The ‘motiveless’ 1920s murder that shocked the US

“I have gone all out to write a horror play and make your flesh creep,” Hamilton suggested in his own preface. “It is a thriller. A thriller all the time, and nothing but a thriller.” Hamilton was doing himself an injustice. The play delved deep into the evil, intellectual motivations of men who see themselves as above society. With World War Two around the corner, a war in which a similar bastardisation of Nietzschean ideology by the Nazis powered its atrocities, Rope was anything but a simplistic thriller. The play’s West End popularity swiftly led to a New York production, at the Theatre Masque on Broadway, where it was retitled Rope’s End.

Next it made its way to the small screen when, in 1939, the play was adapted by the BBC. Another production of the play was subsequently broadcast in 1947, with Dirk Bogarde as one of the murderers, before Alfred Hitchcock created his own big-screen version in 1948.

Hitchcock’s interpretation

Hitchcock himself was well acquainted with true crime, so it’s unsurprising Rope appealed to his morbid sensibilities. He demonstrated his credentials with the genre early on in his career, when he adapted Marie Belloc Lowndes’s Jack the Ripper-inspired novel The Lodger in 1927. Later, Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1948) was based on prolific serial killer Earle Nelson, while Frenzy (1972) was adapted from Arthur La Bern’s novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square (1966), which itself was inspired by the so-called “Jack the Stripper” murders in 1960s London. Perhaps most famously, Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was adapted from a short story by Robert Bloch, which echoed the macabre crimes of Ed Gein. In other words, a number of Hitchcock’s most celebrated films derived from true crime, albeit several layers removed.

Director and film historian Mark Cousins recently reconsidered Hitchcock’s work for his film about the director, My Name is Alfred Hitchcock (2023). “Rope is the intellectual and moral centre of Hitchcock’s work,” Cousins suggests. “He wasn’t trying to be funny or amuse. Instead of looking askance at murder, in Rope he stared right at it. He didn’t lighten his form.”

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