I was searching for the exact quote of something along the lines of “you don’t know until you try.” I typed those words into Google and much to my dismay, it gave me all sorts of inspirational/proactive “you’re actually really intelligent so you should rediscover yourself” types of websites. Good stuff and all, but that was not exactly the direction I wanted to begin my review of Rope with. I thought all hope was lost until Bruno Mars saved my day. (I will never say that again.) Towards the bottom of the search was a page of lyrics to his song “The Other Side” as it aptly contains the phrase “It's better if you don't understand 'cause you won't know what it's like until you try.” Perfect! Now I was back, all thanks to Bruno Mars.
As he tells us, sometimes it is better if you don’t understand some things, like the feeling of killing another man as this is what occurs within the first few seconds of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 suspense-thriller Rope. Brandon and Phillip, the two men who strangle their friend, David in their apartment with a piece of rope (hence the title) hardly fit the profile of two murderers. They come from wealthy New York families, the type that sends their children through years of expensive boarding school before entering college as the boys did. And unlike most murderers, their willingness to take a man’s life comes not from any amounts torment or revenge. No, Brandon and Phillip kill this man simply out of sheer curiosity of knowing what it feels like to kill. Fascinated by the superhuman philosophy of Nietzsche as taught to them in school by their former boarding school professor and friend Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the boys decide to take his nihilistic words into action. But personally, murder as an experiment just makes it even more disturbing.
Between the two of them, Brandon (John Dall) is the master planner of the experiement. He is much more suave and charming than his cohort Phillip (Farely Granger) who seems as if he was just talked into the act, convinced it sounded worthwhile. Nonetheless, he gets sucks into it, regretfully, and is the one who actually physically strangles David to death. Killing him in the middle of the day, they store the dead body in a large chest until they can safely ditch the body at nightfall.
To push the scope further, Brandon has planned a small party to take place that night in the same apartment. Those invited are a small number, but include the likes of David’s mother and father and even David, who lies dead in the middle of the room. Everything is in its right place for the oncoming party until Brandon decides to push his luck and deliberately serve the food on the chest, making the coffin the center of attention. Those who arrive expect David to show, but he never does and we know that. Who would think to look for David under the hors d'oeuvre? While the movie retains a strong sense of suspense as we anticipate one of the guests opening the intentionally unlocked chest to reveal their dead guest, there are definite moments of sadness as we watch David’s father glance out the window anticipating his son’s untimely arrival.
For Brandon, to get away with this all would be the perfect murder. His charm and ensuing pleasure collides harshly with the always trembling Phillip who stands on edge throughout the party watching Brandon bask in the curiosity of his guests. His unnerving mentality slips more and more with each cocktail he consumes.
While certainly not considered one of his masterpieces, Hitchcock’s contained thriller creates suspense in a marvelous way that none of his later greats can match. Staged almost as if it were a play with mere a two room setting, the 81 minute film consists only of a confounding ten shots. Through these deliberate long takes, Hitch’s camera slowly slithers around the party guests while many times unconsciously drifting backwards to allow the chest/coffin to remain front and center in the foreground of the frame. There are few times when the coffin actually deserves its place in front of the camera, while the rest of these moments are almost comical. We sit there staring at the chest and can helplessly giggle at the naivety of the guests, carelessly picking up food on their plates without a clue of what lies underneath. It is a harsh and grimacing laugh, but it’s exactly what Hitchcock wants here.
In this way, Rope serves as a bit of a moral conundrum for the audience who eagerly watch on. We witness the murder, know exactly who is guilty, but soon after can find ourselves hoping for a getaway for the charming and jumpy combo, even if it’s only for Phillip’s regretful sake. Besides, it was only an experiment anyways, and thankfully Hitchcock’s own visual experiment serves his audience much better.
+The whole movie is actually on YouTube, so check it out for free- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTo7myWPhac
Rope (1948) Trailer
Rope (1948) Trailer
+ [Movie trailers were so much cooler back then!]