Rope (1948) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock | Screenplay by Arthur Laurents, Hume Cronyn, and Ben Hecht based on the play "Rope's End" by Patrick Hamilton | Starring: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger and Cedric Hardwicke | Production Company Transatlantic Pictures and Warner Bros | Released 08/28/48
Hitchcock and the Continuous Shot
Alfred Hitchcock served as auteur-theory training wheels for me. I doubt I'm alone in this. Perhaps it's the confines of his chosen genre that throw his presence as a director into such unmistakable relief. Or maybe it's his celebrity, cultivated through that famous profile, press-baiting soundbites, celebrated fetishes, and television fame. But what it comes down to is this: when watching a Hitchcock film, even uneducated moviegoers, even movie-loving children can suddenly wake up to the notion of the man behind the curtain. Movies do not merely exist. They are built. The realization can be thrilling: Someone is actually choreographing this whole spectacle for my amusement!
And on the subject of choreography I give you Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. I gave myself Rope, actually, it being the first Hitchcock I sought on my own as a budding film fanatic. 'Let's see what else this man behind the curtain, this wizard, can do.' In this case what he could do was quite a lot. Though Rope obviously represented a complex coordinated puzzle for the filmmaking team, the plot is unusually simple. Two former prep school mates kill a third for the thrill of it (this is no spoiler, just the opening scene). They chase their "perfect murder" with a cocktail party to which they've invited the victim's loved ones.
The film's claim to fame for whatever meager fame it has managed --and I'd argue that that's disproportionate to the elaborately perverse buffet it serves up as well as its pivotal place in the director's career (first color film, first post-fame failure, second attempt at a confined space thriller, a form which would reap perfection for the auteur on his third attempt: Rear Window, 1954) -- comes from Hitchcock's formal experimentation. For Rope he uses one camera, one set and only nine actors. And then, here's the famous part: Hitchcock films it all in one continuous shot. Or thereabouts --there are five or six noticeable edits (and a few more I'm told) but why quibble? Jimmy Stewart's reliably grounding charisma aside, Hitchcock is Rope's true movie star and Rope's continuous shot is the mythmaking close-up. It just happens to be stretched across the entire 80 minutes.
I hadn't watched Rope in a very long time and returning to it I found it sicker, funnier, and a bit sloppier than I remembered. Today it plays a little like an indie black comedy with a nasty dollop of winking gay panic. The relationship between the murderers is of the Leopold & Loeb school of evil homosexuals. Though this thriller was made in 1948, it could only read gayer if the men where shirtless or wearing leather harnesses.
This, for instance, is how the post murder scene plays out...
Two men, having just done the dirty deed, argue. The more aggressive man, Brandon, complains that they couldn't do it with the lights on, in the sunshine. His partner in crime, Phillip, has instant regrets. He could only do it in the dark. A cigarette is lit. More small talk and then they stand uncomfortably close together popping the cork (yes, really) on a bottle of champagne.
Phillip: [guilt-ridden] Brandon, how did you feel?Brandon: When?Phillip: During it.Brandon: I don't know really... I don't remember feeling much of anything. [suddenly excited] Until his body went limp and I knew it was over!Phillip: [trembling] And then...Brandon: And then I felt...tremendously exhilarated. [Pause] H-h-how did you feel?
When I was younger, most of Rope's sexual content slipped by me, anyway. The contact high I got from it was unrelated to adult naughtiness. It provoked no juvenile tittering. No, the thrills came from Rope's easy to grasp experimentation. I simply loved the gimmick. I caught another glimpse of the man behind the curtain. I still feel the same way when I watch it: give me more of this. Provide me with an uninterrupted supply of auteurs who want to challenge themselves. Give me more Hitchcocks, Von Triers, Haynes, Soderberghs. Experiment with the form. And then I'll feel... tremendously exhilarated.