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Alfred Hitchcock: Masterpiece Edition Vol. 3: Hitch shows us how a mystery is made - in long, continuous shots, no less....
Universal / 80 Minutes / 1948 / Unrated / Street Date: October 30, 2012
[As preparation for our comprehensive review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, we're investing each of that massive Blu-ray sets films one by one chronologically. If you missed our review of Saboteur, check it out here.]
What's not to love about a film that begins with a close-up of a victim being strangled, after which the killers stuff him in a trunk, use it as a buffet table and then invite guests over for a dinner party? Adding to the decadent thrills of Rope is its flirtation with (albeit subtly) subject matter that, back in 1948, was positively unspeakable. In fact, this "It" was never muttered onscreen. What exactly is "it" that is so taboo? Well, if you haven't seen the film, I won't spoil it for you. (Though if you're smart, you probably already know screenwriter Arthur Laurents based Rope loosely on the Leopold and Loeb scandal that shocked the nation.) So while Rope may indeed be a bit dated, it remains unique and stimulating because it manages to examine "it" in a way that is still far more daring and honest than most of today's supposedly more "liberated" cinema.
While Hitch certainly has been more vicious, manipulative and baroque in his other, more well-known works such as Psycho, Rear Window or Vertigo, never has he been more sly and off-the-cuff as he is here. Essentially a filmed stage play, with Rope I got the distinct impression that Hitch was trying to offset the rather grotesque situation by applying a playful, decidedly black brand of comedy to the proceedings (really, is this film that different than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?) And clocking in at a brisk 80 minutes, Rope almost feels like an extended episode of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, which often balanced the macabre with the comedic.
Rope is also notable for its rather ambitious technical risks it takes. With takes running for minutes at a time - rare for a Hitchcock film - it is all up to the actors to carry the show. Interestingly, in the documentary the filmmakers agree that James Stewart might have been miscast. But John Dall and Farley Granger are both excellent as the killers, and the supporting cast is equally adept. Rope has been somewhat criticized for this "filmed play" approach, but I always thought the claustrophobic location adds to the suspense in a number of key scenes.
Admittedly, it can be a bit tiring (as are the rather heavy-handed and obvious transitions between the shots) though the short running time keeps the pace snappy. While Rope is not Hitch's most successful film, it remains quite innovative for its technique as well as its subject matter, and well worth seeing for any serious fan of the auteur's work.