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ROPE (1948) reviewed by James Spencer

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I created this topic for those in the 50 Years of Hitchcock class that wanted a deeper examination of the masterpiece ROPE  (1948).


Though it was mentioned by Professor Edwards, I was sad that there were no clips/discussion questions as I feel this is an incredibly important film in Hitchcock's oeuvres. 


This is Hitchcock's first color film and the story is based on the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton (with the same name).  The brilliant Arthur Laurents did the screenplay.


The story is loosely based on the real life 1924 murder of a 14 year old boy named Bobby Franks by University of Chicago students:  Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. (gay lovers).


This is the first movie Hitch made with Sidney Bernstein for Transatlantic Pictures as well as another first... Hitch's fist technicolor masterpiece.


Hitch brilliantly cast John Dall as Brandon Shaw and Farley Grainger as Phillip Morgan.  THIS IS THE FIRST HITCHCOCK MOVIE TO STAR JIMMY STEWART as Professor Rupert Cadell (The university housemaster to Brandon and Phillip. 


The story centers on the gay lovers Brandon and Phillip who stranger to death their former classmate from Harvard in their swanky Manhattan penthouse, and then hide the body in a trunk where they serve a dinner buffet on. They commit this ghastly murder as a crime of intellectual and aesthetic superiority by committing "the perfect murder."  


The guests at the dinner party are unaware of the murder which builds the wonderful tension for the audience. The guests include the victim's father Mr. Kentley played by Cedric Hardwicke and Aunt--Ms. Atwater (Constance Collier) --the mother of the victim can not attend due to a flu. The fiance of the dead victim is there (Joan Chandler) playing Miss Janet Walker and the awkwardness of being reunited with her former lover Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Kirk) was was also the best friend of the murder victim David  Kentley (Dick Hogan).  


The plot set up is intense and intriguing.  Hitch's Manhattan skylight miniature set is spectacular.. and he keeps the camera continuing moving in long takes which add to the amazing tensions and fluidity of this movie.  Truly masterful. 


Brandon and Phillip's idea for the murder of David originated with a conversation with their prep school housemaster Rupert. 


The gay subtext is marvelous yet rarely discussed even by Hitchcock scholars.  Brandon and Phillip are both elegant, snobbish and "superior (aka bitchy queens).   Brandon continually through the movie tempts fate by edging others on which is how Rupert eventually figures out the murder. 


Phillip's nervousness and guilt take over as well.  My favorite gay subtext is the use of gay composer Francis Poulenc's quirky Moment Perpetuel (Mvt 1) theme.  As Phillip (Grainger) continues to play this quirky and self absorbed tune..  the tempo gets more hurried...the music gets even more and more nervous.  It reminds me of the French folk song that the murdering girl plays on the piano over and over in the Bad Seed..  Hitch uses Poulenc's music for the opening shots and at the end of the movie to tie the theme to the nervous energy of the murderers.  


The evening progresses into a continual cat and mouse until the final where Rupert discovers the body and the cops approach. 




This was one of HItchcock's experimental American films. 


1. First color/technicolor

2.  Long unbroken camera shots for several long minutes at a time

3.  The whole movie shot on a single set (the living room of the Manhattan penthouse)

4.  There was almost no editing on this movie.   TRULY AMAZING

5. The walls of the sets were on rollers so they could be easily moved to accomondate unusual camera angles and character placements. Crew men had to constantly move furniture around.

6.  Great detail was placed in the apartment from tablecloths, china, flower arrangements, pillows etc.  Very intricately done. 

7. The cyclorama of New York skyline backdrop was the the largest used up to that time.  The subtle lighting changes are spectacular. It even included the Empire State and the Crysler building in the back set. Hitch though of everything even chimney smoke.  The clouds were made of spun glass and also changed shape throughout the movie.



Hitch also broke his cameo chain.. and actually appears TWICE in this film personally!  


