Stepping back a year to 1948 there is one more film which must be talked about when looking at the work of Jimmy Stewart. Rope was the first of several Hitchcock films in which Jimmy Stewart would star. It was also Hitchcock’s first Technicolor film. The film also starred John Dall and Farley Granger. Set in the current time (1948) the film featured new techniques and a film style unseen up to that point.
Rope is the built on the idea that someone could commit the perfect murder. When two friends, Brandon (Dall) and Phillip (Granger) decide that their friend David is intellectually weaker he becomes their target. They strangle him in their own home and prepare to host a party of David and their mutual friends. As the guests arrive the topic of conversation constantly drifts back to David who hasn’t arrived as planned. One of the guests is the college professor Rupert Cadell (Stewart) who has begun to see something is wrong as Phillip begins to show signs of morose and fear. Brandon, on the other hand, is working with confidence and a dangerous bravado. As Rupert studies the two and the setting they’re in he sees signs that could lead him to discover the truth.
This is an amazing film. Today it is found on many lists of top films. In its day it was seen as an experiment that failed. In the wake of the real-life Leopold and Loeb trial this film might have been poorly planned. Some people found it distasteful and eerily similar to the case. I think that a major aspect of this poor press was the style in which the story was told. Before this film, American audiences had been watching murder mysteries where the film focused in on “who dunnit”. Now they were faced with the knowledge of who the killer was and left with the question of whether or not they would be discovered.
The Technicolor process had been in its infancy when the film was made and today we’re likely getting to see the film as intended while viewers in its time did not. The color range used by Hitchcock was a range of muted blues, grays, and browns which set the mood perfectly. The film was also shot in long continuous takes with little editing done. These takes, some of which were over 10 minutes long, add to the drama as the tension builds throughout the film.
Another key to this film is that it was shot entirely in one set. The walls were on rollers to make way for the larger technicolor camera and the film uses very little space to tell the story. During filming the walls were silently moved and replaced as they came back into the picture. Furniture was also constantly being moved by prop men throughout the film.
Another major feat was the massive cyclorama used to display the skyline outside the apartment. At the time it was the biggest ever used in a soundstage and included models of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building as well. Attention to detail was important too. During the film the clouds outside the window change shape and position several times. The lights in the buildings outside turn off and on as well. The attention to detail is amazing to see.
Jimmy Stewart was amazing in this film. Hitchcock might have brought out more talent in Stewart than anyone had before. It could also be said that Stewart was good for Hitchcock who would use him later in such films as Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much. The acting by John Dall and Farley Granger was also done wonderfully. The two played off one another with great skill in this intense psychological drama.
Today we’re able to appreciate a film that was not appreciated in its day. Now it resides at #232 on IMDB’s list of the top 250 films. Despite this new appreciation the film is still a critical controversy for some. Roger Ebert called Rope “an experiment that didn’t work out”, and he was happy to see it kept out of release for most of three decades, but went on to say that “‘Rope’ remains one of the most interesting experiments ever attempted by a major director working with big box-office names, and it’s worth seeing.
This film would be the start of a Hollywood partnership that would make some of the best suspense films of its time. Stewart and Hitchcock would create films that would stand the test of time.
Screenwriter Arthur Laurents pointed out that Stewart may not have been the best casting choice here. There is supposed to be an underlying sexual tension between the teacher and the two young men that you aren’t going to get from “Boy Scout” Stewart that you could have at least imagined from the casting of someone like James Mason.
That’s an interesting take on this one. I can see the argument, but Stewart played it nicely.