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Rope (Hitchcock, 1948)




This review contains mild spoilers.

When I'd first watched this nearly eight years ago, I'd very much enjoyed the film as a work of suspense, but observed in a blog post and on a defunct forum that its "depiction of the obviously homosexual killers won’t win any points for political correctness". (Not linking because I will be recycling my other comments heavily. It's not cheating if you copy off your own paper.) At the time an internet compatriot gently rebutted my assertion, offering that the movie's handling of homosexuality was more complex and perhaps even sympathetic than I had claimed. If I recall, he made some pretty interesting points that I said I would chew over on a rewatch, but now after all these years I've finally paid the movie another visit and will concede that he was right. The movie is based on the Leopold and Loeb case and depicts a pair of obviously gay killers (or as obviously as a movie in 1948 could without outright saying it), and while on one level it's obviously a negative role, I think the movie is actually pretty bold in bringing the audience into their perspective.

We see the killers commit the crime and then tidy up the proceedings so they can host a dinner party, with one of them, John Dall, almost daring to get caught and the other, Farley Granger, trying to maintain his nerves. So on that level we're already identifying them, similar to how Hitchcock had us rooting for the killers in Psycho and Frenzy when they tried to erase evidence of their crimes. (Like those movies, there is a sexual charge to the killings, which Dall's character readily admits over dialogue.) Hitchcock has always had a taste for psychopaths, and he aligns our perspective in particular with one played by Dall, the more assertive of the two killers. Dall's character, like many real life serial killers, flaunts his superiority over ordinary people, both through dialogue ("Good and evil, right and wrong, were invented for the ordinary, average man, the inferior man, because he needs them") and by leaving clues in plain sight (the chest containing the victim's body, the rope used to kill him), amusing himself with the likelihood of anyone catching on to his scheme. It helps that Dall and Granger have more dynamic personalities than the boring normies who attend their party.

Of course, someone does catch on: their old teacher played by Jimmy Stewart. Stewart, who exudes a certain wholesome American quality, is perhaps the movie's boldest casting choice, as his presence doesn't so readily read as "gay" despite his character obviously being so. What's even more interesting is the way that Stewart, Dall and Granger navigate the party as outsiders insinuating themselves into the social dynamic in different ways. Dall seems driven by contempt and finds joy in manipulating the other guests. Stewart in contrast is bemused by the banality of the conversation ("The Something of the Something"), but mostly genial, and you can see how he tries to liven up the conversation with his theories on murder and then pivots to dialing things down when it's obvious others are taking offense. I definitely didn't appreciate in my earlier viewing the extent to which Stewart's character carves out a place for his distinct brand of queerness (for lack of a better phrase) within the greater social dynamic.

And this is integral to the movie's success as a thriller, as Stewart, as a gay man, understands the kind of code that Dall and Granger seem to be speaking in, and as a result can pick up clues that would be indecipherable to the straight guests (he immediately picks up the significance of the chest in the middle of the room and presses Granger on his phrasing). Of course, Hitchcock makes this code understandable to the viewer, as he aligns our perspective with these characters and allows the movie to develop almost in real time. The movie is shot with a series of long takes, which sometimes duck a little too obviously behind corners (often the shadows of a character's back) to hide the transitions, but mostly allows Hitchcock to exercise the laser-precise visual storytelling he's known for, with well timed pans and zooms deployed seamlessly within the overall visual style to highlight important moments. (The movie's stage origins are apparent with the use of a single set, but Hitchcock is able to make the proceedings feel almost brazenly "cinematic". He would take a similar approach a few years later with Dial M for Murder, where he shot a movie based on a play in 3D. Unfortunately, I've only ever seen it in two dimensions, so perhaps some of the impact was lost on me.) The movie perhaps fumbles a bit with Stewart's moralizing speech at the end, but Stewart certainly does his best to sell it, and the movie's closing shot, a slow pull back of the camera with a flickering neon light peeking in from one of the windows, is a chef's-kiss-worthy image to close on.