Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and the Illusion of the Uninterrupted Take
Alfred Hitchcock used the illusion of being shot in one take with Rope
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There once was an ambitious auteur who somehow convinced studios to gift-wrap him Hollywood money (and Hollywood stars) for what was ultimately an exercise in experimental filmmaking. Despite on the surface playing with genre tropes, his movie controversially used long shots and elaborate camera set-ups to create the illusion of one unbroken take and a deliberate pace.
… I am of course talking about the Alfred Hitchcock film Rope. Could it have been anything else?
Indeed, long before Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s majestic and strangely hypnotic Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Hitchcock also famously attempted the magic trick of a seemingly uninterrupted moviegoing experience. Granted, there are also major differences. For starters, Birdman is the far bigger triumph that led to Iñárritu proudly taking home the Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. Conversely, Rope was largely dismissed upon its release in 1948 as a gimmick and then was mostly ignored during the rest of Hitchcock’s life. Roger Ebert even asserted that Hitch was apparently happy that the film was rarely revived or revisited in the ensuing three decades.
Further Iñárritu, whose movie is far more aggressively fantastical than Hitch’s use of long takes, personally disdains the comparisons, stating he considers Rope to be terrible. And he is at least correct to point out that it is not a 1:1 comparison; Rope aspires to appear as if it is all occurring in real-time whereas Birdman embraces a self-aware use of time elapsing dissolves and magical realism that defies our perceptions of what is actually occurring in the narrative.
Nevertheless, it is still an apropos comparison due to similar aspirations, particularly nowadays since Rope rarely gets its due. While being far from Hitchcock’s best work, it is one of his most fascinating and unique efforts that stands apart from much of the celebrated filmography. When watching the picture, viewers can literally see a master resist every impulse and trick he has learned in an effort to better serve the realism and experimental choice he has made, thereby also unintentionally crafting one of his most forward-thinking efforts.
Rope was adapted by Hume Cronyn and screenwriter Arthur Laurents from Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play of the same name. That play was in turn inspired by the infamous blue blood murderers Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb. Both considered gifted young intellects and child prodigies, the two became the epicenter of “the Crime of the Century” when after their first year at the University of Chicago, they abducted and murdered 14-year-old Robert Franks in 1924 in an attempt to execute the perfect crime. Imagining themselves to be Nietzsche’s “Supermen,” they considered the killing of a child to be a demonstration of intellectual superiority, and got life sentences for their troubles (Loeb was murdered in prison; Leopold was paroled in ’58).
Comparatively, the movie version of Rope is set after the Second World War, which muddies the concepts of Nietzsche and the Übermensch in popular culture. Hitler too, it turned out, found these ideas to as be a perfect excuse for wholesale death. Nonetheless, Rope still finds John Dall’s Brandon and Farley Granger’s Philip as two foppish intellectuals living in Upper East Side opulence when they murder their Harvard classmate David Kentley (Dick Hogan). Philip is the one who actually chokes the life out of his friend with the titular rope, but it is evident from the very first moment, as they lower David’s body into a book chest, that Brandon is the dominant.
The reason for choosing David as their guinea pig is an enigma, but Vincent Canby ventured an amusing guess in The New York Times. Picking up the very clear subtext that Brandon and Philip are gay (they certainly bicker like a couple), Canby analyzes all the hints coded into the script, including that “David’s only crime seems to be that he’s ‘ordinary,’ meaning, among other things, that he’s engaged to be married.” Hence, Brandon’s wish to tie a different sort of noose around his old chum.
It is also Brandon’s rather ghoulish idea to have David’s parents (only the father arrives) and prospective fiancée invited to a dinner party he is throwing. Serving the meal à la carte in their auspicious living room, David places the food and candelabras that look like they were taken straight from Universal’s Dracula on the chest where David’s remains serve as an altar for the living’s feast. All of this, however, is mostly done to secretly gloat to Brandon and Philip’s prep school headmaster, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart). While they’d never admit their murder (at least consciously), Rupert is the teacher who impressed upon them the teachings of Nietzsche and the privilege inherent in murder, and he will now also be forced to play detective to their extracurricular activities.
However, all of this melodrama, which maintains early Broadway’s stately penchant for wordplay and an old fashioned cadence, is in service to Hitch replicating what first so impressed him about seeing the show on stage. Undoubtedly, a tale of lurid murder and mystery was as appealing to the filmmaker as blond hair, however Hitchcock most specifically savored that the play was presented in real-time during the early evening hours of summertime twilight by New York’s skyline.
