A Cocktail for the Corpse


“Well, the Davids of this world merely occupy space…”

1) In honour of Hitchcock’s experiment in long-take technique, ROPE, I was going to write this post in one very very long sentence, but then in view of the fact that Hitch begins the film with a blatant cut right after the credits, and features two more in the course of the action which he doesn’t bother to cover up by having actors block the camera with their jackets, I thought, “Why bother?” — although I did also wonder why Hitch had gone to all the trouble of shooting in that style and talking it up as a big experiment and then copped out in those few instances: I mean it’s not as if the idea was totally unsound (photographing a play in real time in a continuous flow of action, as it would be experienced by a theatre audience) or as if he wasn’t very close to achieving it — I even wondered if the second and third cuts were the result of problems in hiding the cuts at the reel changes, but dismissed this idea as improbable… at any rate, I decided to compose my piece in nine or ten long sentences, like Hitchcock’s (more or less) ten long shots.


“I never strangled a chicken in my life!”

2) Room perhaps for a digression (Already?) — in the recent BBC series Psychoville, a macabre comedy written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton of The League of Gentlemen, one episode was given over to a single-take experiment in the ROPE vein, using DePalma-style digital trickery to hide a cut or two in a subtler manner than Hitchcock was able to achieve (and I’ve often wondered why he couldn’t have had somebody pass briskly across the lens from side to side, or zip-panned around the room to hide a cut in a much more unobtrusive way), and playing on the audience’s familiarity with the original in some cunning and amusing ways,  as well as exploiting the fact that suspense plays and bedroom farces share a similar reliance on tension and dramatic irony to create their effects — although the piece isn’t flawless, sometimes shifting comic register too abruptly, and sometimes forcing awkward verbal gags in against the grain of plot and character (when the story is as morbidly amusing as Psychoville’s, you really needn’t strain to insert puns and “jokes”), it’s nevertheless an ambitious and very unusual bit of television, going well beyond straight homage, and I was interested to read the line, “I have done murder,” in the Rope play, since it seems to provide inspiration for a key line in Psychoville: “I did a bad murder.”

3) I’m a bit of a Patrick Hamilton fan, The Slaves of Solitude and Hangover Square being two of my favourite books, so I took this opportunity to finally read his play, the source for Hitchcock’s film, sometimes called Rope’s End but originally titled Rope by its author, who set it in London in 1929, necessitating some adaptation (by Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents) to transfer the action to post WWII New York, and from a first floor flat to a penthouse apartment — but the structure is largely unchanged, Hitchcock having carefully looked around for a play with continuous action (the play is in three acts, acts one and two climaxing at suspenseful moments, the action resuming after each break without any time having passed in the play’s world) and remaining true to his principle of not violently altering the shape of a play when bringing it to the screen, since playwrights generally take a good bit of trouble to get the structure right… nevertheless, there are plenty of small difference: a cinema ticket is used as evidence in place of a hat, a poker from the fireplace provides menace in place of a revolver, and a police whistle summons the authorities at the climax, rather than the implausible but dramatic device of having Rupert, the philosopher-detective fire a pistol out the window… in addition to this, there are intriguing anticipations of later Hitchcocks: a tie pin is used as a clue (FRENZY) and a character says, “You wouldn’t hurt a fly,” (PSYCHO) — I’m pretty sure these are coincidental, but they’re amusing nonetheless.


“Well, murder can be an art, too.”

4) Some of the biggest differences between play and film come from the casting and playing, with Farley Granger a more sympathetic presence than that suggested by Hamilton (Granillo, the play’s version of Philip, is of Spanish descent, a very Agatha Christie way of making him untrustworthy) — although Fiona, who like me saw the film on its re-release in the 80s, found the performance of his lower lip annoying — and James Stewart, merely by being James Stewart, entirely changes Rupert Cadell from a war-weary cynic and homosexual intellectual with a cutting sense of humour, into, well, James Stewart, about whom nothing bad can be suspected — Arthur Laurents suggests that James Mason would have been a better match for the character (better even than Cary Grant, Hitch’s first choice, who found it much too close for comfort) — the result is perfectly decent but a lot less interesting than it could have been — one so rarely gets a snarky gay detective in a thriller, and just imagine a British version with Dirk Bogarde (STOP PRESS: according to Wikipedia, the great Denis Price played in two TV versions, years apart, playing Brandon the first time and Rupert the second: better casting I cannot conceive of)!


