Rope (1948) is a film written by Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents, produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and starring James Stewart, John Dall and Farley Granger. It is the first of Hitchcock’s Technicolor films, and is notable for taking place in real time and being edited so as to appear as a single continuous shot through the use of long takes.
The film was based on the play Rope by Patrick Hamilton, which was said to be inspired by the real-life murder of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924 by two University of Chicago students named Leopold and Loeb who simply wanted to show that they could commit a murder and get away with it. However, they were both arrested and received long prison terms.
On a late afternoon, two brilliant young aesthetes, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) murder a former classmate, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), in their apartment.
After hiding the body in a large antique wooden chest, Brandon and Phillip host a dinner party at the apartment which has a beautiful panoramic view of the city skyline (in what appears to be Manhattan). The guests, unaware of what has happened, include the victim’s father (Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt (Constance Collier) (his mother is not able to attend), as well as his fiancee, Janet Walker (Joan Chandler) and her former lover Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick), who was once a close friend of David’s. In a subtle move, Brandon uses the chest containing the body as a buffet for the food, just before their maid, Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) arrives to help with the party.
Brandon’s and Phillip’s idea for the murder was inspired years earlier by conversations with their erstwhile prep-school housemaster, publisher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart). While at school, Rupert had discussed with them, in an apparently approving way, the intellectual concepts of the Übermensch and the art of murder, a means of showing one’s superiority over others. He too is among the guests at the party since Brandon in particular feels that he would very likely approve of their so-called work of art. “Now the fun begins,” Brandon says when the first of the guests arrives.
Brandon subtly drops hints throughout the party about David’s absence, beginning a discussion on the art of murder. He manages to appear calm and in control, although when he first speaks to Rupert, he is nervously excited, stammering. Phillip on the other hand is visibly upset and morose. He does not conceal it well and starts to drink too much. When David’s aunt, Mrs. Atwater, who fancies herself as a fortune-teller, tells him that his hands will bring him fame, she is talking about his skill at the piano, but he appears to think that it will be a different kind of fame.
Much of the conversation, however, focuses on David and his strange absence, which worries the guests. A suspicious Rupert quizzes a fidgety Phillip about this and about some of the inconsistencies that have been raised in conversation. For example, Phillip had vehemently denied ever strangling a chicken at the Shaws’ farm, but Rupert has personally seen Phillip strangle several.
Phillip later complains to Brandon about having had a “rotten evening”, not because of the murder of David but over Rupert’s questioning.
Emotions run high. David’s father and fiancee are disturbed, wondering why he has neither arrived nor phoned. Brandon even goes so far as to play matchmaker between Janet and Kenneth, who rather resent this and increases the tension.
Mr. Kentley decides to leave when his wife calls, overwrought because she has not heard a word from David herself. He takes with him some books Brandon has given him, tied together with the very rope Brandon and Phillip used to strangle his son; Brandon’s icing on the cake.
About to leave, Rupert is handed another man’s hat by mistake. In it he sees the initials “D.K.” (as in David Kentley). Now certain something is wrong, Rupert returns to the apartment a short while after everyone else has departed, pretending that he has absentmindedly left his cigarette case behind. He “plants” the case, asks for a drink and then stays to theorize about the disappearance of David, encouraged by Brandon, who seems eager to have Rupert discover the crime. A tipsy Phillip can’t stand it any more, throwing a glass and saying: “Cat and mouse, cat and mouse. But which is the cat and which is the mouse?”
Rupert lifts the lid of the chest and finds the body inside. His two former students have indeed committed murder. He is horrified, but also deeply ashamed since it was his own rhetoric which led them to carry out an actual killing as an intellectual exercise. Rupert seizes Brandon’s gun and fires several shots into the night in order to attract the police.
As the sky outside the apartment darkens into night, the sirens of police cars can be heard heading their way.
The film is one of Hitchcock’s most experimental and “one of the most interesting experiments ever attempted by a major director working with big box-office names”, abandoning many standard film techniques to allow for the long unbroken scenes. Each shot ran continuously for up to ten minutes without interruption. It was shot on a single set, aside from the opening establishing shot street scene. Camera moves were planned in advance and there was almost no editing.
The walls of the set were on rollers and could silently be moved out of the way to make way for the camera, and then replaced when they were to come back into shot. Prop men also had to constantly move the furniture and other props out of the way of the large Technicolor camera, and then ensure they were replaced in the correct location. A team of soundmen and camera operators kept the camera and microphones in constant motion, as the actors kept to a carefully choreographed set of cues.
The extraordinary cyclorama in the background was the largest backing ever used on a sound stage. It included models of the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings. Numerous chimneys smoke, lights come on in buildings, neon signs light up, and the sunset slowly unfolds as the movie progressed. At about one hour into the film, a red neon sign in the far background showing Hitchcock’s profile with “Reduco”—the fictitious weight loss product he used for his appearance in Lifeboat (1944)—is visible for just a moment. Within the course of the film, the clouds—made of spun glass—change position and shape a total of eight times.