Rope (1948) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
There has been a small flu epidemic whizzing through our household this last week or so. Our very young son, Astrid and myself have all had visits to the doctor's. It could have been the cold draft I felt after a press viewing of the Nick Cave penned Lawless, which sadly was pretty dreadful. Or the cold chill in my bones I felt from watching the excellent Red Riding Trilogy, the dramatisation of David Peace's brilliant Quartet. Those books and movies have extra poignancy since the awful Hillsborough investigation was announced last week. I've consoled my flu with healthy doses of Grizzly Bear's new album Shields (OK - and a lot of the new Killers album too!) In it's strange way many of the protagonists of Hitchcock's almost-one-take Rope really resemble some of the members of Grizzly Bear. Their new album Shields would have supplied a rather fitting soundtrack to Rope if the film had been silent.
It's been a long time since I've seen Rope (a fiction based supposedly on the real life Leopold and Loeb case). Two things struck me this time – the constant stream of murderous innuendo that is rather black and humorous (and pretty much the film's ace card) and the almost stiff staginess of the whole venture. In many ways Hitchcock's decision to film the picture in one (almost) continuous shot is Rope's calling card and certainly gives the film bravado film-making-status. But due to this approach the film actually loses a lot. Hitchock tries to instill some of his usual atmosphere to proceedings in a set which is basically two rooms. It feels at times like the actors are following carefully orchestrated instructions as to where to stay in frame. Hitchcock manages a few great shots even amongst these restrictions and in general the limits still provide a fine looking film. A lot is then left on the actors and dialogue.
As mentioned earlier, the script is bitchy and black and that is fine. The performances unfortunately tend to be stiff, with only the reliable James Stewart (who takes an earth to appear) rising amongst the stagey ham. A sense of suspense rarely rears its head, as we sense that Brandon and Philip will get found out for the murder the movie starts with. The fascination is how. Despite these faults, Rope is short, so it's certainly digestible and never boring. This is also a rare example of a populist film maker experimenting. It's just that Hitchcock's usual fair contain enough eccentricities and imagination to make his films far from mundane and this leads Rope to suffer in comparison. If never seen before, Rope is still worth the effort.
Hitchcock has made many movies too scary for my viewing – I have seen them and then refuse to go through them again. He has also made loads of tense and funny ones, which I totally don't mind. Rope is one of those. It's superbly morbid, yet funny. The kinds of old-fashioned young men portrayed here always remind me of Cats On Fire. Or maybe the Cats remind me of youth as they appeared in the really early days of rock'n'roll. Cute, dangerous and unbelievably tame.
The other day I watched Philadelphia Story again and remembered that James Stewart is a darling. In that really old-fashioned sexy way. I'm not sure why he looks so old in this Rope, but anyway, he was the reason I agreed to watch this film. Well, maybe Stewart couldn't really shine in this one, but I was entertained enough. Even though the film was set like a play, its grip held for the duration.
Murdering as high art form, that's what two privileged young students had decided to practice and went on to their first showcase. They strangled their friend and then threw a party while the corpse lay in the same room under a chest topped with food for the guests. At times I felt this film was too much and that it portrayed murder too flippantly. How conservative of me to get so upset. But really, the film managed a very good depiction of young minds and how words can be misquoted and used to justify complete and utter lunacy. All in nice upper class privileged pretty and tidy atmosphere with a bad painting of a NYC skyline in the background. I felt safe, no shower curtain fear this time.