Almost seventy years before “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” won Best Picture for the sustained illusion of being filmed in one continuous shot, Alfred Hitchcock conducted a very similar, equally shticky, though far-more-compelling cinematic experiment with his 1948 film “Rope.”
Based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb case, “Rope” is a peculiar and brisk suspense thriller dressed up as a situational comedy, shot to seem as if it is one long take. Where “Birdman” maintains a dreamlike cohesion through the use of computer effects and exhibitionistic camera movements, “Rope,” with only 10 cuts, does much more with considerably less technological advancement by simply panning to and tracking in on an object and then using match cut to maintain the one-take illusion.
The film begins after two effete Ivy League-ers, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger), have finished killing their friend David by strangling him with a rope. In the tradition of the coded gay subtext Hitchcock employed in “Strangers On A Train” and “Rebecca,” the very act of murder here is presented more like an afternoon-delight quickie—immediately followed by the need to smoke a cigarette and conflicting emotions from the two collaborators. Next, Brandon and Phillip proceed to set up a dinner party around their dead friend’s corpse, hidden in a chest they intend to serve hors d’oeuvres over.
What follows is a morbid comedy of errors, as the deceased’s girlfriend, father, aunt, best friend, and former prep-school teacher fill up the apartment and openly question the whereabouts of the missing victim, leading to a nonstop barrage of twisted double entendres and winking lines of dialogue about the perfect crime that has been committed. And as it feels less and less likely they’ll be caught or found out, it seems as though Dall will turn to the camera, wink, and begin singing about asphyxiation to the tune of The Lonely Island’s ‘I Just Had Sex.’ Contrasting Dall’s flamboyant and self-satisfied glee is Farley Granger’s performance as Phillip, the co-conspirator who drowns his guilt in brandy, nervously fidgets across the frame, and is expected to seriously deliver dialogue like “I’ve never strangled a chicken!” with a straight face.
But it’s that line, and the reaction of their old headmaster (James Stewart), that reignites the suspense. Stewart doesn’t quite match his turn in “Vertigo” for against-type intrigue, but his turn as a surly, misanthropic intellectual who slowly realizes two of his students have taken his teachings too far is one of his finest performances. Stewart begins a game of cat and mouse in a single room and pieces together the inconsistencies and innuendo and it splits the film into two movies: one, an uncomfortable farce, the other, a taut crime drama, both unfolding in the same frame, at the same time, with a stalking camera weaving in between the guests and the perpetrators.