Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope remains an anomaly in the director’s career. It’s unusual film aesthetic and experimental nature have set it apart from other Hitchcock films even though it shares many of the same thematic concerns, particular the class theme. Rope is an experiment in film technique. Hitchcock attempted to replicate the continuous action of a play about a homosexual couple that murder someone and place his body in a trunk that serves as the bold centerpiece to their dinner party.
Hitchcock’s cinema is deeply tied to the techniques of editing and audience manipulation. Hitchcock was more concerned with the visual language in his films than the dialogue. In Rope, the visual language is limited to eleven long takes. In attempting to make the action in Rope appear continuous, Hitchcock refrains from his traditional editing methods. Miller notes “Hitchcock had the idea, he said, of doing it “in a single shot”; but as this was technically unfeasible in 1948, when the camera magazine held only ten minutes’ worth of film, he did the next best thing, which was to film it in the longest takes possible: the eighty-minute Rope has only eleven shots” (Miller 14). As a result, Rope is inconsistent with Hitchcock’s other films in terms of technique but not in subject matter. It is not surprising that the play appealed to Hitchcock’s morbid sense of humor.
Even though Hitchcock’s usual form is compromised to suit his vision for Rope, the film is still interesting in a visual sense. The clumsiness of Brandon’s so called “perfect” party is reflected in the camerawork that at times, appears clumsy and awkward. Delollio notes, “The use of the moving camera to make emotional content and psychological conflict parallel with formal design, was, in fact, a relatively unusual idea at the time” (Delollio 100). Throughout his career, Hitchcock broke new cinematic ground and Rope is no exception. The editing design of the film is not seemingly perfect as it is in other Hitchcock films. This echoes the faultiness of the murder and party.
Class was a thematic concern for Hitchcock throughout his career and it is especially evident in Rope. Brandon believes that he belongs to a certain class of superior beings who have the privilege of committing murder. Furthermore, Brandon thinks that his superiority allows him to perform what he calls the “perfect murder.” The film depicts Phillip’s nervous and guilty mental state combined with Brandon’s “artistic touches”, such as the tying of the books with the rope used to kill David. Both of these elements prove to be the pair’s ultimate undoing. Miller states, “Most stories of the perfect crime…are really stories of the perfect crime’s failure; like so many fingerprints, those accumulated artistic touches eventually yield the forensic clues that give the game away” (Miller 2). In reality, the murder and party are far from perfect and have many flaws that cause Rupert to grow more and more suspect.
A social gathering like a party functions as a display of class. In Rope, everyone is playing a social role and is doing what is expected of them except for Brandon, Phillip, and Rupert whose social behavior is more unconventional. This is clearly evidenced in the scene in which murder is discussed as a right reserved for superior beings. In some ways, other characters such as Janet and Mrs. Attwater seem artificial and are not very empathetic characters. Phillip, on the other hand, is a more empathetic character because his reactions are, for the most part, honest and true. In other words, Phillip is not wearing a social mask like some of the other guests are wearing.
In conclusion, Hitchcock was not afraid to take risks in his films. Rope is Hitchcock’s most experimental film. This is clearly evidenced in its visual language, which sets it apart from other Hitchcock films while still retaining some of the director’s thematic concerns, such as class. Hitchcock had a lifelong fascination with one of the principal themes of modern art: the tension between order and chaos, a concern that is manifested brilliantly in Rope.
D.A. Miller, “Hitchcock’s Understyle: A Too-Close View of Rope,” Representations, Vol. 121, No. 1 (Winter 2013), pp. 1-30, Digital PDF.
Dellolio, Peter “Filmic Space and Real Time in Rope,” Digital PDF.
Sterrit, David. The Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Cambridge University Press, 1-27, Digital PDF