Saturday, August 2, 2008

Repeat Viewing: Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)

TSPDT placing: #955
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Patrick Hamilton (play), Hume Cronyn (adaptation), Arthur Laurents (screenplay), Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Starring: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Cedric Hardwicke, Constance Collier, Douglas Dick, Edith Evanson, Dick Hogan, Joan Chandler
Alfred Hitchcock, despite his commercial popularity, was perhaps one of cinema's most audacious technical innovators. Even very early in his career – Blackmail (1929) was the first British film to make the cross-over into "talkies" – the Master of Suspense was forever searching for distinctive new means of telling a story and furthering his craft. Hitchcock was particularly interested in film-making that unfolded almost exclusively in a single restricted location, perhaps because of its likeness to a traditional stage play, or, more tellingly, because it allowed him to place the audience "in the room" with his nefarious characters. The director's first such endeavour was the radical Lifeboat (1944), which took place entirely on a small boat in the middle of the Atlantic, and similar "one-room" thrillers include Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954). Of course, the most experimental of these experiments was undoubtedly Rope (1948), a tense and intimate suspense tale that utilised extraordinarily-long takes to unfold the story almost in real-time. Against all odds, it's one of Hitchcock's finest.

Rope was adapted from Patrick Hamilton's 1929 stage play of the same name, itself inspired by the true-life story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two wealthy University of Chicago students whose desire to commit the "perfect crime" culminated in murder in 1924. The film opens with the strangling murder of David Kentley (Dick Hogan) by two friends, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), who have come to consider murder an art-form, a privilege bestowed only upon a select few superior individuals. In order to crown their masterpiece, and flaunt their superiority before colleagues, the pair have organised a dinner party in their apartment – attended by David's friends and family – the buffet served over their victim's lifeless body in an unlocked chest. As Brandon narcissistically drops vague hints as to David's fate, and Phillip descends into a restless drunken binge, former prep-school housemaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) senses that his students have been up to something, and that his own teachings on the philosophy of the Übermensch (Nietzsche's "Superman") may have been responsible.

All this action unfolds through ten continuous long takes, of between four and ten minutes in length, with around half of the transitions made "invisible" by dollying forward into the darkness of a character's back. As the characters move back and forth across Hitchcock's set, their lines and movements precisely choreographed, the cameramen and sound recordists track smoothly with them, constantly moving props and furniture out of the path of the filming equipment. This was the first occasion that such an audacious film-making technique had been trialled, and Rope wouldn't be bettered until digital technology allowed Aleksandr Sokurov to film the entirety of Russian Ark (2002) in a single take. Some have subsequently termed Hitchcock's film to be nothing but a gimmick, but to do so would be grossly unfair to all involved – indeed, when I first viewed the film, such was my immersion in the story that, unbelievably enough, it took me the bulk of the running time to even notice that I was watching unbroken takes.

Rope deliberately carries the air of a stage play, though the addition of a camera necessarily amplifies the intimacy of every situation. By eliminating almost all editing from his film, Hitchcock suspends the artificiality that is inherent in the art form – effectively flouting the wisdom of Eisenstein and Vertov – and allows the actions of his characters to tell the story. Characteristically, this technique also adds an element of voyeurism to our viewing the film, the unbroken takes suggesting that we, the audience, are actually standing in the room observing the proceedings. As the third perpetrator in the murder, we watch through anxious eyes as Brandon Shaw smugly offers dangerous insinuations, Phillip Morgan shakes uncontrollably at every item that might give away his crime, and Rupert Cadell thoughtfully begins to put the pieces together, despite his disbelief that such a cold-blooded murder could have been committed. Exhausting, exhilarating and, above all, entertaining, Alfred Hitchcock's Rope finds the Master of Suspense at the top of his game, a shining example of experimentation turned into great art.

Currently my #3 film of 1948:
1) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
2) Ladri di biciclette {The Bicycle Thief} (Vittorio De Sicae)
3) Rope (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Oliver Twist (David Lean)
5) Macbeth (Orson Welles)

What others have said:

"The novelty of the picture is not in the drama itself, it being a plainly deliberate and rather thin exercise in suspense, but merely in the method which Mr. Hitchcock has used to stretch the intended tension for the length of the little stunt. And, with due regard for his daring (and for that of Transatlantic Films), one must bluntly observe that the method is neither effective nor does it appear that it could be. For apart from the tedium of waiting or someone to open that chest and discover the hidden body which the hosts have tucked away for the sake of a thrill, the unpunctuated flow of image becomes quite monotonous. And the effort of application to a story of meager range becomes intense. The physical limitation of the camera to one approach compels it to stay as an eavesdropper on lots of dialogue and lots of business that are dull. And the yarn, by the nature of its writing, is largely actionless."

"To Hitchcock's credit, Rope never feels much like a stage play despite the lack of edits and its apartment set. It's too alive for that. It's a movie through and through. The director dresses it up in every possible way he can: the sound design is particularly smart, splitting the party into separate conversational layers. There's a great sequence with only one actor, the hired help, walking to and from the foreground cleaning off the living room chest cum coffin as the murderers and the guests continue their conversations. The amount of tension Hitchcock manages to build by doing so little is admirable. He also makes elegant use of music. Another great moment occurs in a conversation between James Stewart and one of the killers, with the canny use of a metronome to add to the time bomb effect of the deadly evening."

"Given Hitchcock's sensitivity to the anxieties upon which order is unnaturally erected, however, it is just as valid to see the murder as not so much a perversion of their mentor's teachings as a perversion of the feelings they are not allowed to express for each other. Hitchcock dutifully restores normalcy by sending estranged lovebirds Joan Chandler and Douglas Dick home at the end of the party, but his real interest lies with the society-whelped "monsters" and the smug teacher who comes to realize his own inescapable role in their condition. It's fitting that Hitchcock's themes of death and sex culminate in a pistol's climatic ejaculation out the window, a moment of necessary exposure that, leaving the three characters alone with their sobering revelations under the camera's non-dodging gaze, feels paradoxically liberating."


J Luis Rivera said...

That's one of my favourite Hitchcock films... Simply awesome. I think that those who say it's only a gimmick have not really seen the film and just talk about what they have read about it...

ackatsis said...

It still packs a deadly punch! I didn't address it in my review, but I'm simply amazed at how much sexual allusion Hitch managed to sneak in under the radar - the Production Code censors were typically merciless about these sort of things.

Have you seen "Under Capricorn?" It uses a similar technique, filming each scene in a single take. The cinematography is absolutely breathtaking, but, unfortunately, the story is more of a melodrama than anything else - but at least it's set in Australia!

tosser/ressot said...

Eh. I don't even think the whole 'one shot' thing works as a gimmick, since it's not really anything showy. It's just sort of...there, and pointless. On the whole, I find Rope to be horribly bland and dull. Stewart's acting is also dire.

ackatsis said...

What a silly thing to say, tosser...