Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is an unusual film in being remembered largely for being an unusual film. More or less a feature length technical experiment produced to give the illusion of a film unfolding without a cut, it otherwise is a straightforward crime drama of obviously theatrical origin. Its reputation probably results in part from being unavailable for viewing for a long time. (When I was in film school, for example, we could see it only because UCLA happened to have a 16mm print.) Once widely available on home video, the film’s aura lost much, but not all of its luster.
Hitchcock was fighting one of the few absolutes in film making. Prior to the development of high resolution video, it was impossible for a movie shot to last longer than the storage capacity of the camera magazine, that is, about ten minutes. This limitation was not usually an issue, since most films (certainly Hitchcock’s) tell stories in short segments edited together. An alternative approach, in which directors challenged themselves and their collaborators by playing out scenes without cuts, still faced that upper limit. Rope does not overcome that limitation so much as evade it by creating the illusion of an uninterrupted take. At the end of a shot, the camera moves into the backs of actors, then the next reel starts from the same position. (There are a few regular cuts in addition to the reel changes.) To anyone other than a filmmaker, the goal is probably as abstract as the results are bewildering.
There are some compensations. Based loosely on the Leopold and Loeb case, the director’s signature suspense shifts from wondering how the murder story will turn out to anticipating the next reel change. There’s a headline précis of Nietzschean superman theory if that is your cup of tea and the Technicolor cinematography has a pastel mint prettiness. No one would mistake the actors’ histrionics as anything close to real life, but they remain entertaining. There is even a bit of reflexive humor when the characters talk about going to a movie that sounds suspiciously like Hitchcock’s Notorious. With the film making technique so obvious and central, the director seems almost to be winking and asking us to look for the reel changes.
It is therefore tempting to dismiss Rope as little more than a formalist exercise, but for that very reason, it offers something of value: the unusual experience of a glossy Hollywood feature in which primary emphasis is not on storytelling, but on the way the story is told. Only a director as commercially successful as Hitchcock would have been entrusted with such experimentation, but the larger point is the chance he was given to expand expressive options. Indeed, given the state of the technologies at the time, the feat could probably have been pulled off only in Hollywood. Thus Rope continues to fascinate as the rare Hollywood film dissatisfied with limits.