13 October 2011

Rope



Alfred Hitchcock is a genius filmmaker. That fact is irrefutable. The only thing he never achieved was taking home the coveted golden Oscar on awards night. He had five nominations in his lifetime, but not a single win. This seems like an absolute travesty. Hitchcock was a film pioneer, and his 1948 film Rope was no exception.

Rope opens with a high outdoor shot of a New York street for the duration of the opening credits. According to some, Hitchcock himself is the man that walks through the scene. The camera then pans over to a window, where the serenity of the outdoors is broken with a jarring scream by David Kentley (Dick Hogan) as he is strangled to death by his two boyhood friends Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) with a rope. They then conceal the body in a chest.

After they hide the body, Brandon and Phillip discuss what it means to murder someone. They talk about how killing is an art - how many people talk about it, but only a few actually do it. From the get go, it is obvious that Brandon is more confident and pleased with what they have accomplished. Phillip, on the other hand, feels guilty and nervous. Brandon’s confidence and brazenness leads him to move the focal point of the dinner party that he throwing from the dinner table to the chest.

While they are moving the tablecloth, candelabras, silverware, and napkins, Brandon’s housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson), returns to the apartment. She promptly complains about the change of venue for the dinner party. As preparations come to an end, the first dinner guest arrives. Kenneth (Douglas Dick), a boyhood friend of David, Brandon and Phillip, asks why they are celebrating with champagne. Brandon simply explains that it is a going away party.

Next to arrive is the beautiful Janet Walker (Joan Chandler). She is the ex-girlfriend of both Brandon and Kenneth, though the latter still wants to be with her. She is also the current girlfriend of David. Following her arrival, David’s father Mr. Kentley (Cedric Hardwicke) comes with his sister, Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier), instead of Mrs. Kentley, who was unable able to attend due to illness. Mr. Kentley has come to see some first edition books that Brandon owns. With four of the five guests present, the discussion turns to the whereabouts of David. He is never late. No one has heard from him. He told some that he would meet them there.

Finally, the last party attendee, Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart), arrives. Rupert was the head master at the school that all four of the boyhood friends attended. He relays stories from their boyhood days. Apparently, while they were in his school, they discussed death and murder. They believed that the superior people of the world could and should kill the inferior people. This discussion leads to some comedic relief by talking about how long lines would be eliminated if society created “Cut Her Throat Week” and “Strangulation Day.” In the end, the discussion came back to David and the peculiarity of his absence. As the party continues, Rupert starts to suspect Brandon and Phillip are hiding something leading to the apex.

Rope is based on a play by Patrick Hamilton titled “Rope’s End.” It was adapted by Hume Cronyn and the screenplay was written by Arthur Laurents. I could very easily see this being performed on a stage. Sadly, that is also why the movie did not work that well. The suspense was not as palpable as one would expect from a Hitchcock film. Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest and Notorious are all very suspenseful. I did not find myself on the edge of my seat while watching Rope. With the long takes, I would have expected to feel uncomfortable, but I actually felt more like I was watching a stage play instead of a motion picture.

Back in 1948, the most film that a camera could hold was ten minutes. So, Hitchcock shot Rope in ten minute continuous shots. In total, there are only ten cuts in the film, and a lot of them are hidden. I watched intently to see if I could catch all of the cuts, and I only missed one. A lot of them were hidden by crossing behind a character or object blacking out the screen. A few were pan shots. After consulting Wikipedia, I realized the only one I missed was a still shot of the hallway with no movement in the scene.

By filming it this way, the story is told linearly and in real time. The real time aspect is rarely done, and I quite enjoyed it here. It did have a High Noon feel to it. Filming in ten minute segments also put a lot of pressure on the mise-en-scene and keeping everything in focus. I was amazed at the smoothness and flawlessness achieved in the zooming. The actors also impressed me, specifically Dall and Granger. They had the most lines, and had to deliver them all flawlessly for minutes at a time. Most actors today do not have to memorize more than a few seconds of dialog and movement. While Rope is not on par with his other classics, Hitchcock’s first color film and first collaboration with Jimmy Stewart still finds a way to impress.

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