculation cannot ignore ethics. Calling the police is not just a matter of justice but also the necessary repudiation not just of immoral students but also of a teaching gone wrong.
Based on a theater play, the film, till the moralistic conclusion, has a theatrical and intellectual nature that sets it apart from the usual entertainments Alfred Hitchcock shoots. His style, in this case, may reflect the twisted intellectual nature of the lead characters: it is a highly formal, carefully calculated motion that sweeps all over the place and through the plot in a single take, or so it seems. The intellectual but morally wrong challenge Brandon and Philip have thrown to themselves is dealt with by a cinematic tour de force, technically bold and precise but unexpected and mechanical for an audience who may remember “The 39 Steps” (1935) or “Jamaica Inn” (1939) (the film comes also a surprise for another reason: it is the first that Hitchcock shoots in color)
Hitchcock, as time goes by, professed dissatisfaction for this extraordinary camerawork, claiming that a film needs cuts – cuts are cinema. But this is actually what he did show.
He worked hard to give the impression of a long, fluid, flawless single take capturing the moves and attitudes of the characters from crime to punishment and through a bizarre party revealing the shenanigans of Brandon and the ways others respond to them. The most outlandish trick is the camera tracking in on the back of a man’s suit till the materiel fills the screen before moving away – such visual pauses were needed to reload the camera as a camera magazine can then only load reels for just 10 minutes’ time of shooting. The smooth way the camera endlessly roves around the cast called for exacting and exhausting attention to the way furniture is placed – as it has to be moved around the time the camera takes the planned shots – but it never shows on the screen and the result feels seamless.
But on closer inspection, four cuts are easy to notice. The first, rather subtle, marks the arrival of Janet who turns out to be a key element of Brandon’s perverse game – he clearly hopes she would come back to former lover Kenneth and forget about David, and of course the murder and the party are part of this plot.
The second cut occurs at the 33rd minute of the film and it is the most important: Philip is complaining, in an increasingly shriek voice, that Brandon is wrong and that he never killed a chicken on a particular day; but the camera suddenly moves to shoot the puzzled, slightly cocked face of Rupert. This is when his mind starts to gather something is wrong in the place – and this starts the long unraveling of the murderers; they eventually fall because Philip is the weakest of both, the jumpiest, the angriest, and it is by confronting him and eventually provoking him that Rupert slowly uncovers the horror. The dynamics leading to resolving the mystery of David’s disappearance lies in the confrontation between perceptive Rupert and awkward Philip, what ironically Brandon has always feared, for he soon sensed his partner was too upset to be reliable, and what he did not want to occur eager as he was to play himself with Rupert’s wits.
The third cut, at minute 51, focuses on the maid serving the dishes after giving a hand to prepare the party, Mrs. Miller, as she rushes to tell David’s mother has called and is in a frenzy as David gives no sign of life. The news convinces the guests something bad is in the works and prompts them to leave; that sets in motion the second dialogue between Brandon and Philip standing alone in the apartment and figuring out what should come next – but Rupert would disrupt their chat and stoke a greater tension, betrayed a few moments later by the last cut, on the gun that Brandon puts in his pocket, a move that obviously injects some hair-raising thrill in the narration.
The conceptual mise en scène of the director in a way proves to be as ineffective as the conceptual vision of superior and inferior stirring into action the killers – but the flaw is far more deliberate, emphasizing the import of cut and more broadly of every tool in the box of filmmaking to show the audience, at least if they are willing to abide the rules and pay attention, what is really at stake in a story and what is just there to surprise, teasing their hearts and appealing to their brains. Cinema is a wonderful language which can reveal what cannot be readily seen or guessed and break conventions and limits.
Two scenes are in this regard interesting, both taking place in the final talk between Rupert, Brandon and Philip. In the first Hitchcock uses again a trick that was riveting and essential in his 1939 flick “Rebecca”: the camera moves around as a speaker, now Rupert, before Maxim de Winter, describes a crime as it is carried out; it quietly focuses on the various places where the victim could have stood one after another, in a smooth sweeping move carefully mirroring the relation; it acts as if a real body was there, although void is plain to see, creating a stunning effect – the audience does feel, as Rupert does, how cold-blooded the murder was and how tragic the victim’s fate was, highlighting at the last minute the deeply immoral nature of Brandon and Philip’s action, and heralding the final moral judgment pronounced by Rupert.
As he vows to punish the offenders, Rupert opens a window and shoots three times, to call attention on the apartment – inevitably the film ends with police sirens wailing. It could have been easier to pick up the phone, but Rupert rather chose that odd course of action. But opening the window is just that important: it is about bringing in fresh air and deflating the stifled atmosphere the horrible revelations have created – it is about breaking the spell of evil and letting in, at long last, good come in.