I've long been a subscriber to Alfred Hitchcock's Bomb Theory, and have referenced it often. It is how the director explained his philosophy on suspense:
"We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!'
"In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story."
"Rope" is a perfect example of the Bomb Theory. Based on a 1929 play, it substitutes a dead body for a bomb. The film opens with best friends Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger) murdering David (Dick Hogan) and then stuffing him in a chest in preparation for a dinner party that will be held in large part for the thrill of concealing their victim under the noses of his family and friends. Thus, the corpse sits in the middle of every scene, the subject of conversation, wonder, and worry, though the characters are none the wiser.
There is a subtle but palpable gay subtext between Brandon and Phillip, and there is an implicit erotic charge in the way they share the crime. Wasn't it exciting? Will anyone suspect them? What will happen if they're caught? … Are we still talking about a murder? Their sexuality was more explicitly established in the original play but was left unspoken in the film to get by American censors, yet it works so well as subtext that I wonder if it's better off this way – the love that dare not speak its name intertwined with a murder that dare not either. James Stewart plays the young men's former teacher, who is also intended to be gay, but that detail is nowhere to be found in the film, not even in subtext.
Hitchcock's staging and camerawork are sinister in how playful they are, as when Brandon whimsically deposits the murder weapon in a drawer, an image captured with perfect timing through the swinging of the kitchen door. The single best shot of the film positions the camera over the chest as the maid cleans up after the party; as the guests discuss poor David's whereabouts off-screen, we watch as she gets closer and closer to uncovering the truth – it's the ticking of the clock as the bomb nears detonation. I watched with bated breath.
On the "Rope" DVD is a 30-minute documentary called "Rope Unleashed" in which screenwriter Arthur Laurents expresses displeasure with the storytelling Hitchcock dictated. Laurents would have preferred to keep the murder and the contents of the chest a secret from the audience. He is clearly and spectacularly wrong about that, I think, because knowing what is in the chest is precisely what drives the film. If we're not aware, it simply becomes a film about a dinner party, with coy details withheld for the sake of a momentary surprise. But as Hitchcock executed it, we assume the point of view of the killers: sitting on the razor's edge between secrecy and discovery, playfully tempting fate while feeling the walls close in. Imagine the shot of the maid cleaning up if we didn't know what was in the chest. Who would care?
Hitchcock filmed "Rope" in several uninterrupted takes. At the time, a reel of film was only ten minutes long, which prevented him from doing the entire film in a single shot, and he awkwardly tries to mask his edits by pushing in a character's back and pulling out again, but that's a minor flaw in an otherwise impeccable study in sustained tension. Hitchcock is a director of meticulous control and dark humor. Perhaps in these characters he found kindred spirits.