This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series James Stewart Weekend

Released: 1948
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: James Stewart

A real horror story – when rich boys play games with the lives of others

For me, and I think for many people, James Stewart was at his most endearing when playing the everyman. The characters that come to mind are those who are slightly bumbling and naïve but certainly kind and considerate. George Bailey, Jefferson Smith and Elwood P. Dowd are probably my favourite Stewart characters but it’s a mistake to assume he could only play that kind of role. Some of his greatest performances come in roles which break out from that stereotype – in Westerns and in classic Hitchcock films Vertigo, Rear Window and the story of two young men who commit murder as an intellectual challenge, Rope.

ropeThe film starts with a scream as Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, (played by John Dall and Farley Granger), kill their intellectually inferior friend David as an exercise in committing the perfect murder. While their victim lies dead in a chest the pair host a dinner party with guests including the victim’s father, aunt, girlfriend and their former teacher Rupert Cadell (Stewart). As the dinner party progresses, Cadell becomes more suspicious about David’s absence and the strange behaviour of both Shaw and Morgan.

Based in part on the true life case of Leopold and Loeb, students who murdered a 14 year old boy in order to satisfy their own desire to commit the perfect crime this is a fascinating and audacious film. The subject matter is truly horrific – forget your Saws and your 28 Days Later, this is the kind of film that really scares me. The smooth, well-bred young men who choose to kill someone just because they aren’t clever enough to live in their ideal world. That’s the kind of Nietzschean ideology that will give me nightmares.

This was Hitchcock’s first colour film and the film took place in (almost) real time, the dinner party was slightly truncated. He used a series of long scenes with very few cuts and the film scans almost like one long cut. The tightly controlled setting and timeframe and lack of quick cuts gives the film a claustrophobic and danger-filled atmosphere. Hitchcock understands that there is as much power in what is unseen as in what is seen. David’s mother’s anxiety is palpable even though she is only ever at the end of the phone line and is never heard and for the viewer, who knows David’s fate, this is heartbreaking to witness.

The three leads are all fabulous but actually my favourite performance isn’t from James Stewart but John Dall as Brandon Shaw. He is cold, ruthless and chilling as the instigator of David’s murder and the one who enjoys the unfolding evening and tormenting his father, knowing that David is lying dead in the room. James Stewart is also excellent. His dawning realisation that his teachings have inspired a murder is wonderful to behold. There’s not a hint of “aw shucks” here. Stewart isn’t playing the everyman but an intelligent, wise but arrogant and flawed character and he does it brilliantly.

Rope is brilliantly made, tightly acted and terrifying in its concept. Without a doubt one of both Hitchcock and Stewart’s best films.

Previous and next posts in this series:<< Mr Smith Goes To WashingtonTop Ten: James Stewart Films >>
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