“We all do strange things in our childhood.”

5) ROPE is not only Hitch’s first Technicolor film (adding a whole series of new burdens to a technically challenging production), it’s his first independent one, away from the control of Selznick or anybody else for that matter (except the censor, who flipped when some of the play’s dialogue was used: the English “dear boys” were adjudged unspeakably effeminate) so that he could experiment freely with the long take technique which he’d been interested in for some time, but which Selznick had always forced him to curtail — it might even been supposed that Selznick’s supervision distorted Hitchcock’s technique, causing him to make exactly the kind of technical experiment Selznick would have instantly vetoed, despite the fact that it flew in the face of his own theories about the importance of montage, and that he made the film in reaction to Selznick’s previous interference.


“Nobody commits a murder just for the experiment of committing it. Nobody except us.”

6) Leopold and Loeb — Arthur Laurents claims that nobody ever discussed the true-life murder case that inspired Hamilton’s play, but true-crime enthusiast Hitchcock was certainly aware of it — while both play and film end with the supposition that both the killers will hang for their crime, in reality they got off lightly: life plus 99 years, thanks to smart lawyer Clarence Darrow, played by Orson Welles  in the movie COMPULSION (director Richard Fleischer notes with bemusement that Welles disliked being watched by his fellow actors, so when he made his speech to the jury they all had to close their eyes, a striking, dreamlike image which somebody should film one day), a movie which Loeb Leopold tried to block, citing invasion of privacy — anyhow, Leopold Loeb was killed in prison by a fellow inmate who claimed he’d tried to sexually assault him (Chicago Daily News: “Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition.”) but Loeb Leopold volunteered to be infected with malaria for a study of the disease, served his sentence, worked as a lab and x-ray assistant, and donated his organs: I’m guessing he’s the Farley Granger one.


“Out of character for him to be murdered, too.”

7) John Dall isn’t the most charismatic actor (“He’s hideous!” — Fiona) but he’s effective here and in GUN CRAZY, playing entirely different characters in radically different styles, and these noirish roles have largely outlasted the source of his fame, THE CORN IS GREEN; Sir Cedric Hardwicke has to be the boring voice of moral authority (Hamilton in his character description makes out that this guy is “completely captivating” but rather fails to live up to this in the action and dialogue, whereas the moral voice of Rupert acquires startling power at the end of both play and film because it’s earned by the story and comes as a surprise to both him and us) so he can’t really shine here, but Constance Collier is an amusingly bizarre presence (Hitchcock’s films link up in the oddest ways: Hume Cronyn acted in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and LIFEBOAT and writes here; Emlyn Williams wrote for THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and acted in JAMAICA INN; and Collier was co-author with Ivor Novello of the play Downhill, which Hitch filmed with Novello in the lead role… I have previously remarked on the striking similarity of the set in ROPE to the one in THE RING) and Joan Chandler is perky and sweet (“Her shoulders are all the rage at the moment,” observes Fiona)… I guess some people would find Douglas Dick likewise charming, but his character is boringly conceived and the actor can’t enliven it — Hamilton’s young lovers are more maladroit, which makes them a little more appealing.


“Well, now, you don’t really approve of murder, Rupert? If I may?”

8) Random odds and ends — Hitchcock has two cameos, walking buy in the first shot (the only location scene) and as a neon sign outline — this movie would make a seriously dangerous drinking game, all champagne and whisky, with Farley Granger alone enough to jeopardise the liver — remember, a full stop is just a hyphen coming right at you (Charles Fort) — Arthur Laurents reports that, since Edith Evanson was playing a maid, the other actors treated her AS a maid (the same kind of automatic prejudice that caused the actors playing chimps, gorillas and orangs to segregate in the studio canteen on PLANET OF THE APES!) — Evanson is good, in a role that doesn’t exist in the play, a sort of ineffectual mother figure for the boys (Hitch’s villains as often have weak mothers as domineering ones), a Thelma Ritter kind of role replacing the French cook in the play as part of the Americanizing process — the long take style throws up many side-benefits, not all of them obvious, like the extraordinary close-up of Stewart that plays out for about a minute of offscreen dialogue, and the low angle as the maid clears the fatal chest of plates and candelabras, a precursor to the safe-cracking sequence in MARNIE — what is this strange affinity, confirmed in VERTIGO, of James Stewart with green neon light?


