Rope Written by Arthur Laurents
An ongoing question in academia is on the subject of whether Rope is film or a play. It’s still a motion picture, as that’s the medium. A performance of classical theatre performed on the West End beaming into nationwide cinemas is also a motion picture for those not watching on the West End or Broadway. But the difference there is that a live-screening isn’t considered to constitute a “film” in the industry, despite it being shown at least once on a wide release.
But there is one fundamental difference between film and theatre – the medium of film is telling a story with images, but theatre is about the art and potential of what can be created, conjured and told within a proscenium arch. Unless the performance is using a thrust stage, which allows room for the actors and audience to come close together. Rope is trying to be film as theatre, (whereas a live-screening would be theatre as film), but theatre had already been adapted into television using live editing with multiple cameras and a mixing desk. That Rope attempts to tell the story in an unbroken, moving take is undeniably an experiment, even to its harshest critics.
Rope‘s found a way to combine the two mediums and the result is something which is deceptive in its intrigue. The premise – two students of the Nietzsche theory strangling another and inviting his associates to dinner around the chest where his body’s being hidden – might be carried-over from the original play the film adapts, but is still an idea worthy of film adaptation – as Hitchcock proves, by attempting to find the happy medium between them; the camera constantly hanging-over the characters is the tension present throughout, like their own guilt following them, and makes the single intentional cut all the more effective. And by setting Rope in one room, the film relies on the actors to make it work. Modern film acting doesn’t demand as high standards as it did during Rope‘s day, partially because it’s much easier to skip stage acting and cut straight to a film career.
It’s not a coincidence that actors cast from stage are often much more convincing than those that aren’t. And Rope is full of them, the best being without a doubt James “Jimmy” Stewart. Not only does he know how to exploit his wobbly accent to mask his characters’ motives, but his delivery is the most naturalistic of any actor that I must have ever seen. He takes just the right amount of pauses of just the right length, and manipulates the intensity of his voice to create – in any role – the most believable character in any of his films.
And here, we see a fearful curiosity and and an outraged fear develop through the course of Rope, and sometimes interchangeably. Which is not to say that John Dall and Farley Granger as Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan aren’t also highlights – they are, and combined with Stewart are maybe the most electric film trio ever to grace the silver screen. And that’s what Rope has going for it – yes, the transitions are obvious, and the editing is noticeable when it shouldn’t be, but all of that becomes just a technique when the actors have the capacity to act professionally and effortlessly regardless. This is not a film for cinematography, nor is it a film for story.
But it is a film for acting. Only on this occasion, Rope – with a stellar cast, particularly Stewart – makes that excusable.