Rope (1948) ***1/2
Rope opens with a scream that we hear from outside a closed window with drawn curtains. Then the camera moves inside and reveals two men finishing off strangling some poor guy in the fancy living room of a New York high rise. The plot then unfolds that these two former prep school chums (and now clearly gay lovers/roommates) have just murdered an old friend for the sheer thrill of it and now plan to host a dinner party (serving food off the trunk in which they've hidden the body) to celebrate their Ubermensch status. Jimmy Stewart eventually shows up as sort of an old mentor from prep school who had turned these impressionable boys onto Nietzche back in the day.
So the setup is pretty great, and this is definitely a fun classic that you've probably heard about but maybe never seen. A couple things become clear while watching even if you knew nothing about the background of the movie, as I didn't. For one thing, it was originally a play. This is actually mentioned in the credits of course, but even if you missed that, Hitchcock's vision for the movie was to essentially put a play onscreen. Famously, this meant he shot the movie as one continuous performance, which leads to some odd little shots for editing purposes necessitated by the 10 minute length of film reels in those days. For instance, every once in a while, he has to zoom in on some black space (say the back of a man's jacket) in order to have a spot to splice the film inconspicuously. Even without knowing any of that until later, I was thinking how strange it was that Hitch had clearly decided to make so few visual changes in transferring a story from one medium to another. But it turns out that he was all jazzed by the idea of making some sort of hybrid "play-movie." I suppose as an experiment, it's cool that he did it, but I tend to agree with the screen writer who felt it was also a bit gimmicky.
The other things you pick up on are the homoeroticism surrounding the two murderers and the role of Nietzsche's superman philosophy as their motivating impulse. In the excellent mini-doc included on the blu-ray, the screen writer speaks at length about how central homosexuality was to the play. He tried to tone it down in translating it from the British original, but it's still pretty clear. The one thing that is lost, however, is that in the original, the mentor figure (Stewart), is clearly intended to have had some affair with one/both of the boys back in their school days. Stewart, of course, was never going to play it that way, and I think something is lost there. An extra element of how these kids would have been so influenced by their intellectual hero.
On a final note, I'm going to agree with the screen writer again, who mentions in that documentary that the original play does not include the murder scene. He didn't include it in his screenplay and felt that it didn't belong. Hitch decided to film the actual murder, and we see them dump the body into the trunk. I can imagine that the stage version would have had a lot more impact and tension as we listen to these dandies pontificate about how murder is an art and their privilege of being superior beings outside of social norms. Is this all empty blather, or is there really a body in that trunk, as the dialogue keeps hinting? I think I like that version better.