An intriguing and experimental thriller with a dark and macabre heart from the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock himself apparently described Rope as “experiment that didn’t work out”, but that’s a tad harsh in my opinion. The director’s ambition here was to create a one-shot film made to look like one continuous take; while it’s true that the results aren’t as smooth as what was later achieved in films such as Russian Ark, Birdman or 1917, it’s still an audacious, nail-biting display of technique.
The film takes place entirely within a posh Manhattan apartment, where a dinner party is about to take place. While most movies with murder as a central story usually build up to the act, Rope doesn’t muck around and begins with a young man named David getting strangled with a rope by his former college classmates, Brandon and Phillip. Their reasons? To prove their innate moral and intellectual superiority as Nietzschean supermen over what they see as lesser beings by committing a “perfect murder”. If this sounds a tad Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s classic novel does get a shout-out later on in the film.
Brandon and Phillip’s cold-hearted plan goes further than just dumping David’s corpse in some discreet spot: they cram the body inside a heavy wooden chest, and brazenly proceed to host an elegant party, with guests including David’s father and girlfriend sipping champagne and enjoying buffet served on top of the chest. The two impeccably dressed murderers (implied to be more than just friends) don’t process their grisly deed in the same way. Brandon, the charming self-assured sociopath and mastermind of the crime, is having the time of his life, while the more sensitive Phillip looks closer to a nervous breakdown the longer the party goes on. Brandon’s arrogance is so great that he’s invited the one man most likely to put two and two together – their former housemaster (James Stewart, somewhat miscast) who had first discussed the merits of murder with them.
Hitchcock shot the film as a collection of ten-minute takes, put together with tricks like hiding behind a piece of furniture in order to cut from one piece to another without the audience noticing. By today’s standards these tricks look pretty clunky, and the film does break its own rules by throwing in a few traditional edits such as reaction shots, but it’s still a lot of fun to watch the camera dance and swoop around the constraints of the set. Because the action never leaves the apartment to relieve the tension, as a viewer you’re constantly aware of the presence of the chest and its ghoulish secret.
The film’s arguments about morality and murder aren’t particularly profound, partly I suspect because it’s rather hard to buy Stewart as some sort of edgy amoral intellectual who really believes the cynical stuff he’s spouting. It’s interesting however to observe the perverse way the movie makes you side with the killers and dread the possibility of one of the guests opening the chest. Add the darkly amusing dialogue, John Dall’s delicious turn as villainous Brandon and the cool studio skyline backdrop with lighting effects imitating day and night, and you have a twisted, unique delight of a movie.