Sunday, 12 May 2013

(11) Rope (1948): Hitchcock's remarkable achievement

Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) is often regarded as a mistake, not only by audiences and critics, as David Thomson claims, Rope is "flawed by unwieldy or wrongheaded situations", but also by the master of suspense himself, as Hitchcock puts it: "As an experiment, Rope may be forgiven." However, I personally loved the film, whether this is because of my love of the stage and the reality that mistakes are more apparent on the stage, I don't know, however I enjoyed it immensely.
Rope, which originally was a play staged in London in 1929, provided Hitchcock with many technical challenges, it was his first Technicolor film, the first film where he was also a producer, moreover Hitchcock also wanted to see whether it was possible to make a film without cutting and editing, he wanted to create a film with a continuous action, designed to take place in real time. Hitchcock showed that it is possible, that film can be just like a play - a curtain opens and a play starts, a curtain closes and a play ends. Hitchcock wanted to make it as a stage production, only for the cinema:
I undertook Rope as a stunt ... The stage drama was played out in the actual time of the story; the action is continuous from the moment the curtain goes up until it comes down again. I asked myself whether it was technically possible to film it in the same way. The only way to achieve that, I found, would be to handle the shooting in the same continuous action, with no break in the telling of a story that begins at seven-thirty and ends at nine-fifteen. And I got this crazy idea to do it in a single shot. (Hitchcock by Truffaut)
A film sequence is divided into five to fifteen seconds long shots, therefore the film that runs one hour and thirty minutes will have around six hundred shots. In some Hitchcock films there might be as many as a thousand shots, for example, "there were thirteen hundred and sixty shots in The Birds." Whereas in Rope each shot runs from four to ten minutes, that is, "the entire film roll in the camera magazine, and is referred to as a ten-minute take. In the history of cinema this is the only instance in which an entire film has been shot with no interruption for the different camera setups." Therefore, Rope only has as many as eleven shots. That is an admirable achievement and Hitchcock went through a great trouble to achieve this continuous action.

A representation in LOOK magazine of the shot sequences in Rope.
Rope was Hitchcock's first Technicolor film. In 1948 if you filmed a Technicolor film, that meant less mobile camera movements, thus lighting couldn't be adjusted to each scene as it was done by the Americans in 1920. Hitchcock used a dolly for the camera and every single movement was mapped out well beforehand, plus the set of the film was the one that moved, "Walls are being moved and lights are being raised and lowered", everything was set on silent rails and furniture was mounted on rollers, so it could be moved around. Even clouds outside the window were moved slowly to indicate time passing. I can imagine that the whole set of Rope resembled a massive doll's house, where Hitchcock was the master of the house and dolls.
It took ten days of rehearsals with the cameras, the actors and the lighting, after that there were eighteen days of shooting, nine days of which were for the retakes, because of 'the too orange sunset', so the last five reels were done all over again. One mistake meant re-taking of the whole reel, re-shooting roughly ten minutes of the film.
Besides the continuous action, the moving set and all the problems with color, on top of that Hitchcock managed to create a direct soundtrack for the film, which is remarkable, and it was never done before neither in Europe nor in Hollywood. As Truffaut puts it, Hitchcock reached "the painstaking quest for realism. The sound track of that picture is fantastically realistic ... toward the end ... one hears the noises gradually rising from the street." Which really was the case! Hitchcock gathered a group of people who would talk about the shots, the scene which appeared at the end of the film, and the microphone was put six stories high, so it would coincide with the apartment in the film. Moreover, in order to create the sound of police sirens  coming towards the apartment Hitchcock "made them to get an ambulance with a siren. ... placed a microphone at the studio gate and sent the ambulance two miles away...". That's how Hitchcock created the soundtrack for Rope.
Doubtless, Rope was technically a remarkable and admirable achievement, it might imply that Hitchcock sometimes was more interested in technique and filming process than the meaning of the film and importance of the story. Rope mightn't be Hitchcock's most suspense building film, but nevertheless it still 'brutalizes our nerves' with its story about two young homosexual men, who Hitchcock wanted initially to be played by Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift, who murder their college friend as an intellectual challenge in order to commit the perfect crime.

P.S. As many of you might know Hitchcock enjoyed making brief cameos in his films. So, where can you find Hitchcock's cameo in Rope?
He appears in the opening credits, however his profile also appears on the red neon sign outside the window. Quite a colourful appearance for his first Technicolor production. Hitchcock said: "My cameo appearances were ... reminding the audience, it's only a movie." All together the master appeared in 39 films. Which reminds me of 39 Steps to Hitchcock, if you want to delve deeper into Hitchcock's wit and are spellbound by his work as I am, then take this BFI created step-by-step journey through his life and work, that made Hitchcock the cinema's master of suspense.
Rope (1948) - 00:55:22 -

Rope (1948) will also be available on Blu-ray, pre-order now on Amazon here, it will be released on June 4, 2013.