The (Not So) Simple Art of Murder: Seamless Editing and Friedrich Nietzsche Revisited in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope

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Teacher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart, center) 'interrogates' his students Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger, left) and Brandon Shaw (John Dall, right).

Everybody knows – or has at least heard of – Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces. Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds, these names ring a bell with anybody who’s at least somewhat interested in cinema. Yet the English ‘Master of Suspense’ has created so many more wonderful movies, and film buffs still love to discuss his work, even more than three decades after his death. One of the smaller pictures but certainly underrated gems in his illustrious career is Rope, a rather black comedy meets closed chamber mystery peppered with all sorts of finesses.

Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) are Harvard students who share an apartment. Inspired by a treatise by their teacher, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), about Thomas de Quincey’s well-known essay On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts and the moral supremacy of Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman, the two collegians plan to commit the perfect crime. They do away with their fellow David Kentley (Dick Hogan) by strangling him with a rope. Afterwards, they hide him in a heavy chest in their place.

To celebrate their superiority and continue their experiment, they throw a party that same night and don’t only invite their teacher but also all of David’s family and friends. Initially, nobody suspects anything. In the course of the evening, however, Rupert Cadell, becomes gradually wary of Kentley’s absence. Brandon, in particular, behaves really pretentiously and arrogantly – until their teacher finally sees through their game.

Rope is a prime example of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous black humor. In this case, the great director from England doesn’t even need visual delicacies, such as the car chase from North By Northwest or the acrophobia sequence in Vertigo. Neither does he use spectacular settings. In fact, all of Rope takes place in the neatly decorated downtown apartment occupied by the two murderous young philosophers.

That the Harvard students throw a huge party after their gruesome act, may be impious on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s so extremely cynical and vitriolic the way probably only Alfred Hitchcock could be during his heyday. Here, the concept of the ‘funeral feast’ decried by Christianity literally hits the mark. The Catholic director had always loved to offend others in terms of his religion, and in this film, his ‘transgressions’ are wonderfully absurd, strange, and comical at the same time.

In Rope, we, the viewers, have the feeling as if we’re right in the middle of the action. Part of the experience is the formal experiment that Alfred Hitchcock conducted with his chamber piece. He tricks us into believing the whole movie unfolds in real time right before our eyes. The director’s initial plan was to shoot the complete Rope in a single take. Since film reels were limited to ten minutes each at the time, he was eventually forced to make cuts, but hid them as good as possible by employing continuity editing techniques.

All in all, the movie contains a total number of eleven shots in its running time of about 80 minutes, five of them using hard cuts as transitions. On a formal level, the intimate play becomes interesting to film buffs. For the regular spectator, however, Alfred Hitchcock really creates the feeling as if everything could actually have happened within just under one and a half hours – even though the murder and the ensuing party take much longer than that, of course.

While making his first work as an executive producer in the United States, the director finally had the chance to take more artistic liberties than before. He immediately used the power to stand up to a version of the screenplay that was only to show the homicide at the end of the film. Even though this resolution would have fit in better with the Hollywood conventions, Alfred Hitchcock’s refusal to accept this option is part of what makes Rope so special. The sequence of events is known from the start, because it’s brought home to us right off the bat.

Everything that follows is a psychological cat-and-mouse game between the two students, who consider themselves more intelligent than everybody else, on the one side and their humorous but cynical teacher on the other side. Family and fiancée of the murdered David morph into extras in a theater of the absurd. Contrary to a regular thriller, our pleasure in viewing Rope doesn’t stem from wishing to detect the killer(s); Alfred Hitchcock has already handed them to us on a silver platter. We’re simply curious about whether, how, and when they’ll finally give themselves away.

That the movie is from 1948 is essential to understanding the chamber piece properly. The play by Patrick Hamilton it’s based on is older, but the superman issue was still very much on the table when Rope was shot. The repercussions of the Nazi terror were still felt, and Alfred Hitchcock had been one of many emigrants to leave Europe during the war. At the time, it was a bold decision to put the question, under which circumstances murder could be morally justified, on the big screen. The director did so by making use of his own peculiar and black sense of humor.

Today, it’s still a gutsy call to discuss that particular matter, for there are still myriads of human beings who tend to feel superior to others for no particular reason. That’s why Rope will last until the 12th of never and will remain an important film in Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work. The fact that the ‘Master of Suspense’ himself had held it back for years, so as to pass it on to his daughter Patricia, might have contributed to its popularity and fascination as well.

Since November 2012, Rope has finally been available in high-definition as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Blu-Ray box set by Universal Pictures.