A review requested by Hunter Allen, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

No less an expert on the films of Alfred Hitchcock than Alfred Hitcock himself once described his 1948 feature Rope as "an experiment that didn't work out", and who am I to disagree with Alfred Hitchcock? Indeed, Rope is a distinctly malformed finished product, and while its fearless attempt to do something new makes it one of Hitchcock's most interesting movies, I can't pretend to regard it as anywhere near his best. Even so, Hitchcock on a off day was still one of the best directors of thrillers to ever set foot in Hollywood, and the parts of Rope that do work are simply great.

What the experiment in question was, if you've not seen Rope (notwithstanding the reservations I have with it, I think it's the case that everybody should see the film, as it is one of the few bravura formal experiments financed on studio money, and a key film in Hitchcock's career for quite a few reasons), is long takes. Not just any long takes, either, but long takes stitched together as well as could be managed with 1948 technology to give the illusion of a real-time film that almost never cuts. "Almost", I say, because the film's reputation for completely simulating one single take is actually untrue. In fact, Rope's editing pattern follows a very clear structure on that point. The 80-minute movie takes place over the course of eleven individual shots (the first of these is almost entirely given to the opening credits. That means that there are ten cuts, and they alternate: the first cut (from a high-angle location shot of a city street to the interior apartment where the rest of the film takes place) is obvious, the second cut is "hidden", the third cut is obvious, and so on. I really cannot say why, exactly, this is the pattern the direct decided to pursue, though each of the obvious cuts comes at a point where a little bit of punctuation makes sense; the best of all comes when a very panicky murderer, convinced that everybody is onto him, screams "That's a lie!" and the film's continuity snaps, perfectly accentuating the violence and strain of that moment.

Regardless, Rope takes place in real time - or rather, an accelerated version of real time where sunset lasts for about 15 minutes, but the effect is so good that I'm not inclined to complain - over the course of one afternoon in Manhattan. Two men, Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) kick things off by killing a third, their prep school buddy David Kentley (Dick Hogan), by strangling him to death with a length of rope a couple of feet long. We see David just in the moment that his body goes slack and he dies, a moment that I can't help but assume was fucking crazy shit in '48, when violence was usually a bit more circumspect. After that, Brandon and Philip have a conversation breaking down their feelings about the killing they just perpetrated, and there's really no word for it other than "post-coital". Brandon even has to take a drag from a cigarette to calm down his fast breathing and trembling body.

Brandon and Philip, you see, are lovers, a fact that Rope can't foreground, but oh my goodness, does it ever drop hints. And Hitchcock being Hitchcock, "gay" inherently and necessarily means "psychopathic", so when the two of them talk about the excitement and release of killing David, how his murder climaxed with his body going limp, it's about as close to one man telling another "thank you for the orgasm I just had" as will ever be found in a film made under the auspices of the Hayes Code. In this case, I think it's not gossipy to point out that Dall was gay, Granger was bisexual, and at the time of Rope's production, Granger was sleeping with the film's screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, and that the three of them spent some time workshopping ways to make the homoerotic undercurrents as close to overt as could possibly be managed.

I will be honest and say that, for all the immutable gayness of Rope, I'm not really sure what the benefit is. It's based on a 1929 play inspired by the then-recent Leopold & Loeb case, in which a pair of prodigiously intelligent Chicago undergraduates and lovers kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy to prove that they could carry out the perfect murder, but the fact of Leopold & Loeb's homosexuality doesn't inherently demand Brandon and Philip to share it. Still, the erotic charge that carries through the whole film is as intense as any in Hitchcock's career: smuding the line between sex and violence was one of the key themes of his filmography. Seeing one of the most amoral killers the director ever presented as half of a tender romantic relationship, however sotto voce the depiction of that relationship had to be, is appropriately perverse.

But let us return to the story. Brandon and Philip (mostly Brandon) killed David not out of malice, but as a means of putting into practice the icily amoral philosophy the three of them had learned at the fit of their beloved prep school teacher, Rupert Cadell, who suggested that the murder of intellectual inferiors by the truly exceptional, sophisticated, and intelligent could only be regarded as an artistic act, not a moral crime. Brandon's sense of artistry is damn near as perverse as Hitchcock's: he's arranged the murder to take place on the same day as a dinner party for several of David's friends and family; he even sets up the buffet on the large trunk that now houses David's body. And so begins a real-time exercise in watching the killers flaunt their crime right in the face of a whole bunch of people: housekeeper/cook Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson), David's friend Kenneth (Douglas Dick), David's girlfriend (and Kenneth's ex) Janet (Joan Chandler), David's father (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt (Constance Collier), and Rupert Cadell in the flesh (James Stewart). The last of these is Brandon's true audience; throughout the very weird night, he keeps doling out half-clues that Rupert might be able to use to figure out what's going on, working on the assumption that his former mentor (and, possibly, former lover, though it is hidden very deep in subtext; Laurents claimed later that Stewart never even knew he was playing a gay character, which arguably means that he wasn't - certainly, nothing in the performance backs it up even remotely) will look kindly on this proof in action of his dearly-held amoral philosophy.