“They’re coming.”

9) Hitch’s independent company, Transatlantic Pictures, set up with Sidney Bernstein and intended to make films on both sides of the ocean, fulfilled its brief in a minimal way: ROPE, filmed in Hollywood, and UNDER CAPRICORN (which I’m in the minority on, since I rather like it) in England, two sort-of-minor but fascinating experiments in long-take storytelling, which form a bridge between the Selznick years and the years as a studio director with considerable but by no means total independence.

OK — can’t resist ending on a quote from the play ~

Rupert: (suddenly letting himself go — a thing he has not done, all the evening, and which he now does with tremendous force, and clear, angry articulation) What do I mean? What do I mean? I mean that you have taken and killed — by strangulation — a very harmless and helpless fellow-creature of twenty years. I mean that in that chest there — now lie the staring and futile remains of something that four hours ago lived, and laughed, and ran, and found it good. Laughed as you could never laugh, and ran as you could never run. I mean that, for your cruel and scheming pleasure, you have committed a sin and a blasphemy against that very life which you now yourself find so precious. And you have done more than this. You have not only killed him, you have rotted the lives of all those to whom he was dear. And you have brought worse than death to his father — an equally harmless old man who has fought his way quietly through to a peaceful end, and to whom the entire universe, after this, will now be blackened and distorted beyond the limits of thought. That is what you have done. And in dragging him round here tonight, you have played a lewd and infamous jest upon him — and a bad jest at that. And if you think, as your type of philosopher generally does, that all life is nothing but a bad jest, then you will now have the pleasure of seeing it played upon yourselves.

Brandon (pale and frozen) What are you saying? What are you doing?

Rupert It is not what I am doing, Brandon. It is what society is going to do. And what will happen to you at the hands of society I am not in a position to tell you. That’s its own business. But I can give you a pretty shrewd guess, I think. (He moves forward to the chest and swings back the lid) You are going to hang, you swine! Hang! Both of you! Hang! (Whistle in hand, he runs hobbling to the window, throws it open, leans out, and sends three piercing whistles into the night)


37 Responses to “A Cocktail for the Corpse”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    Nine very clever sentences.

    Another contemporary master of the long take: John Farrow. THE BIG CLOCK (also 48) doesn’t call attention to takes that run as long as 5 minutes. The gliding, prowling camera effortlessly, without being a gimmick, augments the film’s sinister aura. There is an 8 minute take, set in a hotel room, close to the end of WHERE DANGER LIVES (50).

    Welles has a 9 minute take in MACBETH (also 48) (Nolan and Welles plan the murder of Duncan).

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Edith Evanson has a small but absolutely pivotal role as Dave Bannion’s only helpmate in Lang’s THE BIG HEAT (53).

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    The Belgian(?) French (?) title is wonderfully more in tune with Hitchcock’s sense of humor. The poster artist conceives of Hitch being choked by what look like a very dainty hand . . . Maybe it’s Tippi’s.

  4. Here’s the dead man speaking —

  5. and here’s the trailer for the THIRD version:

  6. Rope, IMO is The Gayest Movie Ever Made during the studio era. The screenwriter was gay. Two of th elads were gay. One of them was having anaffair with the screenwriter at the time. The Set deisgner was gay. And the music was by Poulenc.

    Read Arthur Laurents’ “Original Story By” for the skinny. He adored Hitch. When he was brought on the project Arthur wondered if Hitch knew he was gay. And in matter of minutes he knew that he did. THEN he wondered if Hitch knew he was having an affair with Farley. Hitch knew that too.

    John Dall’s nervous stutter owrks rahter perfectly.

    For all the “sngle-take talk about the movie, there’s one very direct cut in it.

    Can you spot it?

