My second movie for “Peril on Screen” for Readers Imbibing Peril was classic Hitchcock, Rope. The movie opens with a man being strangled. The two murderers, Brandon and Philip, hide his body in a chest in their apartment, and proceed to host a dinner party they’ve been planning–for the victim’s friends and family. They serve dinner from the top of the chest, and Brandon cheerfully philosophizes about murder as an art for the superior being. It’s a bizarre, ghoulish and fascinating movie.
As I would expect from Hitchcock, the movie is carefully and brilliantly handled in so many ways. Brandon’s psychopathic beliefs about the inferiority and unimportance of David, the victim, is juxtaposed against the clear love of David’s friends and family for him. A character who is in the movie for about four seconds is nevertheless made incredibly central and vivid for the audience. Similarly, the action of the movie is mostly those first four seconds. The rest of the movie is an ordinary dinner party…except! Hitchcock layers in so many little touches, and little lines with double-meanings and insights that are terribly clever and keep the tension going.
As I’ve said before, I love the subtlety of old movies. There’s a tiny line where a character is talking about an actor she loves and how sinister he is. It points up the wide divide between the idea of murder and dark deeds…and the reality.
As the evening progresses, Brandon maintains his superior cool, while Philip begins to unravel–especially when another party guest turns suspicious. Brandon also invited Rupert Cadell, their former professor and the man who taught them this theory of murder for the superior. Rupert is played by James Stewart, and if you know good ol’ Jimmy, that may already tell you that the movie won’t end with Rupert congratulating them on their art…
In some ways my favorite thing about the movie is on the technical side. The movie is, basically, all one shot. The camera pans, but it never cuts. It moves around the apartment and it zooms in for close-ups, but it never blinks from one shot to another. Technology of the time was not quite up to Hitchcock’s vision–reels weren’t long enough to actually shoot the entire movie in one shot, so he does have to zoom in on backs a couple of times, the screen goes black, and then it pans on, on the next reel. However, setting that minor point aside, it’s brilliantly done, and so different.
The single-shot style was innovative at its time, and I feel like it’s even more so now, when movies and TV have gone the opposite direction. Typical average shot length is a few seconds, and I’ve heard it’s been declining in the last few decades (naturally I can’t find an article on the subject right now…) When that’s what’s typical, it feels very different watching Rope, and I think it adds a lot to the atmosphere.
If you get the DVD, there’s a 30 minute “Making Of” extra feature, “Rope Unleashed.” It opens with a minute or two of quick cuts between different shots in the movie–and after an hour and a half of a steady shot, I found it positively dizzying.
Apart from the technical aspect, I mostly found Brandon’s character to be fascinating, along with the interplay between him and Philip. From the first moment it’s clear who the power is in the relationship, and I find fascinating the concept of the psychopath and the weaker-willed friend he pulled along. Rupert’s character is also intriguing, and I’m not sure he was fully explored. In many ways he’s also very culpable in this murder because he gave Brandon the theory that was then put in practice. He’s clearly revolted by the actual deed, though, and I’m not sure that tension between his theories and their result, or his weight of guilt, was really got into. Much as I love Stewart, he may not have been the right one for this role–because he’s good old Jimmy, so he can’t really be responsible in this situation.
All the grim, ghoulish delights of the movie aside, there’s actually some humor in here too, and I would be remiss to not mention David’s aunt and her extended conversation about recent movies and movie stars. (I kept waiting for a Jimmy Stewart reference!) She loved Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in that recent movie, “the Something of the Something. Oh no, that was the other one. This was just plain Something.” (Possibly Notorious, also Hitchcock.) Rupert picks it up and with wry seriousness starts talking about when he saw Something Something.
All in all, if you like lots of jumps and screams and blood in your horror, this is not the movie for you. But if you’re willing to take in a slow, complex character study of a horror movie, I recommend it.
Buy it here: Rope