Can you commit the perfect murder? More to the point could you keep the body hidden from your dinner guests? These are the questions Hitchcock poses with typical ghoulish relish in Rope, one of his lesser known yet technically brilliant works. Known more for its experimental techniques rather than its artistic content, it’s a movie often overlooked by all but the most diehard Hitchcock fans but which should be considered a must see for any true students of cinema.
Hitch had a clear plan in mind here. Take a play set in a small space and adapt it for the screen; shooting in one long take and splicing reels of film together by diving the camera behind scenery or the actors for a quick fade out before sweeping back out in a seamless motion, building tension and suspense as the drama plays out for the audience in real time. Add in some furious, if slightly shaky, camera work, a dynamic set with walls that would move to accommodate the dollies and a background cyclorama of New York which is, if anything, better than the real thing and you have a maestro at his audacious, brilliant, outrageous best.
Why then does Rope not appear in the boxsets alongside The Birds and Psycho? Well the sad truth is it simply doesn’t work. These techniques are wasted on such a contrived melodrama and the actors, possibly restrained by the long single takes, look taught and over choreographed. Even the great James Stewart appears uncomfortable, bored even, as he unravels the conspiracy with surprising ease.
There are moments of dark Hitchcockian humour, such as the look on Stewart’s face when Janet (Joan Walker) exclaims ‘Of course the man I have a passion for is James Mason!’ And the exploration of Nietzschean theory does make for a chilling and interesting finale. Sadly though, Rope lacks the both thrilling excitement of North By Northwest or the suspense of Vertigo, it’s Hitchcock playing and honing the skills he would perfect in his later films, a glimpse into the artist’s workshop rather than a masterpiece in itself.
Rope is far from Hitchcock’s best but it is worth watching, it harks back to a time of nascent special effects when a director’s skill rather than a computer program caused the magic of the movies to come alive.