  7. Arthur S. Says:

    ROPE’s long take goal was recently achieved by Aleksandr Sokurov’s RUSSIAN ARK. A film which tours through history of Russia in a single take recorded on a Digital Camera that didn’t need magazines to be loaded thanks to it’s in-built hard disk. But even there Sokurov copped out by digitally removing a mike that popped up here and there.

    I rather like COMPULSION though among Fleischer’s true crime movies, it’s nothing next to THE BOSTON STRANGLER.

    Arthur Laurents feels that the film doesn’t work completely because Jimmy Stewart isn’t gay and an ex of one of the two lovers(though the way the remarkable Farley Granger plays him, it’s clear that he and Rupert had something going on once upon a time) and the climactic show down where Rupert absolves all responsibility rings terribly false though the way the neon light pulses into the room brings an emotional note into the conflict and the throttled sexuality comes out in the frenzy of that character. That was homaged by Bertolucci in the beginning of THE CONFORMIST where the neon pulses into Jean-Louis Trintignant’s face.

  8. This movie inspired one of our producers at work to sneak up behind me and yell “Did you think you were GOD, Brandon?” in his best Jimmy Stewart impression about a hundred times.

  9. I don’t quite see it that way. Brandon (Dall) WANTED Rupert (Stewart). He commits the murder for him — to “out” him as gay. That Stewart plays him as staright (albeit metrosexual avant la lettre) doesn’t ruin the story. Needless to say it would have been tons different with Cary Grant who as I trust we all know enjoyed what Cole Porter called “The urge to merge with a splurge.”

    And speaking of same —

    More than a tad Hitchcockian don’t you think?

  10. david wingrove Says:

    Is it true that Montgomery Clift also turned down one of the lead roles in this film – presumably because it was “too close to home”? OK, he was not yet an established star and it seems unlikely that he was in a position to turn down anything. Still, the rumour persists.

  11. Oh he WAS in a position to turn down whatever he wanted. Monty was a very special person in Hollywood history. He was a major stage star — and thus seen as a feather in Hollywood’s cap. He never signed a contract with a big studio and chose his projects with care.

  12. Laurents confirms that Clift turned it down, as he turned down Sunset Boulevard — maybe BECAUSE it was so early in his career, he was very careful about his image.

    Stewart’s Nietzschian philosophizing is so clearly a joke, and as much DeQuincey as Nietzsche, that it’s hard to see anyone thinking he means it. Rupert in the play is more obviously guilty, and isn’t able to absolve himself at the end. The play is pretty melodramatic and fruity (it takes place during a thunderstorm) but it works better in terms of those three characters’ dynamics. And it leaves us with an interesting, flawed gay hero.

    Bertolucci uses the green neon also in The Conformist for the scene where Dominique Sanda strips to offer herself to Trintignant — it gives her a decaying look.

    Farrow’s long takes are indeed cunning and unobtrusive — in his best films he’s really impressive. “A sadist,” was Robert Mitchum’s verdict, but quite a talent.

  13. I’ve read the original play and I don’t find Rupert heroic. He’s merely saving his own ass.

  14. He doesn’t seem to be in danger to me, apart from the danger he puts himself in. He could let the boys dispose of the corpse and be free from all suspicion. Their plan could work. He chooses to denounce them, even though his very association with them may harm his reputation.

    But he’s the hero in a different sense, in that as detective he solves the case, like Columbo, putting together the clues to what we in the audience know has happened. Whether we find him morally admirable or not, that makes him an exciting character to watch.

    I agree that he could be played as self-centered, if that’s how the director or actor wanted to do it, but it’s not essential. Stewart’s character is arguably a bit more inherently weaselly because he tries to deny his own words meant what they obviously did. Whereas in the play he says “A man should stand by his own words.” Only he chooses to do so by sending Brandon and Granillo to the gallows, demonstrating that he “holds life cheap.”

    Incidentally, since he’s a gay WWI vet and poet (not exactly uncommon), I wonder if he has a real-life source of inspiration?

  15. See Journey’s End

  16. Arthur S. Says:

    Green is the colour of death. Though I don’t think that scene you mentioned has green neon in it. I recall this indigo blue evening sky pulsing through that room in that scene in THE CONFORMIST.

