rope (1948)

Rousing chamber play, suspense thriller and wry comedy; Rope combines the best of Hitchcock's talents into a tense potboiler. The film barely lets up in its continuous simmer, with injections of tension via appearances by props and, of course, watching Jimmy Stewart catch on to the mystery. Each element is played for full suspense, from the film's use of real time and limited setting to the use of long-take to give the full to sense of unbroken time to Hitchcock's carefully paced proceedings. The body at the center of the screen at all times, the reemergence of the rope every now and again, even the metronome on Phillip's piano to speed our heart rate; each are carefully placed to be on screen for enough time to have maximum impact, and never overstay their welcome. The steady introduction of character and conflict that filters in for much of the first half of the film's runtime is matched then by their dramatic apex and exit, giving way to a third act that takes the tension from devilishly building in the background to full roaring boil. The script brings a decadent amount of melodrama to the mix, with each of its denizens being somehow connected, more often than not romantically (either past or present) or locked in admiration, which Hitchcock plays as degrees of the same. Our protagonist couple is never outed by the narrative for their romantic involvement, yet we see it in all they do. Hitchcock plays the murder like sex and so on, with the post-coital "leave the lights off" and even lighting up a cigarette. It is one of the director's chief achievements of his preoccupations, combining sex, murder, high society and the phases of a meal; the film plays like our own dinner party with gun play and suspense as the dessert. Rope is Hitchcock at his most playfully amusing and macabre, the amoral and deranged Brandon becoming the audience-proxy for much of the film, the only one we have the identify with is the mind of the sociopathic killer. Hitch slowly and without fanfare ushers in our protagonist a full half hour into the picture, which, for the film's terse 80-minute runtime is well into the second act. 

Rope seems to be the collision of the post-war question of the modern era versus the rising postmodern ethic of Nietzsche and, as the film alludes, Hitler. The film tests the 'super man' theory, that in any age there exist human beings so superior in intelligence to the average knuckle-dragging Homo Sapien that they need not be bogged down in their actions by the 'every man's moral code and rule of law. It is a question without an answer, and the film does well to ponder it, debate it and then ultimately cast it as insanity, but not without giving Brandon and his superiority complex a good time in the spotlight. It is Hitchcock's mastery at steering the ship that keeps his audience in the film's grip from start to finish, allowing his theme to ebb and flow with the tides of characters as they wash to and from the screen, as they exit from time to time, and as the ever-wandering camera takes on a life of its own. It is in this surrogate field of vision that has a mind of its own that Rope finds its most unique and powerful storytelling device, and one that has yet to see its potential fully realized in cinema. The effect of the wandering camera on the viewer causes them to become acutely aware of the staged nature of the film, causes a hyper-awareness of the fictional nature of our play and puts us directly in touch with the underlying humor. The modernists debate the postmodernists, the concrete concepts of good and evil, right and wrong give way before our eyes, yet the thinker of the modern era who bore these students sees with horror as his abstract concepts are acted out in front of him. Rope curiously espouses several other systems by which we find superiority and inferiority, most notable Hitchcock includes astrology as a means by which Mrs. Wilson divides the good characters from the bad in this world. What's so strikingly effective about the picture overall is Hitch's manner of always staying on the inside with our antagonists, while the film's protagonists are always out, or coming in for that matter. When David is killed, we are there to witness the climax of his death, his moment of hiding when Brandon and Phillip slip him inside the chest. When Rupert calls to reenter the apartment as the third act commences, we are witness to the gun Brandon hides in his pocket and expressly aware of its presence the entire sequence. It is this level of subconscious awareness, the audience being in on the joke with Brandon, that crafts the spell we are under for the duration of Rope. It is the spell of attributing abstract significance to normally insignificant objects such as the titular rope, the chest, the pocket of a suit jacket and the like. 

The passage of time as exemplified by the light outside the panoramic window of the penthouse crafts just as much expressive character as any of the players onscreen. The moment when, as we descend into the murky depths of the third act and that red sky that signaled such danger and alarm for the second act, gives way to dusk and the continuously flashing neon sign outside of the window ratchets the tension and sinister undertones beyond their already-sizzling heights. One of the film's greatest strengths is that the set itself seems to breathe the malevolence under the surface of the action. Visually its conscious camera at times ignores the characters entirely to stay and linger by David's "coffin" just to add more suspense in key moments. The film seems to effortlessly and with a wry tongue in cheek craft its most intense moments, in all of Hitchcock's canon it stands apart for being just as effective at both its humor and its dark tale of murder. It is also one his most poignantly socially aware films for it captures a moment in history after the atrocities of the second world war when the world was collectively contemplating such notions, and the act of murder by the nazis which seemed so monstrous was given a free pass for the act of mass murder by the atomic bomb when the United Staes was the culprit. This may be Hitchcock's most telling social commentary on film detailing the sense of superiority felt within the United States itself for the bombing that ended the war. Thankfully he does not overly focus on his thematic elements enough to take away from the delicious film he lays out on a dead man's final resting place.