“Rope” by Alfred Joseph Hitchcock

Cinema/film industry has become a very conspicuous form of mass entertainment. The extent of cinema’s popularity, influence, and proliferation has been phenomenal. Artistic expression and development via technological expediency has made it an unequaled facet of visual/fine arts since the inception of the 20th century. The immemorial film cadre by iconic British filmmaker/producer, Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock (August 13, 1899 – April 29, 1980) exudes an indelible influence on the cinema/film industry – past and present. With more than fifty feature films to his credit and a career spanning six decades, Hitchcock was a leading pioneer in suspense/ psychological films. With his trademark cameo appearances in his films, Hitchcock’s use of other cinematic devices included suspense, ordinary person/wrong man/wrong woman paradigm, sexuality, audience as voyeur, the charming sociopath, blonde women, and the MacGuffin technique (narrative revolves around a minor detail).

Hitchcock’s U.S. directorial debut as well as prolific career in Hollywood commenced in 1940 with the classic psychological thriller, Rebecca. Diverse in nature, Hitchcock’s films of the 1940’s ranged from courtroom/suspense/murder dramas, romances, to comedies. Rope was released August 23, 1948. Its distinguished ensemble cast included legendary/popular actor, James Stewart, and newcomers – John Dall and Farley Granger. The adapted screenplay, based on Patrick Hamilton’s (English playwright/novelist) play of the same name, was written by Hume Croyn and Arthur Laurents. The real life-murder in 1924 of fourteen-year old Bobby Franks by two wealthy University of Chicago students, Leopold and Loeb – obsessed with committing the perfect crime without consequences – served as the thematic impetus for the play/film. According to acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert, “Alfred Hitchcock called ‘Rope’ an ‘experiment that didn’t work out,’ and he was happy to see it kept out of release for most of three decades. He was correct that it didn’t work out, but ‘Rope’ remains one of the most interesting experiments ever attempted by a major director working with big box-office names, and it’s worth seeing (Ebert).”

Dall (Brandon Shaw) and Granger (Phillip Morgan) play two young brilliant aesthetics who at the onset of the movie murder their fellow classmate, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), in their apartment. As an arrogant and celebratory display of their accomplishment, they hold a dinner party with David’s parents, fiancé, and other fellow classmate as the invited guest and the chest, containing David’s body, used as the dinner buffet table. Also among the guest is Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) their former erstwhile prep-school housemaster and now turned publisher. Cadell is credited with fostering the two protagonists’ obsession with the intellectual art of murder. At the core of this art, are the intellectual philosophy/concepts of German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who advocated aristocratic superiority. Brandon, in particular, feels that Cadell will approve of the murder since he is the impetus for it. David’s strange absence exudes throughout the movie, deeply troubling his parents and fiancé. Various enigmatic as well as sarcastic hints from Brandon coupled with Phillip’s nervous and morose demeanor; lead Cadell to suspect that something is wrong. The movie embarks upon a cagey cat and mouse game between the three men culminating with Cadell discovering David’s body. Horrified at the murder and even more so because he inspired it, the movie ends with Cadell firing three shots out the window in order to alert the police of the crime.

Although story, direction combined with music is vital to a film’s success, cinematography, lighting/color, editing and sound are essential components as well. They contribute to the visual image which exudes the unique aura of a film. Rope is considered Hitchcock’s earliest technically innovative film in terms of color/lighting, cinematography, editing, and sound. Hitchcock’s fist color film, Rope was shot in Technicolor. From 1922 to 1952, Technicolor was the most widely used color motion picture process in Hollywood as evidenced by lavish color films such as The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Joan of Arc, and Fantasia. In using Technicolor, which is known for it use of saturated levels of color, the color and lighting work hand in hand to give Rope a hyper-realistic look, a consistent trademark of with Technicolor films.

Cinematography contributes to a film’s mesmerizing aura. A cinematographer’s job is to create the ambiance and look of the film that correlates with and interprets the director’s idea. The director may have decisive control over the visual image, but it is the cinematographer’s job to actually record that image. Sensitivity to space, shot versatility, and bringing visual images to the surface that the story does and does not say exemplify cinematography at its best. Under the direction of American cinematographers, William V. Skall and Joseph A. Valentine, the film’s running time was 81 minutes, due to the film being shot in real time thoroughly carefully planned/ choreographed 4 to 10 minute shots which ran continuously without interruption. Rope has the appearance of being shot in one take, truly revolutionary for its time.

Hitchcock filmed each scene in segments lasting up to ten minutes (the length of a reel of film at the time), each segment continuously panning from character to character in real time. Several segments end by panning against or zooming into an object (a man’s jacket, or the back of a piece of furniture, for example) or by having an actor move in front of the camera, blocking the entire screen; each scene after that starts a static shot of that same object. In this way Hitchcock effectively masked some (but not all) of the cuts in the film (economicexpert.com).

French filmmaker/critic, Francois Truffaut further elaborates in his book Hitchcock/Truffaut

(1967): The walls of the set were on rollers and could silently be moved out of the way to make way for the camera, and then replaced when they were to come back into shot. Prop men also had to constantly move the furniture and other props out of the way of the large Technicolor camera, and then ensure they were replaced in the correct location. A team of soundmen and camera operators kept the camera and microphones in constant motion, as the actors kept to a carefully choreographed set of cues (Truffaut).