    One particular long take that is really impressive is the ten minute take in Melville’s LE DOULOS during the interrogation. I didn’t notice it when I first saw it, neither did many others who saw it first and it achieves a lot of what Hitchcock hoped to because nobody noticed it at first glance. Whereas with ROPE the transitions are rather obvious.

    I really don’t think that Brandon wanting to “out” Stewart by vindicating his theories in practise makes much dramatic sense. Whereas jealousy and rejection make much more sense. Still it’s a good film and an interesting achievement(not unlike DIAL M FOR MURDER also an attempt to do an experimental work of film theatre, in this case in 3D).

  17. David Boxwell Says:

    Siegfried Sassoon? (If SS had cute young acolytes around him, and Hamilton was aware of it . . .)

    It’s fun to count the number of times the camera hones in on a male backside to begin the transition to next take. Hitch’s naughty joke . . .

  18. David Boxwell Says:

    David E: thanks for posting the trailer, which I had never seen before. Since the first minute and a half is comprised of scenes/shots not in the film, I wonder who directed it . . .

  19. David Boxwell Says:

    It’s amazing how suggestive the script managed to be, despite restrictions imposed by the PCA.

    Laugh out loud: banter about “killing” chickens. My father tells me that jokes about “choking the chicken” were ubiquitous in the Pacific theater during the War.

  20. Clearly Hitch directed that trailer.

  21. I’d say so. Since it’s his own company, it falls to him to him to oversee the publicity, and this is the beginning of a new phase in his expert self-publicising.

    Oh, the cuts? One right after the titles, taking us into the apartment. Another one twenty minutes in. The trouble with the reel-change cut approach is that it makes it hard for the cuts to land on dramatic moments where they can really be effective. If the long takes were of irregular lengths, some less than ten minutes, you could use the cut points for powerful emphasis. In fact, I think this is one of the key advantages of a long take — the eventual cut really stands out.

  22. It stands out DELIBERATELY, because it’s a cut to Stewart looking at someone (Dall I thinK) at the moment when he begins to realize that something’s up.

  23. James Mason in the Stewart role! That would have been purr-fect!

    James Stewart was a bit too jarring for me in “Rope”, too self-righteous. His goody-two-shoes with a dark twist in Vertigo and Rear Window works much better.

    Call me silly, but one of the things that I liked most of Rope was the background decor changing as the time passes (though maybe that’s because I’m partial to nativity scenes for cultural reasons)

    Re David E.’s comment about Hitchcock knowing about the gay guys in the set… I have the impression, from things I’ve read over the years, that Hitch didn’t like gay people too much, mostly for certain comments about, say, Ivor Novello or Charles Laughton (Could I take certain comments here as an example? I’m not sure if the piece is genuine, tho’… What’s your opinion?)

    “Granillo, the play’s version of Philip, is of Spanish descent, a very Agatha Christie way of making him untrustworthy”
    Agatha was dead right: we Spaniards are treacherous dagos, always waiting to knock out innocent victims with big bottles of sangria ;p

  24. I think Hitch’s problems with Novello and Laughton had to do with their star power and the authority they liked to wield over everyone. Fraley Granger in his memoir says Hitch was teriffic.Rope was rather special and difficult in that it was a technical exercise and he didn’t interact with the actors in an in-depth way. They had lines to read and cues to hit. But when he did Strangers on a Train Hitch took Farley completely into his confidence — shwoing him every aspect of the film, how he planned to make it, and why.

  25. Christopher Says:

    The light passing and shades of nighttime thru the window WAS a cool touch..much like the passing of time from dusk to night at the climax of Strangers on a Train..

  26. Laurents has said that Hitch was always very interested in everybody’s little kinks. It was a big part of his own sexuality, which had to do mostly with voyeurism and fantasy rather that doing anything.

    Hitch seems to have worked successfully and happily with a number of gay writers and actors, and his problems with gay actors have to be measured against his difficulties with straight ones of both sexes. Hitchcock didn’t like actors that much unless he could get what he wanted out of them. He had a technical approach to acting which didn’t sit well with Laughton’s emotional, intuitive and deeply-felt methods. And of course the idea of an actor having an opinion and fighting for it was anathema to Hitch.

