22 December 2014

Rope (1948)
Contributed by Jason Knowles

Jason Knowles is a consumer marketing manager for a national outdoor adventure travel magazine. He's also the co-creator of The Terror Trap website since 1998. He thinks there's nothing better than a long walk in the desert, followed by a good Italian retro horror flick.

I've always been captivated by Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948). It's a deceptive little thing. It wants to be an urbane thriller. A quirky drawing room exercise in suspense. But at heart, it's a down and dirty horror flick. And a really subversive one at that.

I remember as a kid, I'd go to the local library and check the VHS copy of Rope out on loan. I'd carry the bulky, plastic brown-colored clamshell case back home, where it would sit in front of the VCR over the course of a week. During that time, I'd watch the movie several times. I'd take special delight in the carefully crafted dialogue, the stagy direction, the earthen-hued set decoration (courtesy of Howard Bristol).

His first Technicolor film, Hitchcock's Rope was based on a 1929 stage play by Patrick Hamilton and was adapted for the screen by Hume Cronyn.

But the real cojones of Rope comes from the fact that its original source was the 1924 true crime story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb - two arrogant, privileged, highly intelligent university men who murdered a good friend just for the "thrill of it."

It stars John Dall (Gun Crazy) as erudite snob Brandon Shaw and Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train) as his snivelling cohort Phillip Morgan. Both of them deliver appropriately unsympathetic - but entirely mesmerizing (!) - performances as the two unlikable leads.

Believing themselves to be some sort of Nietzschean supermen, the two guys murder their best friend David Kentley (Dick Hogan) and then hide the corpse inside a large wooden chest in the Manhattan apartment they share. Then the killer duo decide to host a party! They invite David's friends and family - including his fiancee Janet (Joan Chandler) - where they serve appetizers to their guests...atop David's makeshift coffin. Dinner is served!

But the two hubrists mistakenly invite their university professor Rupert Cadell (played by America's Everyman Jimmy Stewart) to the soiree. Cadell is no dummy. He smells something evil in the air. But he can't be completely certain what's happened here....and why is David so late in coming to the party anyway? Hmmm...

Rope is probably best known for being one of Hitchcock's most experimental films. The director wanted the movie to be a handful of long, unbroken scenes with hardly any editing or obvious cutting. So he shot it in ten minute sequences. And he disguised the few jumps from segment to segment, by careful blocking of the camera around furniture and behind the backs of the principal cast.

The technique gives the whole thing a stagy, rather claustrophobic vibe. As a result, the viewer may feel he wants to get the hell out of Brandon and Phillip's apartment. Right away.

But we feel trapped. Just like the killers. Or just like David. And so we're forced to stay, wait things out, and see what happens. Besides, we've got David's colorful aunt Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier) and the mouthy housemaid Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) on hand to keep us entertained. So how bad can things get?

Rope doesn't contain a gruesome shower scene. It doesn't have any über beauties like Grace Kelly or Tippi Hedren. There are no suspenseful setups staged on top of national landmarks. No wild birds. No ghostly dopplegangers jumping into San Francisco Bay. No climaxes in crowded Albert Hall.

At best, it's a competently made thriller but one which fails to match the dizzying creative heights Hitch would achieve during his peak period beginning in the mid 1950's. At worst, it is what it is: a self-interested exercise in meticulous detail that most of us probably won't appreciate on a technical level. Certainly it's got a wussy trailer that doesn't do it much justice.

So why has Rope stayed with me all these years? I suppose because when you boil it down to its very essence - when you get rid of Brandon's philosophizing, ditch Phillip's whining, trash the smoking jackets and some of the contrivances of the plot - you're left with one of the most macabre, transgressive blueprints for a horror film. Ever.

Seriously, this is some subversive shit. Think about it. Think about it, especially, in terms of the era of the late 40's: Two men. (Lovers, at that.) Brutally murder their best friend. No remorse. Stuff his cold body in a trunk. Invite people over and secretly gloat about it. Eat on top of the trunk.

Rope is like Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Lucio Fulci got together and had a demon baby.

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