The Daily Stream: 'Rope' Is Alfred Hitchcock's Experimental Masterpiece

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The MovieRope

Where You Can Stream It: Shudder

The Pitch: Two friends Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) strangle their other friend David Kentley (Dick Hogan) with a piece of rope, stuff his corpse into a large chest, and proceed to host a dinner party with their friends and family — all while serving dinner from atop that aforementioned chest. You know, just guys being dudes!

Why It's Essential Viewing: From the outside looking in, the premise of Rope sure sounds like it'd involve a horror-heavy inciting element full of sociopaths, slasher violence, and disturbing imagery...and there's certainly elements of that here. But Alfred Hitchcock takes a far more interesting approach instead, using the lens of a psychological drama to neatly sidestep the clichés of uncontrollable madmen raging with bloodlust.

And speaking of lens, his impeccable use of the camera sets the standard for how to translate a story from the page to the screen as seamlessly as possible. The entire movie is filmed to create the illusion of a single continuous shot, with clever zoom-ins and impossibly precise blocking/framing the only giveaways that one scene has ended and another has begun. Without drawing much (if any) attention to itself, this establishes a steady build-up of tension and dread that affects viewers on a near-subconscious level. As the plot (and our two protagonists) spirals more and more out of control, we become desperate for a traditional cut that would release the weight of the dilemma from our shoulders. But it never comes.

What we get instead is a dialogue-heavy slow-burn that revolves around a central philosophical question: Does anyone have the authority or the right to consider themselves superior to another? Admittedly, this could've run the risk of feeling trite in a dorm room, Philosophy 101 sort of way. The real magic, however, comes from the fact that this moral debate soon morphs into a discussion over something else entirely. Through the inspired use of James Stewart as a snobby intellectualist who treats everything as a matter of debate (this was only two years removed from his iconic performance in It's A Wonderful Life, mind you), Hitchcock highlights the dangers of treating these topics as debate fodder in the first place. Constantly taking the ironic "Devil's advocate" position is not only indulgent and intellectually dishonest, but it can have the very real effect of warping our once-reasonable views beyond all recognition.

If all of this probably makes Rope sound like a preachy lecture, rest assured that it's anything but. Every character's interaction with one another throughout the meat of the story uncovers more layers of backstory and motivation. The two murderers clearly have far less of a stomach for this monstrous act than they'd like to think. Philip can barely hold himself together through the dinner party, while Brandon's outwardly composed manner belies the turmoil and insecurity churning underneath. When Stewart's old professor Rupert Cadell arrives, several conversations soon reveal the unwitting part he had to play in the senseless killing. All this happens almost without us even realizing it, so engrossed are we in the goings-on of their plot to get away with murder.

Alfred Hitchcock has more polished and more ambitious masterworks under his belt, but Rope is the simple, bare-bones, yet incredibly potent film I keep coming back to. Rarely has murder been captured as unflinchingly as it is here, with Hitchcock tapping into all of our collective self-indulgence to create an unforgettable drama.