    That Rouge article is by Mark Rappaport and it’s a nice attempt at imagining his way into Hitch’s thoughts, based on lots of research, but some of it IS imagination.

  27. Davids, thanks for your opinions on Don Alfredo and gay people: it sounds more characteristhic of him to clash over control of the picture, whereas it’s a clash with star power or with the producer (as with Sleznick).

    As for CL (and his relationship with Hitch and other directors), my thoughts are that he usually was in more trouble with “mechanic” directors, that is, with those most concerned about technical aspects of the film, which expected little involvement with the actors, other than just doing their work as expected. When he worked with directors which looked upon actors as something more than puppets, and which could listem to their opinions, he worked much more happily.

    David C, that much I suspected about that Rouge article: it’s a good read but somehow didn’t read like a genuine condensed interview to the director. having read the Truffaut Hitchcock book some statements seemed to me somewhat untypical of the man.

  28. Illuminating and interesting, as ever. A few fairly random comments and tangents:

    Mexican director Jaime Humberto Hermosillo’s La Tarea (Homework) is not only in one (apparent) take, but uses a fixed camera. Every now and again an object such as a briefcase obscures the view, allowing for a change of magazine.


    I never had the pleasure of watching Rope before I knew about the gimmick, so I’ve no idea how obvious or otherwise it would have been to audiences. When you know about it, it’s glaring and almost distracting. It is indeed odd that Hitch never used a passing character to wipe the screen, as he did in that lovely tracking shot down the stairs and out into the street in Frenzy.

    You got your Loepold and your Loeb mixed up a bit: as the rhyming headline suggests, it was Loeb who was killed in prison.

    If you want to write long sentences, the semicolon is your friend. ;-)

  29. Thanks for the L&L correction — the perils of late-night writing.

    I think the reel-change blackouts would always have seemed awkward, ESPECIALLY if you didn’t know why they were happening, but I guess contemporary audiences wouldn’t have wasted too much time wondering about it.

  30. I do hope everyone is familair with Swoon. If not — get familair. Tom Kalin is interested in criminal behavior in most unusual ways. See also his shamefully negelected Savage Grace.

  31. Swoon is real good. Rope, Compulsion and Swoon make a fantastic trilogy of very different takes on a single case history.

    Fleischer’s true crime trio of Compulsion, Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington place could not be more contrasting, but they’re all good, with Boston being the greatest stylistic achievement and Rillington offering the most disturbing and tragic moments. TV’s Psychoville also featured an ace impression of Richard Attenborough’s necrophile serial killer from that movie.

  32. Craig Chester tells me his performance in Swoon is his personal hommage to the entire career of Bette Davis. It’s not a Bette Davis impression at all. Rather Craig always asked himself “How would Bette think this through?”

  33. It’s a nice technique, opens a side door into the imagination (since really the effort has to be made with your own mind, if you’re not copying specific attributes).

  34. great stuff here–I still want to see that Cairns-hosted talk show on a Rope inspired set

    I’m planning to watch Psychoville in the very near future–a friend showed me a couple of scenes and it looks like a lot of crazy fun

  35. I’m hoping Psychoville gets recommissioned ’cause it’s pretty interesting — apart from anything else, the plot twists are very satisfying.

  36. Lots of interesting stuff here; I saw Rope years ago and remember it mostly as “not one of my favorite Hitchcock films”, but I think I need to give it another try.

    Glad to hear you’re a Patrick Hamilton fan — The Slaves of Solitude is one of my favorites too, but practically no one I’ve talked to has even heard of it! Maybe he’s not very well known in the US? I still need to read Hangover Square, actually — looking forward to it…

  37. Rope does benefit from reviewing. There are undoubted flaws, and the whole approach is cumbersome in some ways, but it’s fascinating too, and on a second viewing you can see past the problems more easily.

    Hangover Square is a bit more pulpy in conception than Slaves, but its elevated by the skill Hamilton brings to bear on it, and the sheer emotion, which is quite overwhelming. It’s kind of in between his literary work (sensitive, brooding) and his stage work (slightly more trashy thrillers).

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