Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Roping Us In: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope”

The grizzly case of Leopold and Loeb has fascinated filmmakers for generations. It was back in 1924 that two wealthy young men from Chicago, convinced of their own intellectual superiority, kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy as an experiment in committing “the perfect crime.” Films inspired by this gruesome episode include 1959’s Compulsion (which focuses on Clarence Darrow’s ringing indictment of the death penalty while defending the two killers), as well as 1992’s Swoon and 2002’s Murder by Numbers. But Alfred Hitchcock—always fascinated by murder and the motives behind it—in 1948 beat everyone else to the screen when he adapted (along with actor/writer Hume Cronyn) a 1929 British play called Rope. This was the period when the always-inventive Hitchcock was trying out new filmmaking techniques. Four years earlier he had challenged his own directorial skills by crafting a survival drama set entirely aboard a small lifeboat in the thick of World War II. (Yes, it was called Lifeboat.) In Rope, he introduced color cinematography, while also shooting and editing in such a way that the film seems to exist in a single long take.

 This ambitious attempt to simulate “real time” fascinates film students, though other viewers understandably tend to find it contributes to the movie’s quasi-theatrical stiffness. (The camera occasionally lingers on somebody’s back so that the shooting angle can be changed without our seeming to notice.) From what I’ve read, the actors were not enthralled with all of this experimentation. The set—a posh Manhattan penthouse—was a complicated one, full of walls that could be moved to accommodate lights and camera as well as furniture that had to be hustled out of the way as filming proceeded. I think it was the film’s star, James Stewart, who griped that the only rehearsing that took place involved the constant fully-choreographed rearrangement of chairs, tables, and an essential wooden chest as the drama unfolded.

 Aside from its technical challenges, what is Rope actually about? What unfolds is a Leopold and Loeb-like story in which two suave young men strangle a former classmate for kicks, then stuff his body into the chest on which they’ll serve a festive repast while hosting his parents, his sweetheart, and a prep school mentor played by Stewart. We’re asked to believe that Stewart’s character, Rupert Cadell, is the one who first introduced them to the Nietzschean idea that a man of superior intellect can get away with just about anything. To their dismay, though, he refuses to applaud their murderous (not to say sadistic) behavior, and emphatically turns against them.

 As in most variants of the Leopold and Loeb story, this one contains hints that the two murderers (well played by John Dall and Farley Granger) are tacitly dealing with their own homosexuality. Playwright Arthur Laurents, who wrote the Rope screenplay when he was barely thirty, was himself a gay man who strongly felt there was a homoerotic element at the center of this story. Talking about Rope decades later, he regretted that Stewart’s character was not also subtly portrayed as gay. (The role had earlier been turned down by both Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift.) Stewart seems uncomfortable as Cadell, and early audiences didn’t respond well to him as a philosophical Nietzsche enthusiast.

 One more gripe from Laurents: he had never intended for the murder to be shown in the opening scene. As the film now stands, we know all about the rope, the chest, and the body inside it. Laurens would have preferred for us to wonder—and experience the slowly dawning recognition of the chest’s grim secret.



  1. Never saw The Rope but did read Levin’s “Compulsion” and saw the movie, which captured me, as did the portrayal of Darrow in the movie about the Scopes trial. Loved, Loved, Loved “Lifeboat” but have since read that Bankhead may have been Hollywood’s most difficult and obnoxious person. No idea if its true, never been west of the Hudson (only kidding) Good piece. Bob

  2. Thanks, Bob. I really enjoy your comments.