Alfred Hitchcock was always known for his thrilling pictures, though he was somewhat stymied by Hollywood’s Hayes Code. Those limitations arguably made his films more thrilling and artful; Alfred had to imply what he couldn’t show. 1948’s Rope was a perfect example of this.
Alfred Hitchcock had originally signed with David O. Selznick when he arrived in Hollywood, but had chafed under the agreement. While the Hayes Code had stymied Hitchcock’s filmmaking, Selznick’s more conservative tastes further restricted it. Eventually, Hitchcock would find himself being lent out to others. While Hitchcock had been commercially successful, he resented the control exerted over him by Selznick. He quietly teamed up with friend Sidney Bernstein to form Transatlantic Pictures, the film company that he intended to produce pictures for when his contract with Selznick ended. Eager to do something that stood out from his previous work, Hitchcock sought a project that would be challenging and experimental. He thought he’d found that in Rope, a 1929 play written by English playwright Patrick Hamilton.
Inspired by the notorious “crime of the century” murder of Robert Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Hamilton’s play featured two young college students who schemed to commit the perfect murder. The young men, who were implied to be homosexuals, would then throw a dinner party where the body was literally under everyone’s noses, hidden away in a trunk that was being used as a serving table. The goal was to prove to themselves how smart they were- committing a murder, hiding it, then inviting mutual acquaintances and family members to the party. Their suspicious mentor eventually exposes the crime, shocking everyone in attendance. It seemed like a good candidate for a Hitchcock’s first post-Selznick project.
Leopold and Loeb
A deeper look at the project, however, reveals a few potential pitfalls. Rope, while a thrilling play, took place entirely in one apartment. Hardly a good candidate for a motion picture. The relationship between the two young men would have to be treated carefully. The Hayes Code and societal norms at the time prohibited explicitly mentioning them as being what was euphemistically referred to as “it”. Lastly, the crime takes place at the beginning of the play, so there was really no mystery to solve here. How could Hitchcock turn this stagey play into something worthy of his name? His answers to these challenges would be ingenious.