Editing trims and pieces a film together thereby making it more artistically concise, complete, and artistically illusionary. For all intents and purposes, Rope’s editing accolades lies in the fact that not much editing was needed because of the cinematographic process. The sound of cars in the background is demonstrative of busy city life. Not a great deal of music is used. That music which is present such as the piano tune played by Phillip, serves to soothe his remorse for what he has done. The sound rests heavily on the dialogue. Rope, like its predecessor Lifeboat (1943), illustrated Hitchcock’s experimentation with developing suspense in a confined area. Aside from the opening street scene shot, the apartment, with an extraordinary cyclorama in the background, is the sole film location. The largest ever used on a soundstage; the cyclorama consisted of numerous chimneys, neo signs, buildings with lights as well as models of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings.

Consistent with his unique cinematic style, Hitchcock utilizes these elements to convey a vast array of themes. The entire infrastructure of people’s culture (political, economic, artistic, educational institutions, etc.) is interwoven with personal impressions, ideas, emotions, and prejudices. American-Armenian author, William Saroyan once stated “Does art reflect life? In movies, yes. Because more than any other art form, films have been a mirror held up to society’s porous face (Saroyan).” The visual/fine arts realm is no exception, Hitchcock’s film likewise. Homo-sexuality, although considered a societal open secret, was a highly controversial at the time and Rope’s homoerotic glaring undertone was indeed revolutionary for the 1940’s. Leopold and Loeb were homosexuals, so one can only deduce that Brandon and Phillip were likewise. After strangling David in the opening scene, both men, especially Brandon, seem sexually exhilarated.

Consistent with his unique cinematic style, Hitchcock utilizes aforementioned cinematic elements to convey this theme and a vast array of others. Intellectual and lascivious justification of murder, the grotesque, arrogant and hypocritical nature of the elite, among other things makes Rope deeply disturbing. Referring back to the opening scene in terms of lighting, the backdrop of the apartment is dark with the exception of the light coming from behind the window curtains. Brandon, Phillip, David, and the burial chest are in vivid color. Hitchcock exposes the hypocrisy of the perfect murder theory. Evil in essence, hates light. As arrogant and supposedly superior they profess themselves to be, Brandon and Phillip are too cowardly to commit their sinister/heinous crime in the light for everyone to see.

As previously stated, Technicolor uses saturated levels of color to give a hyper-realistic appearance. Through this particular use of color, Brandon and Phillip grotesqueness -mental/ spiritual deformity as opposed to physicality – permeates exceedingly. They are saturated with repugnant traits – egotism, self-righteousness, aristocratic bigotry, to name a few. Cadell’s suspicion that something has happened to David comes to fruition when Brandon accidentally gives him David’s hat. Cadell leaves with the other guest only to return under the false pretense that he left his cigarette lighter. He then proceeds to make known his suspicions about David’s precarious whereabouts. Finally, through inference he replays how David might have been killed. The scene reveals the powerful cinematic effect of the long shot – skilled cinematography at its best. The panning of the camera, etc. gives one the sense of David’s presence. Via Stewart’s dialogue and the cinematography, the audience relives David’s final moments.

The thoughts of a person do not go unseen for their thoughts are soon revealed in the substance of their deeds. Thoughts constitute a person’s morals – principles of conduct or a system of beliefs which they live by or are governed accordingly. A person’s morals distinguish theirs character. The physical world is a mirror of the human mind/thought. The plethora of ills plaguing the planet and the human family today is the result of a world morally and righteously void. The long take shots and homoerotic nature of the film, made Stewart somewhat uncomfortable in the role of Rupert Cadell. In lieu of Cadell’s paradoxical and multifaceted nature however, one could see why Stewart accepted the role. In his Colombo style detective wit, Cadell figures out the crime. Most importantly, he is the initial perpetrator of Brandon and Phillip’s heinous thoughts. Brandon and Phillip take Cadell’s thoughts – perfect crime, inferior subjected to the superior – and puts them into action. Stewarts’ Cadell only further intensifies the irony, suspense, and theme of the movie. Cadell didn’t understand the power of his rhetoric. He does not divorce himself, however from the crime. Cadell realizes that he is just as guilty as Brandon and Phillip for implanting the seed. He accepts his role, alerts authorities of the crime, and remains with Brandon and Phillip for judgment. He becomes, in essence, the moral conscience of the film.

Hitchcock could have chosen a more entertaining subject with which to use the arresting camera and staging technique displayed in Rope” stated Variety magazine in their 1948 critique of the film(Variety). The film was not one of his most well known. Suffice to say, the cringe-inducing traits exhibited by the main characters, maintain a certain level of interest to the audience. Through the lens of these deeply flawed/ grotesque personages – without being overly moralistic and literal – Hitchcock highlights the disturbing psyche of the so-called elite. Prompted by inhumane philosophies such as eugenics, bigotry, and the like etc., Rope is Hitchcock’s profound expose on human savagery at the highest level. For someone of Hitchcock’s stature, Rope should therefore be viewed as more than cinematic technical exercise.

Bibliography

Ebert, Roger. “Rope”. Web.

Saroyan, William. Web.

Truffaut, Francois Hitchcock/Truffaut: New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.

“Rope”: Web.

“Rope Review.” Variety Magazine: Web.