On DVD: Hitchcock's 'Rope' a Real-Time Classic

88 Minutes is the latest feature from Pacino, and I'm hoping (perhaps in vain) that it's not the type of product we should expect in the future from the former Godfather because it isn't pretty. Many people have asked me if the film is shot in real-time. It isn't.

Some people are let down by this, but I'm not. Most movies that use real-time just flat-out stink. I love Johnny Depp and I love Christopher Walken. But they still weren't enough to overcome Nick of Time's dullness. Time Code was Mike Figgis's four-screen experiment that is only worth watching if you're a Salma Hayek voyeur. Russian Ark is beautifully and painstakingly shot and is the perfect antidote to insomnia.

Don't fret, though. There's at least one real-time movie that's well worth your time. It's Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 suspense thriller Rope, and it's one of Hitchcock's unsung masterworks.

When I was a kid my parents took me to Universal Studios and I went to see the Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies attraction. I loved it. Now you know whenever you walk out of one of these theme park attractions they conveniently place a store around the exit. A video caught my eye and I begged my parents to buy me a cool-looking VHS called Rope. It remains one of my favorite Hitchcock films to this day and, of course, it's shot in real-time. As time unfolds in the film, it also does so for the viewer.

Rope presents itself as a film shot entirely in one take. If you aren't paying close attention the first go-around, you'd probably think it was, for Hitchcock had some very cool tricks on display to give this illusion. The movie is, in fact, shot in 10 different takes and that's only because the master director was forced to change the reels.

Jimmy Stewart is the star, though he doesn't appear until well into the first act of the film. We are first introduced to Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger), two elitist former students of Stewart's. They have planned what they believe is the perfect murder, strangling an acquaintance, David, and stuffing him inside a chest. Their motive is not personal, really -- it's more aesthetic and cold. What's more is they planned a dinner party in the victim's honor, with the death chest doubling as the buffet table. As the guests (which include the victim's parents and girlfriend) inquire about David's absence, Brandon is smug and proud while Phillip becomes shaken with guilt and paranoia.

Yet the real guest of honor is Stewart, who senses something is amiss. As he plays cat-and-mouse with Brandon, Hitchcock increases the tension by giving the film the appearance of a one-shot. The result is a film that plays more like a play than a film. He hides the film's cuts with moments of blackness, whether the camera is blocked by an open door or the black suit of a dinner guest. Shrewd viewers will be able to pick these camouflaged cuts apart, but it's much more fun to let the film wash over you the first time. The suspense simmers and then boils to a satisfying result of moral outrage. This is Jimmy Stewart and Hitchcock at their best.


Editor's note:

Rope is available on DVD as part of Universal's "Hitchcock Collection" series and in a "Masterpiece" edition also from Universal. The highlight extra on both DVD editions is the documentary Rope Unleashed, produced by Hitchcock historian Laurent Bouzereau. Rope Unleashed is one of the best "making of" featurettes in the series. Hume Cronyn, Arthur Laurents, Farley Granger, and Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia O'Connell Hitchcock, let us in on what went into the development of the screenplay, its unique production difficulties, the controversy affecting the film's would-be homosexual content, and what it was like working alongside "Hitch."

Also included are production photos and notes, cast and crew info, and Rope's original theatrical trailer -- which in Hitchcockian fashion plays a prank on its audience and gave the poor actor playing David a better reason to come to work that day.