''Rope'' is unique, even in the context of Alfred Hitchcock's bold career. For reasons that critics have debated, he filmed this wordy thriller in long, uninterrupted shots - far longer than the quick ''takes'' of most movies - that give the illusion of continuous action in real time. It's as if we were watching a play, or actually spending an evening in the New York apartment where the story (including a cold-blooded murder) unfolds.
The result has been called a failed experiment by some, a visual tour de force by others. Now a new generation of filmgoers can decide for themselves, since the 1948 picture is included in the package of long-unseen Hitchcock movies currently showing in theaters courtesy of Universal Pictures.
The story is simple and unusual: Two young intellectuals kill a friend to show their ''superiority'' over ordinary folks, have a ghoulish party to celebrate, and get snared by their own arrogance. While this takes place in less than 90 minutes, it abounds with Hitchcock trademarks, including morbid irony, twisted personalities, and an awful crime rearing its head in what seems to be a nice, comfy place.
Why did Hitchcock film the tale with such a distinctive method? Partly because he loved technical challenges, and also because he enjoyed condensing a thriller into a minimal setting, as he did in ''Lifeboat'' and ''Rear Window.''
In my view, though, he also felt daunted by the project's basically theatrical nature. The credits overflow with literary contributions - the film was written by Arthur Laurents from Hume Cronyn's adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's play - and the script has enough talk, talk, talk to make a visual stylist wince. Hitchcock was a visual stylist down to his bones. So he chose a simple revenge: filming the drama with a fluid brilliance that caresses the eye while the verbose dialogue assaults the ear.
''Rope'' is no masterpiece like, say, ''Vertigo'' or ''Rear Window,'' also in the reissue series. There are big gaps in the story, especially when the resolution draws near. And the acting is anything but smooth. Even the terrific James Stewart can't quite negotiate the lumpy speeches and obscure motivations that swamp his character near the end.
As the killers, Farley Granger is so intense he's ridiculous and John Dall is so ridiculous he's intense. As the victim's father, Sir Cedric Hardwicke gives one of the most wooden performances I've ever seen. Only the women play consistently well - Joan Chandler as the ingenue, Edith Evanson as the starchy maid, Constance Collier as a batty grande dame.
For all its flaws, though, ''Rope'' stands up as a fascinating and entertaining movie. Its lengthy shots give it a dramatic, almost musical rhythm all its own; and rarely does the camera itself become so compelling a character, albeit one we don't see. Even when he nodded a bit, as in guiding the performances here, Hitchcock remained one of the giants of world film. And in a few fabulous moments of ''Rope'' he parlayed camera angles and movements into spectacular examples of what close cousins cinema (the art of revealing) and suspense (the art of concealing) can be.