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Philadelphia Inquirer (02/Nov/1984) - Hitchcock's Rope is Revived



Hitchcock's Rope is Revived

Within the confines of a murder that has no overt mystery to it, Hitchcock fashioned a riveting essay on how theory can be disastrous in practice and how ruinous the consequences of intellectual snobbery can be. The masterstroke in this riveting film is that the man who unravels the case is a teacher who is horrified to discover how warped his ideas have become in the minds of his pupils.

Rope was first a play by Patrick Hamilton that owed its existence to the macabre inspiration of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the rich collegians for whom murder was an intellectual exercise. Through it, they sought to prove their superiority over the common run of humanity. Their sensational killing and trial inspired Compulsion (1959), which was certainly a compelling account of the case. As one would expect, Hitchcock's treatment of the theme is at once wittier and deeper. It teems with comic observations of conduct that gradually emerge as dark truths.

The central point in Rope - and it is one that Hitchcock uncharacteristically belabors - concerns the collision between ivory-tower philosophy and mundane and often ugly reality.

Two homosexuals share an apartment and a supercilious view of their fellow man. Brandon (John Dall) is a charming and arrogant manipulator who delights in finding a crevice of weakness in his friends and exposing it mercilessly. Phillip (Farley Granger) is his nervous and subservient roommate.

In the compass of 80 expert minutes, Hitchcock begins with the pair's murder of a college chum. The opening credits run over an empty street. As they finish, people casting elongated shadows move on the sidewalk. A cop halts traffic to shepherd two children across the street. Through a curtained penthouse window, there is a strangled cry. Each one of these images, in what amounts to a symphonic overture to the ensuing action, underlines a moral point that is to be made later.

Brandon and Phillip, having dumped the body in a chest in the living room, invite the victim's father, fiancee and friends to a buffet supper. It is a final gesture of their superiority, a vindication of their nerve. But one guest is their old prep school tutor, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart).

Rope was Stewart's first movie with Hitchcock, in what was to become one the most fruitful collaborations in movies. His Cadell is a catty academic, quick with a putdown for the other guests and free with a joke that "murder is an art." It should be used, Cadell says in the film's best speech, to avenge oneself against headwaiters and hotel clerks.

What elevates Rope above the standard drawing-room mystery is Hitchcock's technique - here a subtle presence rather than a virtuoso display - and Stewart's contribution. Only Hitchcock, for instance, would have the camera move from one unoccupied spot in the room to another as Cadell speculates on how the crime was committed.

The substance of Rope is, of course, not "whodunit" but why it was done. It slips only in forcing the teacher into an unnecessary object lesson at the climax. In a way this is understandable. The film, coming soon after a war in which the barbaric results of Nazism and its super-race theories had shaken the world, wants to drive home the point. Otherwise, Rope is a flawlessly done piece that - fittingly enough - ties up the loose ends in the Hitchcock catalogue. It opens today at the Ritz Three.


Produced by Sidney Bernstein and Alfred Hitchcock, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by Arthur Laurents, photography by Joseph Valentine and William V. Skall, music by Leo Forbstein, and distributed by Universal Classics; running time, 1 hour, 20 min.