Rope is Alfred Hitchcock’s purest exercise in stylistic experimentation. In adapting the play “Rope’s End” to the screen, Hitchcock wanted the action to seem unbroken and continuous. The problem was, of course, that film magazines could only hold eight minutes of film. That meant that every eight minutes, the director would have to find some way of masking the transition to the next reel. Usually that meant having a character momentarily block the camera with their back. The experiment was only partially successful because, quite frankly, each cut only managed to draw undue attention to itself.
Still, the movie works because of the strength of the source material, adapted to the screen by Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents, based on the real life murder committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in May, 1924.
Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) strangle their friend David Kentley (Dick Hogan) for no other reason than to prove they are superior human beings by getting away with it. Audaciously, they hide the body in a trunk in their living room while throwing a party for the victim’s family and fiancee, using the trunk as a buffet table. Also on the guest list is Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), their old headmaster from school. Rupert is now an eccentric publisher who, as he did when he was headmaster, likes to argue in favor of a vaguely Nietzsche-esque viewpoint of superior versus inferior human beings. His two former students have taken his philosophical mind games a bit too literally.
The evening plays out as the two murderers entertain their guests while Rupert becomes more and more suspicious of their behavior. If committing the “perfect murder” is the sign of superior person, Brandon and Philip look less and less superior with each eight-minute reel of film.
Constrained by the enforced morality of the decency codes of the time, the film cannot come out and say explicitly what is obvious to anyone watching the film. Brandon and Philip are homosexual lovers, as were the real Leopold and Loeb. Hitchcock, his screenwriters and the actors manage to effectively convey the truth behind the characters while staying within the “letter of the law.” Subtle puns and double-entendres permeate the dialogue, making the point even more effectively than stating it outright.
It’s hard not to see the underlying ironic humor present in Rope. In a film where people speak freely and openly of murder, homosexuality is too touchy a subject to mention.