Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" – Time is Ticking

Two characters, Philip and Brandon, perform the perfect murder of their friend David for kicks at the very start of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.  Disconcertingly for UK viewers, the murdering leads – Farley Granger (Philip) and John Dall (Brandon) – look a bit like Ed Miliband and a young Michael Portillo.  I’ll try to forget about that for the rest of this review.


Rope is a sophisticated film but tonally it hits the odd bum note.

James Stewart doesn’t seem very comfortable in the role of the murderers’ old housemaster, Rupert Cadell and his final lecturing speech shaking off all responsibility for his own philosophy’s influence on the murderers is hardly satisfying.

There is also something unsatisfactory about the homosexuality of the murdering pair.  There is a suspicion that their homosexuality is somehow linked to the moral deviancy that they have enthusiastically learned from their housemaster.  This link is not explicit.  The question is, has Hollywood moved directly from not representing gays at all to having two implicitly gay characters whose sexuality has absolutely nothing to do with their separately held views, which just so happen to be morally deviant?  Or has Hollywood in this case landed on non-politically correct middle ground?  To answer this question fully, you’d perhaps need to ask the same question of the finished film, the screenplay, play on which Rope is based, and even the real-life crime that inspired the play – and you might get a different answer for each.

A series of long takes, artlessly joined by unsubtle zooms to the backs of characters’ jackets due to technical limitations at the time of filming on how long an uncut take could last.  The long takes create an effective sense of claustrophobia and increases the sense that the film is played out (more or less) in real time.  I can’t see the point of the pretend non-cuts, though, which are obtrusive.

I’d like to distinguish between issues described above and deliberate use of ambiguity in the film, which I believe is the reason for its overall greatness.

Some examples of intentional ambiguity in the film are:

Despite Brandon’s homosexuality, he has been romantically involved with their female guest Janet (Joan Chandler) in the past.

The philosophy underpinning the murder is that it is acceptable to murder an inferior human, yet David is shown to be at least the equal of the murderers academically, socially and financially.

Far from a perfect murder, the pair have simply killed their friend in a sneak attack during broad daylight, with only the vaguest idea on how to dispose of the body.

There are also some subtle points that enhance the presentation of the plot.  I’ve mentioned the effects of the long takes above.  Another example is the use of music.  There is no overlaid score to the film proper, with the sound being generated from the events of the film.  A metronome ticks away like the timer on a speed chess game as the Prof ramps up the pressure on the visibly cracking Philip.  At the same time, Philip plays Poulenc's “Mouvement Perpétuel No. 1” on the piano, whose shifting harmonies and discordances echo the unfolding cat-and-mouse game.  

Personal Score: 7/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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