Sunday, 26 August 2012


In a New York City apartment a faint scream can be heard as two friends’ murder a third before concealing his body inside a large wooden chest placed prominently inside their living room. The crime is committed moments before people who know the dead man arrive for a party. Lead conspirator Brandon Shaw (John Dall) commits the murder as an intellectual exercise in order to prove his superiority over the dead man and other party guests. Fellow conspirator Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) is less confident about the crime and much more conscious of having a dead body in his midst. Amongst the party guests are the dead man, David’s parents, girlfriend, ex-classmate and all four friend’s ex-prep school housemaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) of whom Brandon is most wary of being able to discover the body. 

The film comes off like a play and is indeed based on a play from the 1920s. The entire plot takes place inside one apartment set and mostly within one room of that apartment. Although characters move about the setting I don’t think the camera ever leaves the living room. Adding to the sense of being a play is the editing. The film is shot as though one long, continuous take though is actually broken up into ten separate takes with each cut being masked by a man’s jacket moving across the screen or the back of some furniture. This allowed the director, Alfred Hitchcock the chance to cut scenes and change the magnificent backdrop which indicates the passing of the day.

It is highly unusual for a murder mystery film to identify the murderers in the establishing shot. The film isn’t about whodunit though and is rather about whether they can get away with it. There is no malice or reason behind the murder except to prove that it can be done. This makes the act feel even more cold and calculated than a crime of passion or robbery gone wrong. The murderers even discuss afterwards why they chose David and came up with no better excuse other than they could. The reaction of the two after the crime helps to paint a picture of their personalities. Brandon is cool and confident, cocky even, while Phillip is instantly racked with guilt and fear. These opposing sets of emotions become even more apparent once the party gets into swing. For the most part the guests have no idea what has happened and no reason to suspect. There is much discussion about where David has got to but no one would suspect that the hosts of a party had murdered one of their friends and then hidden them in a chest in plain sight. Only James Stewart’s character begins to suspect something is amiss but plays his cards close to his chest as not to rile the criminals.

One of the things I loved about this film was the incredible painted backdrop. It took me a couple of scenes to notice that it was actually changing in between cuts from a mid afternoon skyline towards a night time skyline by the end. As well as the huge painting changing colour and shade as the day draws on, it pops with realism as lights come on, chimneys smoke and neon’s flash. It’s as close to the real Manhattan skyline as 1948 would allow without actually being there. The interior of the apartment is also very well dressed and feels realistic for the period and social class. The characters are obviously all upper middle class socialites and talk with that wonderful enunciation of the late 1940s. It feels as though everyone is talking incredibly fast while in actual fact saying very little and sentences end with a slight upward inflection which is a joy to listen to, unlike the hideous valley speak style which has caught on in more recent times.

The acting is excellent from every quarter but Stewart and Dall stand out. For them the film is like a game of cat and mouse and both actors play their roles superbly. Other actors bring with them small side plots which help to flesh out the central plot. I really enjoyed the fizzled out romance of Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick) and Janet Walker (Joan Chandler). Both were excellent in their small but vital roles. The film oozes with Hitchcock’s trademark suspense and this is highlighted in one particular scene in which Phillip plays the piano to an ever quickening metronome while Cadell asks him questions about David’s whereabouts. The tension is unbearable before being finally broken by the entrance of another character. The theme of a perfect murder also reminded me of another Hitchcock film I saw recently, Shadow of a Doubt. In this thriller two characters constantly bicker about the perfect way to kill a man without being caught.

Something of note for me is the relationship between the two murderers. There are subtle homosexual undertones in their relationship which is odd for the period. The two young men live together and bicker as though a couple. Their speech and mannerisms give further weight to the idea and the two actors themselves were gay in real life. The real crime on which the play and then film were based was also committed by two men suspected of being lovers.

Rope is another masterful thriller from Hitchcock, a director who continues to wow me with his work. The film is full of intrigue and suspense and features a great cast reading some excellently written lines, all shot in a uniquely clever way.          



  1. I absolutely love this film, it's in my top 5 Hitchcock movies.

    The painted skyline is indeed very well made and in the end it helps convey the sensation that the three characters are all exhausted and defeated.

    I've also picked up on a slight homosexual undertone which is, as you said, very subtle and not blatant.

    Shadow of a doubt is new to me, but it sounds interesting, I'll look it up - thanks for the recommendation.

    1. I enjoyed Shadow of a Doubt but it isn't quite as good as this. I'm coming extremely late to Hitchcok's films but I'm loving discovering them. Thanks for your comment.