The Famous Hitchcock Role That Took Its Toll On Jimmy Stewart

Jimmy Stewart starred in four Alfred Hitchcock films. The first was the most difficult to shoot, and it almost proved to be a hurdle to the classics that would follow. In Hitchcock's 1948 thriller "Rope," the director continued his experiments in filming the action in a single setting — something he had begun in 1944 with "Lifeboat" and would carry further in 1954 with the one-two punch of "Dial 'M' for Murder" and "Rear Window." The plot of "Rope" involves two murder accomplices, played by John Gall and Farley Granger, who host a dinner party in a room with a dead body hidden in a trunk.

"Rope" may not have been Hitchcock and Stewart's only foray into the fascinating realm of single-location movies, but it came with an added catch in that it employed the conceit of unfolding in real time. Hitchcock filmed "Rope" in long takes and edited it together so that it looked like it was all done in a single shot. For example, as one reel ends, the shot settles on the back of a man's suit to hide the cut. There were only so many times Hitchcock could get away with camera tricks like this, however, so the majority of the film plays out as if you're watching actors give a theater performance live on stage.

In "Rope," Stewart and his co-stars often have the camera right up in their faces, following them around everywhere. That put enormous pressure on the cast since "Rope" is a dialogue-heavy film. If they flubbed any of their lines, it would throw off the entire long take.

'You should've built bleachers around it'

"Rope" and Jimmy Stewart's other collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock were unavailable to view for many years, but after the director died in 1980, they began to see the light of day again. In a 1983 New York Times article spotlighting their rerelease at the New York Film Festival, Stewart, then 75, acknowledged that "Rope" was the most difficult film he ever made with Hitchcock. He even joked that Hitchcock should have charged people to see it as a spectator sport or form of theater while they were filming it. Here's how he described the production process:

"It was the craziest, most difficult thing, it was completely new. Making it was so complicated that when I finished the picture I was talking to Hitch and I said 'You know, I think you missed the boat a little with this one-set thing. You should've built bleachers around it and soaked them five, ten bucks to watch us do this.'

"The last time I saw 'Rope,' maybe it was just my imagination but as the end of the reel came closer and closer I was conscious of everyone's getting sort of glassy-eyed. All of us were thinking, 'Oh God, don't let me go up on my lines now. If I do we'll have to go back and do the whole thing again.' "

Despite these challenges and the physical toll that shooting "Rope" took on them, Stewart and the other actors rose to the occasion, with only one or two flubs occurring. The next time you watch "Rope," just remember that the actors were in their own real-life Hitchcock thriller in which one misstep could lead to a forced redo of a whole scene.