There are multiple explanations for why this story deserved to be told in real-time and using stitched-together long-takes.The most charitable is that, the longer we spend in the vicinity of David's ad hoc coffin, and the more it flits around the edges of frame, the more convinced we become that somebody's bound to look inside of it. A feature-length expression of the old "bomb under the table" bit, in other words. The least charitable explanation (offered by Hitchcock himself, though I am sure he was being sarcastic) is that the director was bored of Rope from the start and had to do something to give himself a challenge on set. Both of these could be true - the payoff to the long takes is absolutely the escalation of tension, and the sloppiness and gooey pacing are probably the result of a director who didn't really buy into the scenario he was working from. But for right now, let's stick with the positive stuff. There are places in Rope where the rising tension is as taut as anywhere else in Hitchcock, and more insidious by far, given that this is one of the very few films where he pushes us to root for the villains. I frankly have no clue how he did it. I cant imagine anybody liking Brandon and Philip - the later is just a neurotic wet noodle, the former is a repulsive egotist whose every utterance is a smug, bastardly jab - even when he's trying to be nice to his boyfriend, it comes off as smarmy and controlling. None of this, I think, is an accident, and in fact Dall is far and away the actor whose work in the film impresses me the most: his embodiment of the rich sociopath's sense of pure self-confidence and old money breeding are wonderfully on-point.

And yet, there's a magnetic pull in the movie, making it impossible not to hope, a little bit, that they get away with it. The first time they almost leave the rope in plain sight, hanging out of the trunk, is a real heart-stopper, and the film's best sequence is an extended moment after dinner, with the partygoers sitting away from the trunk, prattling on about the same intelligentsia fodder they've been discussing all throughout, with the camera pointing away from all of them. Instead, we're looking down the length of the trunk, into the hallway, while Mrs. Wilson methodically clears all of the decor and dining ware. It's a merciless ticking clock: when will she finally open the trunk? How will Brandon stop her? Will he stop her? And it puts us in the altogether horrible position of hoping that the killers will get away with it, at least for this moment. Possibly, this is just Hitchcock exploiting the sympathetic reflex in cinema: wind the audience up with the right stimulus, and you can get them to align their POV with anybody. Whatever it is, it makes for a gripping experience in the moments that this version of Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, comes to play. For this is not the only such moment, though it is the best.

I'm also partial to the film's morbid sense of humor, another directorial hallmark. There's the peerless visual gag of Brandon insouciantly dropping the rope into a kitchen drawer, his actions punctuated by the perfectly-timed swing of a door; it's hilarious and creepy in perfect harmony. Also, while the film certainly doesn't ask us to agree with the murderous aesthete Brandon and the moral nihilist Rupert, it gives both of them some phenomenal digs at the other characters. Stewart's utterly charmless jabs at the taste of his dining companions is note-perfect: "I once went to movies. I saw Mary Pickford" has no right to be as funny as Stewart makes it.

Throughout, the film boasts plenty of touches that only a great director carefully marshaling his crew could achieve: cinematographers Joseph A. Valentine and William A. Skall (the latter in charge of the Technicolor process used on set) and Hitchcock lay out a very carefully-designed series of sinewy - rope-like, even - camera movements through as much of the three-quarters space as could be arranged, gliding in and out from objects, characters, and actions in a neat simulation of the editing Hitchcock was denying himself. It's quite an exceptional set they're exploring, too: the panorama of the New York skyline that fills the biggest wall of the only room where the film takes place is a breathtaking model, with a color-changing sky that exactly matches the sense of encroaching doom as the sun starts to go down, halfway through the movie. The best part, maybe, is when Rupert lays out his theory for how the young men might have staged a killing, and the camera follows his narration to explore the now-empty apartment; it's a beautifully predatory sequence, slithering around the place like a python.

