Rope (1948)
Universal Home Video
Cast: James Stewart, Dick Hogan, Joan Chandler, John Dall
Extras: ’Rope Unleashed’ Documentary, Still Gallery, Cast & Crew Filmographies, Production Notes, Theatrical Trailer

Released in 1948, Alfred Hitchcock’s ’Rope’ was something of a critical and commercial flop and is viewed to this day as being little more than a forgettable ’gimmick’ film. But, in my mind, ’Rope’ has always stood out as one of the great director’s most ambitious films — both thematically and stylistically.

’Rope’ opens with quite a shock as the viewer bears witness to the strangulation murder of David Kentley (Dick Hogan) by his school chums Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger). Viewing themselves as superior übermen, they celebrate their crime by hosting a dinner party in which the victim’s parents and fiancee are invited to partake of a lavish buffet placed atop the very trunk that holds Kentley’s dead body. Rounding out the special guests is their former prep school mentor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) whose Nietzschean philosophical teachings the pair have taken to heart and twisted into an excuse for cold-blooded murder.

Hitchcock often explored the dark side of upper-crust society and ’Rope’ follows that trend. Here we have two wealthy playboys who are free to carry out their dark scheme, and even rationalize it, since they have no real world concerns to distract them. But the aspect of this film that was most controversial at the time and was, in fact, censored to the point of only vague innuendo is the homosexual relationship between the two killers and, perhaps, their mentor. This same topic would once again be explored by Hitchcock a few years later in ’Strangers on a Train’ where it would once again be censored almost out of existence. This underlying homosexual theme came to be known as "It" and, while everyone was well aware that "It" formed a major component of the original play, "It" was never mentioned during filming.

Patterned after Patrick Hamilton’s stage play, ’Rope’s End,’ the film attempted to replicate the feel of the original production by using one small set, unfolding the events chronologically and in real-time, and appearing as if it was filmed in one, continuous take (a technical impossibility given the ten minutes of photography allowed by a reel of film at the time). The results of this unique style are somewhat hit and miss, lending ammunition to those who claim that ’Rope’ was nothing more than just another technological stunt by Hitchcock. But this seamless style actually serves to draw the viewer into the story and never once gives them the chance to stop and catch their breath. Sure, some of the hidden cuts are quite obvious and the use of this technique seems labored at times but you have to give Hitchcock credit for trying a new method that he felt would effectively translate a dramatic play to the silver screen. In later years he himself admitted that it didn’t really work all that well but even a Hitchcock failure is far better than many director’s greatest successes.

’Rope’ is presented on DVD in its original <$PS,full frame> aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Bearing in mind the vintage of this film, the original elements appear to have been in decent shape. There are certainly a fair number of nicks and blemishes but, on the whole, the condition of the print is quite good. Film grain is evident but never too distracting and the use of edge enhancement is mercifully restrained as well. Colors are somewhat faded and have a tendency to flicker while black levels never get much beyond dark gray. That being said, I found ’Rope’ to be visually more than acceptable with no glaring imperfections.

The audio is presented in English, French, and Spanish mono mixes that are split between the two front speakers. Given the age of the film the lack of dynamic range shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. There is also some faint audio distortion and hiss but this dialogue-driven soundtrack is quite audible and easily understood.

Now on to the extras. As a Universal Hitchcock release you know that you’re in for yet another excellent documentary by Laurent Bouzereau and ’Rope Unleashed’ doesn’t disappoint. Featuring interviews with screenwriter Arthur Laurents, Hitchcock’s daughter Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, writer, and frequent actor in Hitchcock’s early films, Hume Cronyn, and actor Farley Granger, the 30-minute documentary focuses on the controversy that surrounded the film and its unique production difficulties. ’Rope Unleashed’ makes it very clear that the Production Code prohibitions against any homosexual content or innuendo greatly weakened the original story. In addition, the many behind-the-scenes snippets shed light on how Hitchcock was able to make ’Rope’ appear to be one continuous take through the use of clever cutaways and hidden scene transitions. All in all another fine effort from Mr. Bouzereau.

Rounding out the extras are a number of production photos, a few pages of production notes, cast and crew bios and filmographies, and a fairly beat-up theatrical trailer.

’Rope’ would certainly never be ranked in the same class as Alfred Hitchcock’s best works but, as something of an experiment on the part of the director, it remains a very interesting film on a number of levels. For viewers who have never seen the movie this is one case in which they might be best served by watching the documentary before the feature. Knowing the controversial storyline and stylistic choices beforehand enables the viewer to actively watch for the hidden clues and cutaways that would otherwise likely go unnoticed. Since the film itself isn’t a true mystery (showing the murder right off the bat kind of lessens the suspense!) there aren’t really any spoilers revealed that would lessen the enjoyment of the movie.

Universal’s new DVD offers up a fine enough presentation of ’Rope’ and the Laurent Bouzereau documentary more than makes up for any minor quibbles with the audio and video. The film itself is highly recommended as is the DVD.