“There’s no break anywhere in the story,” Hitchcock marveled about the play almost 15 years later during his famous interviews with François Truffaut. “It starts at 7:30 and finishes about 9:15, and I got this crazy idea of saying, ‘Well, maybe if I could do it in one shot, the whole film—’ When I look back, of course, it’s quite nonsensical and unreal, because I was breaking all my own tradition of using film, in the cutting of film, to tell a story.”
Showing conflicted feelings, Hitch almost apologizes for the film’s emphasis on long takes, admitting to Truffaut, “I don’t know why I really indulged in the stunt [and] I can really only call it a stunt.” Yet, he actually paved the way for the use of longer takes in Hollywood cinema while also discovering the potential tension that a long, sustained shot can ignite, which he would use to marvelous effect in the future. While he may look back on Rope as a frustrating transition film (it was also his first color picture), the techniques he pioneered in it can be followed all the way to Birdman.
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To create the long takes, Hitchcock would film 10 minutes at a time of the movie-length scene, which is exactly how much celluloid he could load into the camera’s reel. Additionally, to achieve the effect of unimpeded camera movement, he had to choreograph the entire film around 10 specific cuts in the film. These included several shots where the camera would pan over a character’s back or the top of the opened chest/coffin, which would allow for the shot to discreetly cut and film reels to change.
Admittedly, these are mostly noticeable, with the techniques of hiding cuts being refined over the decades by everyone from Iñárritu to Alfonso Cuarón and Joss Whedon. Still, the need to mask these cuts and to create a sense of tension in a stately play that occurs only within an apartment led to Hitchcock using his camera much more aggressively during dialogue scenes—which makes it all the more modern now.
The camera is often in a state of movement on dollies around the set, gliding around the characters at this party like it’s an invisible eighth guest. Remarkably, this was achieved by building all the set on silent, sliding rails and allowing walls to quietly disappear as the camera moved and reappear as it came back around while off-screen technicians got their boots all over Brandon’s carpet.
“[There was] a special spotlight on the dolly and a number, no bigger than an inch around on the floor,” Hitchcock explained, remarking on how they had to make a special floor for the set. “All the dolly men had to do was arrive on number one, and then after a certain cue of the dialogue, dolly over to number two, number three, and so forth, and then the operator picked up from there. When we went through into the hallway, the wall from there to there slid away, hidden on silent rails. The furniture moved out on wheels, and pushed back as the camera went by.”
Similarly, to create the effect of a setting sun and natural light fading into a bright city’s neon signs, the outside exterior of the cityscape was built to be three times bigger than the actual set. But as a consequence, the lighting of dusk’s transition gave Hitchcock a headache, leading him to reshoot almost the full second half of the film due to the light appearing too garish on color.
As Hitch surmised, “Quite obviously in the case of the cameraman who was lighting the clouds in Rope, he just said, ‘Well, it’s a sunset.’ He obviously hadn’t looked at one in a long-time, if ever at all.” By making his first color picture, HItchcock discovered many cameramen were still lighting sets as if they were black and white, and that actors had to be lit separately from the grayness of the sets.
Despite all these technical concessions to his concept, Hitchcock actually found new brilliant ways of building suspense. For instance, when Brandon and Philip’s maid Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) is clearing off the table after dinner, the rest of the ensemble is in the living room discussing where they might think David is since he has failed to show up for the party.
As David’s girlfriend Janet (Joan Chandler) frets and Stewart’s Rupert grows more and more suspicious of his two former students, we are not privy to witnessing any of their conversation. Instead, we observe Wilson methodically remove the food and wander all the way out of focus to the kitchen in the far background, and then return for the candlesticks and glasses. Next will be the tablecloth. On it goes, with the camera resting, disinterested in the concerned family’s prattle as the maid gets closer and closer to opening up the chest in order to place books back inside of it.
The viewer knows she is on the verge of finding a dead body, in fact one for the very boy everyone is so concerned about. And thus through lack of motion, close-up, or even a wide shot of the room, Hitch has generated one of his more memorably exciting shots. It is a visual storytelling technique that Roman Polanski would later use in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to build suspicion and dread in the audience and Mia Farrow about her neighbors.