So with all that in mind, what's the problem? Frankly, the "pretend single take" gimmick really doesn't end up working. For every unfathomably effective moment like the scene of Mrs. Wilson clearing the trunk, there are plenty of counterbalancing places where the director was obviously forced into a bad decision just to maintain the integrity of the aesthetic. To cut between "continuous" shots, the usual technique (four times out of five) is to move the camera behind someone's back, letting them fill the frame with black, and then having them step away. This works tolerably well when the camera and characters are all in constant movement, but in one instance, the shot has been static for quite a while, absorbing the characters' conversation, until it very obviously and for no proper reason pivots and dives at Dall's back, because they'd have run out of film otherwise. Or a different example: at a certain point, Rupert and Philip are talking, and it becomes necessary for Philip to spot a stack of books Mr. Kentley is carrying. The best Hitchcock could do was to have the camera drop down and to the left as Kentley walks into the shot, and have Hardwicke turn to present his body and the books to the camera. It's a moment that cries out for one of the director's characteristic cutaway shots, but instead, it's the most gratuitous moment of many in which the action is staged towards the fourth wall. No matter how elegantly the camera is used inside the space, there's always an unlikable theatrical quality to the staging, everybody angling to the audience, treating the set as a proscenium. This was the second of three films in which Hitchcock used just one location for an entire feature, between 1944's Lifeboat and 1954's Rear Window; it is certainly the one that has the hardest time breaking away from a theatrical style, and I can't help but suppose that the devotion to the long-take aesthetic was a major reason why.

Moreover, Rope has a lack of many good performances. Dall is sublime, but he's alone in that respect: Stewart (who spoke disparagingly of this performance later in life), is tangibly miscast as a snobbish amoral philosopher, lacking any of the chilly upper-class detachment written into every single character in the script. Granger's neurotic flightiness lacks any nuance; he only has the modes "slightly nervous" and "yammering and hollering like a lunatic", and it's hard to believe that nobody has figured out his Dark Secret by the halfway point. The rest of the cast are mostly just window dressing, but Chandler is a special breed of terrible: she was a founding member of the Actor's Studio and a mainstay of Serious Theater, but in this film, at least (one of a tiny handful she ever made), she spits out her lines with brittle, mechanical archness.

There's also the matter of its themes. On paper, the questions of moral behavior Rope raises are intriguing, though the film has no real debate: mostly just a mixture of vile people using complex arguments, silly people being made fun of, and Mr. Kentley failing to mount a proper counter-argument beyond, "well this is very tasteless". The two scenes where the film stops to let Brandon and Rupert expound upon their philosophies murder the film's momentum, and one of these is the final scene! It rivals the tedious psychiatrist scene in Psycho as the most deflating finale in all of Hitchcock, with the added flaw that Rupert undergoes a moral shift so profound, sudden, and unlikely, that the only way it could be even a little bit acceptable as drama is if we're meant to assume the film is mocking him as a hypocrite.

Not that philosophical discussions can't be exciting, and the context of the immediate post-war years gives the debate about whether certain people are inherently inferior and thus less deserving of life resonances that it could never have had before the war, or years after (Hitler is name-dropped, which annoyingly makes this all more explicit than suggestive). Such discussions are not, however, a natural fit for a tense cat-and-cat thriller, least of all one beholden to a real-time structure that's uniquely sensitive to fluctuations in pacing. Frankly, Rope gets boring at places it really had oughtn't, and independent of any other concern, the dinnertime chat about morality is so strained, with Stewart in such an unpersuasive faux-witty mode, that it would be sufficient by itself for me to declare this no better than second-tier Hitchcock.

I wish that weren't the case; there's much to love. The film uses slow burns and empty frames like nobody's business - at one point, we watch a door for several draining seconds before a gun is thrust into frame, and I love it to pieces. The well-developed sense of space means that there's no end to the permutations of who is looking and looming at whom else. There's an expressionist blast of color right at the moment that Rupert solves the mystery, and it adds a sense of otherworldliness to the obscene crime scene. There are even some teeny little details like the way the camera moves much closer to the action during the last hidden cut, so that we can be knocked for a loop by an unexpected Jimmy Stewart close-up. This is, without question, a film made by a singularly talented director with extremely clear designs for the film and a very minutely worked-out motivation for every choice that went into producing it. It's just that a lot of those choices didn't pan out, and the script needed both one more pass to clear out the thematic clutter, and more actors who could handle the heightened abstractions baked into the character's speeches. Rope is a compromised film, but the greatness trying to fight its way out of the formal straitjacket that Hitch imposed on the material is what sticks around in the mind, much moreso than the clumpy bits.