Noir Nook: Ripped from the Headlines – Rope (1948)
Rope is a 1948 feature directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart, John Dall, and Farley Granger. It may not be necessarily categorized as film noir, but it is undeniably imbued with a feeling of trepidation and inevitable doom that is a hallmark of the era.
The film, which takes place in real time, focuses on two college students – Brandon (Dall) and Philip (Granger) who, for no other reason than to prove that they can, strangle a classmate and stuff his body in a large wooden chest in their apartment (“We’ve killed for the sake of danger and the sake of killing,” Brandon crows after the deed is done.)
But that’s not all. That very night, they’re hosting a dinner party – with a guest list that includes the dead boy’s parents – and they use the chest (unlocked, mind you) as the centerpiece from which the evening’s bill of fare is served. The remainder of the film is set at the dinner party as the boy’s parents become increasingly concerned, Brandon and Philip’s former school housemaster (James Stewart) becomes increasingly suspicious, and the two killers become increasingly unhinged.
Alfred Hitchcock called Rope “an experiment that didn’t work out” and, indeed, the film was kept out of circulation for nearly 30 years. The “experiment” was Hitchcock’s idea to shoot the movie without any visible cuts in the action so that it appears to be in one continuous shot. I’m not at all sure why Hitchcock was so critical of the film – for my money, it ranks up there with his best. It literally left me a bit breathless and on the edge of my seat.
Based on a 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton, the film was adapted by actor Hume Cronyn with the screenplay by Arthur Laurents, who also wrote the screenplay for The Snake Pit (1948) and the 1949 noir, Caught, starring Robert Ryan and Barbara Bel Geddes. Hamilton’s play was reportedly inspired by the 1924 real-life case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.
Leopold and Loeb were two wealthy teens who lived in the Kenwood section of Chicago – Loeb’s father was the vice-president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company and Leopold’s father, who inherited a shipping company, made a second fortune in manufacturing of aluminum cans and paper boxes. In 1924, Leopold was studying law at the University of Chicago, and Loeb was taking graduate courses there. Loeb often engaged in such illegal activities as stealing cars, setting fires, and smashing storefront windows, and Leopold, drawn to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, frequently discussed the mythical “superman” who stood outside the law.
It was Loeb’s idea to kidnap a child for ransom in order to commit the perfect crime. By sheer chance, they chose Loeb’s 14-year-old cousin, Bobby Franks, who happened to be walking down the street near his home as Leopold and Loeb were driving around looking for a potential victim.
Leopold and Loeb lured Bobby into their car, bludgeoned and suffocated him to death, then stopped to grab a meal of hot dogs and root beer, which they ate in the car with Bobby’s body in the back seat under a blanket. (Incidentally, part of the killers’ original plan to commit “the perfect crime” had involved strangling the victim with both their hands on the rope in order to be sure they would both share equally in the guilt, similar to the murder in the Hitchcock film.)
They then dumped his body in a drainage culvert several miles outside of Chicago and mailed a ransom note to the boy’s parents. Before Bobby’s father could gather together the ransom money, Bobby’s body had been found – along with the pair of eyeglasses that had fallen out of Leopold’s pocket. The glasses were traced back to Leopold and investigators determined that the ransom note had been written on Leopold’s typewriter.
Ten days after the crime was committed, later, the young academics were taken into custody and confessed to the kidnap-murder. At their sensational trial, Leopold and Loeb were defended by the famed attorney Clarence Darrow, who argued that the boys were an unavoidable product of their high-society upbringing. They were both found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Loeb was stabbed to death by a fellow inmate in 1936 and Leopold was released in 1958.
The 7,000 square foot mansion where Bobby Franks lived is less than a one minute walk from the Chicago apartment where I grew up – it seems like I’ve always known about the Bobby Franks house. Bobby’s father, Jacob, moved out of the house shortly after the conviction of his son’s killers and sold it to theater magnate Joseph Trinz, who operated 27 local properties (including the famed Biograph Theater, the location where gangster John Dillinger was shot in 1934).
Trinz died just two years later and the house was sold to the president of a meat packing firm and then sold again and renovated for use as the Ffoulkes School for Boys and Girls. By 1959, the building had become the DeLena Day School (which my older brother attended); DeLena closed in 1991 and the building has remained vacant since then. It was sold at auction by DeLena in 2008 for $484,000, and renovations have been in process at the house for the last several years, but they are, to date, incomplete.
If you’ve never seen Rope, do yourself a favor and check it out. You won’t be sorry.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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