Approved! You hear that folks, it got approved! It can now get a home loan or something. You know what? Considering that I'm a full-on adult, I have a pathetic understanding of how banking works. It's probably why I teach English and film. It's all fantasy. Regardless, there's a pretty gruesome murder in the first minute of the movie. Then there's a lot of talk about murder. Like Crime and Punishment, there's a lot of talk about murder.
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
When I first saw this movie most likely decades ago, I thought this was one of the big Hitchcock films. It simply had to be. I had my Hitchcock box set and I watched Psycho on repeat, but I knew that Rope had to be up there with the greats. I mean, it is Hitchcock pretty much challenging himself for an hour and a half to pull of an insane gimmick while keeping a tension level ebbing and flowing the entire time. How does he possibly do that? When I grew up, I found out that Rope was considered one of his personal and financial failures. Today, it is given a little leeway, but that almost feels like revisionist history or elitism. So what made me see so much in this movie?
In high school, I was super naive about the relationship between the Brandon and Phillip. It was only after I read the Francois Truffaut interview with Alfred Hitchcock did my jaw drop. I'm very innocent. I can read murder in almost every situation, but beyond that, I am blind to everything. But the context of these characters didn't really matter to me. There is something genuinely creepy about this movie. If I had to play Devil's Advocate, I can see this being chalked up to simply a good episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents instead of a film. For those who have never heard of this movie, Rope presents an entire film using invisible cuts. What that means is that the movie looks like it is done all in one take. Back in '48, one take was impossible. The reels of film could only hold about twelve-and-a-half minutes of footage, so Hitchcock had to use the invisible cut to string these scenes together. Regardless, what it creates is a unity of action. This might be seen as a gimmick. In a technical sense, the movie is pretty revolutionary. A few movies, including my recently reviewed Birdman have done the same thing, but there is something really effective of seeing it done well in Hitchcock's Rope. First of all, and this is a bit of a cheat, the film is an adaptation of a play. The unity of place is already woven into the narrative. But the story itself is suited wonderfully for Hitchcock himself. Dubbed the Master of Suspense, the movie plays up on the claustrophobia of the apartment. The Macguffin is front and center and breaks Hitchcock's own rules about the Macguffin. The Macguffin has revealed its value in the first minute of the film. It is the cabinet hiding David's body. With a constantly moving and living camera, the knowledge that the camera is teasing proximity with revelation is phenomenal.
The proof of this tension can be most seen in one absolutely perfect sequence. Mrs. Wilson, while cleaning after dinner, is emptying the top of the cabinet of plates and candles and other accouterments (ooh la la!) and the camera just focuses on her. There is an intense debate with the key players of the film, but they are off camera. The drama seems like it is happening in the gathering space, but really Mrs. Wilson dominates the scene. Other movies have since played with this idea, most recently the opening credits for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, but this scene is terrifying. Since I've been showing this film for a class, sometimes I don't watch as closely as I would like. Believe it or not, I do like watching movies under ideal conditions. Even though I love Rope, there are times where I'm distracted. (This didn't happen this year. I was actually super in the mood to watch it.) But this scene, regardless of the conditions, I always watch intently. It is such a glorious moment. It is one of those scenes that doesn't get destroyed by knowing how it ends. I'm actually always stunned that Hitchcock can keep me on the hook for as long as he actually does. The scene is excruciating. I know that there's a German word for the amount of discomfort that comes from knowing things are going to end poorly. (If you say "suspense", um...shut up.)
It's so weird. I teach my honors sophomores Crime and Punishment every year. It takes forever to get through because it is a tank of a Russian epic. The most exciting part of the book is covered in the first week and the rest of the time is spent discussing that one moment. I know that Hitchcock calls out Crime and Punishment in the film, so it's not like I'm making some grand comparison. But Rope is the contemporary, CliffNotes version of Crime and Punishment. Instead of putting all of the traits into a sole protagonist like Raskolnikov, the dual nature of the character is split between Phillip and Brandon. Phillip doesn't full on collapse, but he gets pretty Raskolnikovy at times. While finishing Crime and Punishment again will always feel like a great and rich accomplishment, I find myself getting a better sense of the impact of the action from Rope. Dostoyevsky explores the psychology and sociology of the theme, but Rope brings the catharsis. Rope, in a weird way, explores an alternate timeline. What if Raskolnikov was caught? How would that change the context of the action. Perhaps the story isn't exactly one to one. Brandon never feels guilt for what he has done. That's why we have Phillip. Similarly, Brandon is more playful with his view of the crime. Raskolnikov saw himself as a hero and demon simultaneously. Brandon is more about the game. It does give the movie more of an entertaining element, which Dostoyevsky doesn't really stoop to. But Hitchcock was a showman. His artistry, from what I understand, was incidental. This is not equating him with laziness, but simply a separate set of values. Hitchcock puts in the work, more so than many directors. But the themes still come through, regardless of intent and I really value that.
There is one thing that happens when watching the movie too many times. It's the watch-fors when it comes to finding the invisible cut. I tell my students to find them and it does somewhat distract from the investment in the film. I'm going to do the same thing with North by Northwest. I know I'm going to tell them about the kid covering his ears before the shot, but I like knowing these things. It's like a belief in Santa. Does it change my love for Christmas? Probably not. A lack of presents does that. (I already apologize to my Catholic Film Group on Facebook for that comment.)
I love this movie so much. It's getting a reappreciation now, but I think it has always deserved more love than it has gotten. Regardless, I can't wait to watch it again next year.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.