1.  The first is in the opening scene he is walking on the street in front of the apartment building where the murder will take place.


2. About 55 mins into the film if I remember.. we see a billboard with Hitchcock's profile for a weight loss product called Reduco. (the same weight loss product used in his cameo for Lifeboat.  I am amazed that most people who have watched the film numerous times never catch this. 




Gay subtext:


As a gay film historian myself and musicologist... gay viewers are starved to see gay characters on the screen in classic movies.  In the 1920s-1930s, most gay characters were "screaming queens" added for comic relief.  The departure for Brandon and Phillip being cool calculated murderers but also debonaire, intelligent, elegant, and wealthy was a huge departure in screen history.  Though Hitchcock could only "hint" at the gay relationship..  He does it in a way that is so symbolic, coded.  Both Farley and John understood the characters and we can view the gay subtext in their mannerisms, and facial expressions. It is truly brilliant to watch on the screen. 


Homosexuality was indeed controversial on the screen.. yet this is not the first time Hitch had homosexual characters.  We see Ms. Danvers in Rebecca and her obsession with the first Mrs de Winters.  We see the gay traveling duo in The Lady Vanishes.  Hitch always pushes the gammit of human interaction.  Hitch's brilliance got many subtext pass the Hay's code. 


What was tragic is the film did not play as well at the box office..  Many "conservative" cities banned ROPE due to the gay subtext.  


There is a subtle hint to that Brandon might have been romantically involved with Rupert (Jimmy Stewart's character).... though Jimmy did not play the role that way... there are film scholars that point out specific lines.  I have watched the movie again and again.. and do see the possible love triangle between Brandon Phillip and Rupert.  Phillip is nervous and intimidated by Rupert through the movie and there seems to be an underlining jealousy when Rupert and Brandon are off together. Screenplay writer Arthur Laurents even wrote that he wanted Rupert to be gay for the movie.  Those who want more on this look up on the internet Gay subtext in ROPE to find many articles on Arthur Laurent's take on this movie. 


From Laurent's bio: “Laurents’ life’s energy was spent with other men. The specific context and the moment of time in which he was living, in terms of secrecy and when information could be shared about homosexuality, are very important to understanding the characters.”


Pat Hitchcock also remarked "Yes they are all gay..  Jimmy had a field day with that one." 


It is interesting that Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant for the role of Rupert.  I would have preferred that myself.. as Cary Grant was gay in real life and had a longtime romantic partnership with Randolph Scott.  Cary is also sexy compared to Jimmy.  The sexual tension between the men with Cary in the equation would have been far more interesting.  Jimmy's portrayal was intellectual but lacks the sexual intrigue of the original play.  


Hitchcock also wanted Monty Clift instead of John Dall (this would have also been interesting casting as Monty was also gay in real life.  


John and Farley however were marvelous and bold for 1948 .. you see the relationship in the looks they give and body language.  The sexual tension as John describes the murder almost like an ****. 


I would love Professor Edwards comments and insights as well as anyone in the Hitchcock class would like to comment on their insights.  


I hope this helps those that might not be familiar with ROPE or would like to explore this fantastic movie further.  I'm always saddened that his movie is nearly Always brushed over in Hitchcock classes.  Why?    Is it because most American audiences prefer the later works like Vertigo and Psycho? Is it because the gay subtext seems controversial to some?  Is it that because it HItch's first color movie.. he hadn't perfected that medium yet? Is it that it didn't do as well at the box office? 


Comments? Insights?  Thanks for joining me. 

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I love Rope! I love the interaction between the characters. I like Granger's acting so much, his tension is almost coming off of the screen! He freaks out finally, and what a performance.


 I think it may have been neglected because of the gruesomeness of the cold-blooded murder in the beginning. I remember my mother saying how awful that was. Almost as bad as the shower scene in Psycho, just to think that someone would kill someone like that may have been troubling to some viewers.

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