Each person has “the right to live, to work, and to think as an individual, but with obligations to the society we live in. By what right did you dare say there’s a superior few to which you belong? . . . Did you think you were God?”
This gem of a movie begins with nothing but deception. As the credits role, the camera overlooks a normal, clean, wholesome city landscape. The sun is bright, and the people walk in and out of their upscale Manhattan apartments. Cars move lazily down the street. A policeman even stops traffic to allow two boys to cross the street. As soon as the credits finish, the camera pans to an apartment, and we realize we’ve been looking at this small part of New York from the windows of this very same apartment.
During the camera pan, the chilling music of deep strings begins, and the brilliance of the afternoon light shifts toward a claustrophobic dark and a realization that on this beautiful day, the curtains of this apartment shield the world from seeing in. Before the camera moves into the apartment—and it should be noted, there are only three camera takes during the entire movie—a vicious scream is heard.
The next scene, now in the apartment, reveals two young men in their twenties strangling a third with a white, silky rope. The victim (David) dies, and the two young men stuff him into a chest, removing the books from within. Though the audience doesn’t know this yet, these three—all very well to do and upper-crust—might very well be fraternity brothers, recently graduated. They might also be lovers, though the film never makes this explicit. Certainly, the murderers are effete and effeminate, Hitchcock playing up the old-boy, prep-school tightness of their past.
As soon as the two stuff their friend into the chest, one murderer (Philip) is forlorn at the deed, and the other (Brandon) lights a cigarette in ecstasy. Brandon victoriously opens the curtains, tempting the sun to see his mastering of murder. He is Icarus, tempting the fates. “The Davids of this world merely occupy space,” Brandon explains. “Murder can be an art, too. The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create,” he continues. He killed merely to kill, to get away with it. Brandon proclaims that he and Phillip now stand above humanity, superior by having committed the perfect murder–that is, by having the nerve to do it.
To celebrate their ascension and apotheosis, the two young men throw a dinner party, inviting all those attached to the victim in some way, including his parents and his girlfriend, Janet.
They even serve their dinner on top of the chest in which the body has been placed, decorating it with candles and slyly claiming it to resemble a “sacrificial altar.” Any failure to get away with the murder would, Brandon fears, indicate weakness, thus making them merely “ordinary.”
As a wildcard, Brandon also invite their former professor and house master, a World War Two veteran, Rupert Cadell. “He might appreciate this from our angle, the artistic one,” he states to Phillip, justifying the inclusion. Brandon had even thought about inviting the former professor to partake in this perfect murder. In the end, though, he decided not to.
“He hasn’t the nerve. Intellectually, he could’ve come along. He’s brilliant. But he’s a little too fastidious.” Cadell might have admired the act, but he would never have possessed the courage to murder. It’s the ability to murder that makes the two superior, Brandon again asserts.
A lover of philosophy, Cadell (Jimmy Stewart) has since quit teaching and has begun a small press, specializing in radical ideas, especially those that overturn social conventions. In particular, he stresses that morality and traditional ethics apply only to the average person, thus keeping them in check so that the larger society can function. The superior have no such limitations, however.
Cadell appears unannounced about twenty-five minutes into the film. He’s arrogant and prickly, mocking the conversation of the others, but in a playfully mischievous way rather than in a malicious one.
As the guests arrive, the viewer learns just how superficial each of these persons is. Much as in a T.S. Eliot play or a Whit Stillman film, the guests talk about bizarre things such as the horoscope and astrology. They’re mostly concerned with which family is marrying into which family. Every conversation, of course, symbolizes layers upon layers of meaning, a game cunningly played by the elite. The conversation is really nothing but a social form of chess.
As the trickster Cadell disrupts the norms of the upper-class and their dance of a conversation, he announces that legalized murder would solve many problems of the world. Shock runs through the crowd.
Really? You believe in murder?
“Think of the problems it would solve: unemployment; poverty; standing in line for theater tickets.” As he explains, murder should only be reserved for “those who can make it an art.”
The father of the victim finds the conversation revolting, and he states it. “Who should decide who gets to commit murder,” he asks.
Brandon immediately defends the position. “The few are those men of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they’re above the traditional moral concepts. Good and evil and right and wrong were invented for the ordinary, average man—the inferior man—because they need them.”
Isn’t that Fascism, the father asks?
The real failure of Hitler and the Nazis, Brandon claims, is that they were stupid, murdering willfully and without art and discrimination.
And, so it goes.
Rope is perfect. Indeed, there are no flaws in this film. With only three camera cuts, each person perfectly delivers his or her lines. The gestures are real, the reactions are real, and the setting is real, no matter how superficial the conversation of the upper class of Manhattan.
Rope, unsurprisingly, began as a stage play in 1929. The entire movie takes place within the sight of the corpse, and the camera moves in and out of the conversations and the interactions.
Cadell, however, begins to suspect something is amiss from the first moment he enters the apartment. He especially distrusts those who don’t answer questions, or who answer them with evasion. He’s also fascinated with the manipulations of Brandon and Phillip throughout the party.
As the party plays itself out, the participants worry about the whereabouts of David. He’s always polite, and he’s never late. Yet, he’s not yet shown up. They begin to imagine the worst, fearful that David has had an accident. They each depart, hoping to find their lost friend.
Elated with their victory at not being caught, Brandon begins to gloat as he and Phillip are left alone in the apartment.
As the two are about depart with the body, Cadell suddenly returns. He enters the apartment and confronts them. Everyone is incredibly nervous as they determine the intentions of the other. As Cadell feels his way around the apartment, outnumbered by the murderers and unsure of his own safety, Brandon becomes excited again—intellectually as well as, apparently, sexually. As he listens to Cadell’s theory of how one might commit the perfect murder in the apartment, Brandon can barely contain his ecstasy. He’s uncertain of Cadell’s intentions, but he’s equally thrilled (if not outright titillated) that his old professor has recognized his brilliance, even if it is in the name of murder.
Well, I’ve already given enough away of Rope. Spoilers, you might fairly cry!
So, let me just state, the last few minutes of the movie—as with the entire thing—are simply fascinating, intense, and brilliantly executed.
Rope is a movie all about ideas, camera angles, and character development. There are no wasted shots and no wasted lines of dialogue. Counter to almost every aspect of current film, Rope possesses no special effects and no action sequences. Yet, it is absolutely riveting from the moment the credits roll until the final sigh breathed by its characters.
I am not exaggerating when I claim this movie to be one of the greatest works of art ever to emerge out of Hollywood. It certainly competes with The Mission, The Killing Fields, and a few others.
If you’ve not seen this film, I envy you. I would give much to see it again for the first time. If you have seen it, you know just how brilliant it is: Immorality, raw and pure. Yet, whatever its origins in philosophy, Rope is ultimately an allegory for the modern world: Clean, shiny, polished, and deadly.
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