Tuesday 12 June 2012

Movie Review: Rope (1948)

A gutsy experiment in film-making and a conversational piece about nothing less controversial than the art of murder as an evolutionary tool, Alfred Hitchcock's Rope sparkles with wit and technique.

In a New York apartment, college graduates Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) use a rope to strangle David, a former classmate, to death. They stuff his body in a large chest and get ready for the dinner party that they are about to host. Invited are David's parents and his fiancee Janet (Joan Chandler). Also attending are Kenneth (Douglas Dick), who is both Brandon's friend and Janet's former boyfriend, and Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the prep school headmaster and main influence in the life of Brandon and his friends.

Phillip is immediately wracked by guilt, but Brandon is very much enjoying himself, convinced that he has committed the perfect murder and emboldened by his twisted interpretation of the philosophical argument that murder can be justified when superior men choose inferior victims to kill. The dinner guests are clueless as to David's whereabouts, except for Rupert. His sharp observations of Brandon's words and actions lead him to believe that something is very wrong, and he starts to probe Brandon and Phillip to find out what happened to David, and why.

Based on a 1929 play of the same name which in turn was inspired by a real-life 1924 murder committed by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Rope takes place on one set, almost in real time, and in a series of long takes. Hitchcock succeeds in fully immersing the audience in the dinner party, with no distractions to take away from the drama.

Rope opens midway through the only act of violence, and the movie is thereafter a battle of wits and willpower between Brandon and everyone else. Brandon has to overcome Phillip's guilt, the mounting anxiety of David's family and friends, and Rupert's creeping suspicion that something untoward has taken place.

The majesty of Rope's story arc is Brandon's supreme pride in having committed the perfect murder to satisfy his arrogance, undermined by his narcissistic inability to control his desire to tell the world about it. Brandon drops hints early to Kenneth that he now has less competition for Janet's attention, and throughout the evening he flaunts his misdeed, starting with congregating the party around the chest with David's body in it, and going as far as using the murder rope to tie books together for David's dad.

And in a journey to the contradictory destination where ruinous confession mixes with aggrandized boastfulness seeking validation for murder, Rupert feels compelled to invite Rupert to the party, knowing full well that Rupert is the only one capable of seeing through Brandon and deciphering what happened to David.

Hitchcock boldly experimented with transporting the stage experience to the screen, assembling Rope in a grand total of 10 takes spanning the running length of 80 minutes, with the action unfolding effectively in real time. Several of the cuts between takes are seamless, further elongating the sense of true presence. The long uninterrupted sequences were achieved with exquisitely fluid camera work, the equipment gliding around the actors within the highly malleable apartment set.

James Stewart creates in Rupert a more assured character than his typical screen persona. Rupert is observant, inquisitive, confident, and aware of the dangers associated with the arrogance of youth. His foe is his mentee, Brandon seeking to confirm his self-perceived superiority by impressing the main father figure in his life. John Dall oozes a nauseating confidence as Brandon, a man so full of himself that he leaves no space for considering the emotions of anyone else.

An exploration of a psyche damaged by excessive hubris, Rope is a chillingly taut experience.

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