James Stewart in Rope (1948)


(director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriters: Hume Cronyn/Arthur Laurents/based on the play Rope’s End by Patrick Hamilton; cinematographer: William V. Skall/Joseph Valentine; editor: William H. Ziegler; music: David Buttolph; cast: James Stewart (Rupert Cadell), John Dall (Brandon Shaw), Farley Granger (Phillip Morgan), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Mr. Kentley), Constance Collier (Mrs. Atwater), Douglas Dick (Kenneth Lawrence), Edith Evanson (Ms. Wilson), Joan Chandler (Janet Walker); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alfred Hitchcock/Sidney Bernstein; Warner Brothers; 1948)

“Serves only as perverse entertainment.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Rope is inspired by the Leopold and Loeb murders, in which two wealthy homosexual University of Chicago students brutally murder the 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924. They did it for the thrill of committing “the perfect murder” and to prove their theory that it is acceptable for certain superior people in society, people like them, to murder their inferiors. It’s based on the 1929 play Rope’s End by Patrick Hamilton and is intelligently written by Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents. Alfred Hitchcock (“Psycho”/”Vertigo”/”The Birds”) directs it as an experimental film, as he constructs it entirely from eight uncut ten-minute takes. It’s a claustrophobic stagebound film that is set only in the apartment of the killers. Though well acted (the performances by John Dall, Farley Granger and James Stewart are superb) and having excellent craftsmanship, it serves only as perverse entertainment. Thematically it dallies around arguments about Nietzschean philosophy, his “superman” theory, in order to take down that elitist belief as possibly being used in the wrong way to justify criminal acts. It also hints at a homosexual undercurrent, but never comes out of the closet to say openly what it means to say.

The caustic Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and the fearful Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) are wealthy, intellectual roommates, obviously gays, who knew each other from their elite prep school days. Under the arrogant elitist Brandon’s urgings, the weaker and more nervous concert pianist, Phillip, joins in on the strangling rope murder in their apartment of their prep school wealthy friend, a Harvard undergrad, David Kentley. They place David’s body in a trunk and then hold a champagne-laden dinner party, and boldly use the trunk as the dining table. The boys are helped serving at the party by their housekeeper, Ms. Wilson (Edith Evanson). The guests include David’s father Henry Kentley (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and his wife’s astrology loving sister Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier); David’s fiancée, a bubbly but dull-witted magazine writer, Janet Walker (Joan Chandler); David’s former best friend from the same prep school and Janet’s former fiancé, the pleasant nice guy Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick); and the boys’ acerbic brilliant and witty former prep school housemaster, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart, his first of many starring roles for Hitchcock).

Brandon was inspired to murder by listening to Rupert’s view that murder by the privileged few is a good thing for society, a takeoff on Hitler’s use of Nietzsche’s “superman.” The murder for the thrill of it pleases Brandon a great deal, as he views his insane act as a work of art; while Phillip reacts with fright and begins to come apart as the evening wears on. Rupert begins to suspect the boys when he notices how strangely they are acting. The smug teacher will have to come down a few pegs when he learns the boys took his murder theory verbatim and misused what he said to fit their dark purposes. It ends with Rupert giving them a guilt-ridden speech–confessing he was not thinking clearly all these years when expressing such mad ideas–while they all wait together for the police to arrive.