"Brandon, how did you feel?" "When?" "During it?" Philip Morgan to Brandon Shaw
LIKE ROBERT BRESSON'S L'Argent (1983) and Vittorio DeSica's Bicycle Thief (1949), Rope is possibly one of the most disconcerting films ever made. As Thomas A. Bauso suggests in Hitchcock's Re-Released Films, "[Hitchcock's] central achievement in viewer disorientation is his simultaneous provoking of his audience to regard the crime with horror and his implicating of that audience in the performance of the crime. More than anything else, this complex process accounts for the unpleasant sensations that Rope seems to produce in many of its viewers" (232; italics mine). The film contains elements of irrationality and causes a degree of viewer alienation that was quite rare for the American screen in 1948. In later films greater permissiveness in Hollywood allowed Hitchcock to vividly portray the destruction of an innocent (Psycho, The Birds, Topaz, Frenzy), something that, with the exception of Rope, was almost impossible to introduce in his films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Moreover, the murder of David Kentley (Dick Hogan) in Rope, in spite of his nonexistence as a character, unlike Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Psycho, is particularly heinous because of its utter meaninglessness and cruelty. David's death is made that much more unsettling for the viewer not from knowing him as a character but from being exposed to those in his life who loved him. The screenplay was adapted from the 1929 British play by Patrick Hamilton, produced in the United States as Rope's End, which bears many similarities to the real-life Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924.
What makes Rope compelling is the double-sided manner in which the story unfolds. On the one hand, the viewer experiences the inside jokes and black humor along with Brandon and Philip because it knows about the murder from the beginning of the film. On the other hand, the viewer is subjected to little shocks and traps that Hitchcock introduces, such as when we laugh at Rupert's discussion about "Strangulation Day" or "Cut a Throat Week" only to notice Mr. Kentley looking out the window because he is worried about his absent son. This duality is part of the film's fundamental structure: as the real time of the events unfolds ostensibly without any cuts or filmic compression of time, the camera movements weave in and out and back and forth, creating a seamless continuity that often deepens these traps for the viewer. When we hear Mr. Kentley say off-screen that he is a very fortunate man today, because of the books Brandon has offered him, the camera has moved to a close-up of Philip looking distraught, having been told by Mrs. Atwater that his hands will bring him great fame. In a discussion of these and other examples below, we will see that this kind of double-edged tension between visual and dramatic information puts more and more of an ambiguous moral strain upon the viewer.
Two affluent, homosexual lovers, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger), murder a former prep school companion, David Kentley. Hitchcock was keenly aware of how far a verbal or dramatic nuance could go to suggest a homosexual alliance between characters. In Rope the homosexual sub-text is thematically linked to elitism and perversity. Brandon's espousal of a Nietzschean doctrine of intellectual superiority is more than superficially linked to the Nazi doctrine of ethnic superiority. Brandon and Philip believe they possess a Nietzsehean superiority that places their actions above the judgment of conventional law. During a conversation with Mr. Kentley (Cedrick Hardwicke) that is initiated by Rupert's (James Stewart) tongue-in-cheek discussion of murder as an art ("Not one of the seven lively, perhaps, but an art nevertheless," says Rupert), Brandon asserts his position that those who are entitled to commit murder "are those men who are of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they are above the traditional moral concepts. …