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In complete contrast, the film also has during Jimmy Stewart’s big speech the character imagine, in a supposedly hypothetical scenario, how Brandon and Philip killed their schoolmate. As he glances around the room, imagining the murder, the camera follows his thoughts, from the idea of beating David over the head while he is in a chair to then choking the life out of him. Yet, it does not follow Rupert’s lie about sneaking the body through the kitchen and out the back. He already knows David is in the trunk; he just doesn’t want to admit that until he can get Brandon to give up the gun in his pocket.
Sequences like these help illustrate that Rope is not a black sheep in Hitch’s repertoire, but rather a commendable addition. In many ways, the movie continues, on an intentionally pseudo-intellectual level, ideas from past efforts. Obviously, there is the wink to his most recent hit, 1946’s Notorious, with Constance Collier’s flighty Mrs. Atwater being unable to name that picture she liked with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, but more specifically Rope is the evolution of a running gag in Hitch’s personal favorite, Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
In that masterpiece about the menace of evil coming to Small Town, USA, the focus is on the smiling murderer Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) and his twisted relationship with niece Charlie (Teresa Wright). However, much of the comedy comes in the margins from young Charlie’s father (Henry Travers) and their nebbish neighbor Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cornyn). Throughout the picture, while an actual murderous family member has come to town and is conspiring to slaughter Papa Joseph’s daughter in their family home, these two knuckleheads are having a devil of a time imagining the “perfect crime.”
Like the real-life Leopold and Loeb before them, Herbie and Joseph keep swapping hypothetical murders back and forth amongst themselves, trying to figure out who would be the better, uncatchable killer. It is played for dark laughs, which seems even more apt since one can easily imagine Hitch and his wife Alma Reville (who co-wrote Shadow of a Doubt) often having just such a conversation.
Yet in Rope, here are two effete and exceedingly pretentious dandies that do exactly the same thing but take it a step further by actually attempting the perfect murder.
“I’ve always wished for more artistic talent,” Brandon muses with a sense of self-satisfaction shortly after watching the light go out of David’s eyes. “Well, murder can be an art too. The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create.” I suspect that Hitch could be persuaded to agree. Brandon then takes it farther by saying, “That’s the difference between us and the ordinary man, Philip. Everyone talks about the perfect murder but they never do it.”
Unlike Joseph and Herbie, Brandon and Philip act on their impulses, because they believe they are better men. David is a straight bore to Brandon and thus the perfect person to die. And how could they not perceive their high intelligence as an excuse for such actions when their favorite teacher brings up murder unprompted at a dinner party?
The casting of Jimmy Stewart as Rupert is an interesting one. Clearly meant to be an overeducated malcontent obsessed with his philosophy, the all-American everyman that Stewart embodied before the war and truly became after it does not mesh necessarily well with such a snob. Instead, Stewart plays Rupert as a misanthropic curmudgeon, one in need of a rude wake-up call to what life is like from outside his ivory tower. Brisk and dismissive of all the other characters, Stewart’s Rupert looks to make the one-percenters at the party uneasy by spouting off, “Murder is a crime for most people, but a privilege for a few.” By stating that for those wise enough to realize that murder can serve a purpose beyond just being an excuse to nab “a blond, a mattress full of money, or any other reasons” so pedestrian, he envisions the entitled killing to make society better, eliminating poverty and unemployment.
In fact, it is an open-question whether such dialogue might have inspired James DeMonaco to make The Purge since Rupert only half-jokingly suggests that they have a “Cut a Throat Week or Strangulation Day.” However, such posturing is forced to be brought to naught when he slowly deduces that his students have actually taken a human life.
By the end of the film, Rupert renounces Nietzsche and his philosophies in favor of letting hegemonic society kill his star pupils, but before that he first comes to the epiphany that they might be responsible for David’s absence by seeing how on edge Philip is throughout the night. Played as almost hysterical by Farley Granger, he loses his cool when Brandon goads him about the chickens he used to strangle at his family’s farm during summer vacations.
This is one of the only two times the film cuts with no hidden mask. At the precise moment Philip freaks out, a new shot is immediately commenced on Stewart’s reaction. He knows from secondhand sources that Philip did strangle chickens in his youth, and that denial makes the gears start turning.
After such a methodical and patient visualization, Hitch uses audience expectation to still subvert at the most prudent moments. It’s these macabre fixations being combined with a deliberate camera “stunt” that causes Rope to be such a curious artist’s puzzle, and one that deserves far more credit for its pioneering techniques than it is given.
Otherwise, all there is left is to have a drink as the police come. Hitchcock would reuse that idea again too.
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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.