Rope Was a Cruel, Prickly Turning Point in Jimmy Stewart’s Career

Movies Features Alfred Hitchcock
Rope Was a Cruel, Prickly Turning Point in Jimmy Stewart’s Career

Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) kill their friend David (Dick Hogan). It’s an entirely unprovoked attack—they kill him just because they can. They hide his body in a chest. Then a select few they invited earlier, including David’s girlfriend (Joan Chandler) and father (Cedric Hardwicke), turn up to a dinner party in the crime scene/duo’s apartment. Brandon and Phillip serve these unwitting guests food off the chest containing David’s corpse. That’s the set-up of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which turns 75 this week. 

Brandon invites another guest to the party, Rupert (James Stewart), a brilliant academic who used to teach the pair at prep school. While Brandon treats everyone else with a face-slappingly smug superiority, alongside Rupert, he becomes a little boy with a big crush. Rupert’s known in academic circles for his controversial, eugenicist-adjacent views on the utility of murder. These are views he happily reprises for his new audience at this macabre party. “Think of the problems it would solve,” he declares, “Poverty. Unemployment. Standing in line for theater tickets!” Brandon’s heard this all before, of course, in those halcyon schooldays of his. Rupert’s words were—unbeknownst to their speaker—the seeds of David’s demise. 

Rupert did not murder David. When he discovers the truth, he is genuinely horrified. And yet he still shoulders a culpability that even Stewart’s righteous final monologue cannot mitigate. When Rupert argues in favor of murder in the earlier part of the movie, declaring it should be the right of a select few (a misinterpretation of the Nietzschean Übermensch theory, which was the inspiration for real-life murderous duo Leopold and Loeb, the models for Brandon and Phillip), it’s all an intellectual exercise for him; a provocative flirtation. Dark, sure, but fundamentally unserious. 

Brandon though, Brandon has always taken Rupert deadly seriously…

Jimmy Stewart wasn’t Hitchcock’s first pick for the role of Rupert; that was Cary Grant. There’s a notorious gay subtext to Rope that was not unintentional, and the director was tickled at the idea of emphasizing it with his casting. Dall was gay and Granger was bisexual (Granger was actually dating Rope’s screenwriter Arthur Laurents during filming; that relationship would go on to inspire the Laurents-penned The Way We Were). Grant’s bisexuality was an open Hollywood secret. The next in line for the role of Rupert was Montgomery Clift, another closeted star. But Grant and Clift refused the role, concerned about how it could affect their carefully constructed images. Once they’d turned it down, a convoluted networking web led to the casting of the stubbornly straight Stewart. 

Although it wasn’t what the director had first intended, there’s a mischievousness to his casting that seems eminently Hitchcockian. In 1948, in the eyes of the public, Stewart was very much still the goofy, golden-hearted “You want the moon? I’ll give you the moon!” sweetheart he’d been for the whole of his leading man career. It’s easy to imagine how Hitchcock might have relished the chance to sully his gentle, upstanding image with such a morally murky character. 

Rupert appears 28 minutes into the 80-minute movie, the last arrival at the party. The camera slowly pans over the guests watching Phillip play the piano; when it pans backward again, Rupert is suddenly there, watching too. A fittingly disconcerting start for Stewart’s disorienting performance.

Immediately, sharpness. He’s the sort of man who can’t let a bit of innocuous small talk pass without being obnoxious about it. When David’s girlfriend Janet asks if Brandon’s description of her did her justice, he retorts, “Do you deserve justice?” When another old student of his, Kenneth (Douglas Dick), says, “It’s awfully good to see you again,” Rupert replies, “Why?” We can’t help but look for the warmth that usually radiates from Stewart; when it doesn’t appear, it feels like the world has been knocked off balance. Even that famous voice of his is flatter, deeper. Colder.

He does thaw eventually, but just a little. As soon as he realizes something is afoot, that arrogance morphs into a more humane curiosity. Even when he isn’t the focus of a scene, you can see him in the background, every inch of his six-foot-three frame alert, his focus an unrelenting spotlight. Sometimes—as when he interrogates Phillip, the weaker of the duo—he’s so unyielding, you almost feel sorry for the killers. The situation Rupert has found himself in, the situation he unwittingly caused, necessitates the sort of intellectual jousting he adores, after all. The way Stewart plays Rupert’s attitude to this whole investigation, the combination of mounting horror and queasy invigoration, is what gives Rope much of its narrative propulsion. 

In 1948, the reception of Stewart’s performance was mixed. Various critics, including Stewart himself, thought he was miscast in the role; the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called him “strangely limp and mopish.” Other outlets, like Variety (“Stewart does a commanding job”) were more positive. The movie’s box office takings were underwhelming, but not disastrously so. 

Despite that mixed reaction, Rope marked a gargantuan shift in Stewart’s career towards darker, thornier material. This may have been inevitable anyway; he was entering his forties, and perhaps approaching the natural expiration date for his “aww shucks” charm. And he didn’t entirely desert the lovable persona that had made him famous, with cuddly movies like Harvey still on the horizon. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable how soon after Rope he started to favor the dark side. 

Although his first time working with Hitchcock was such a stressful experience Stewart swore it’d also be his last time (the technological innovation required to achieve the film’s famous long take gimmick took an immense toll on both cast and crew), thankfully, it was a promise he reneged upon. They’d make three films together during the 1950s, two of which—Rear Window and Vertigo—would be career highlights for both men. (L.B Jefferies, Stewart’s lead in Vertigo, made Rupert look like a saint!) Stewart’s other main collaborator during this period, Anthony Mann, directed him in eight movies between 1950 and 1955, primarily Westerns. Against these rugged, treacherous landscapes, where death visited with far more regularity than it did his studio dramas and comedies, Stewart’s newly weather-beaten image continued to tarnish in all sorts of interesting ways. 

Stewart’s most beloved films are spread across both halves of his career, but he actually became a more bankable actor once he opened up to the possibility of morality-muddling work. He had been a leading man for 12 years before Rope, and never once featured in the iconic Quigley’s “Top Ten Money-Making Stars” poll. In the 12 years after, he made nine appearances. Far from being put off by this new facet to Stewart’s well-established image, ticket-buyers were intrigued. They wanted more. And with the help of Hitchcock and Mann, he was happy to oblige. 

In the documentary Rope Unleashed, Granger theorized that the discomfort amongst audiences of 1948 with seeing Stewart play the morally dubious Rupert was one of the main reasons Rope didn’t fare all that well either critically or commercially. He suggested James Mason would have been a better choice. While an actor with that kind of alluringly dark presence might have been a more obvious fit, the casting of Stewart actually heightened Rope’s horror; it was a cruel move, for a cruel movie. 

When such a horrifying crime has been committed, the appearance of an actor like Jimmy Stewart should have heralded a sigh of relief. If anyone can make this right, put the world back on its axis, surely he can. But no. Though Stewart may catch the killers, he can’t shove all that evil back into the bottle—not when he was partially responsible for unleashing it in the first place. And we’d never be able to look at him quite the same way again.

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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