Friday 26 February 2021

Hitchcock's Most Ingenious Film? - Ken Mogg considers the details in ROPE (1948)

PATRICK HAMILTON'S 1929 PLAY called Rope, which was palpably based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case five years earlier, shows an attempt by two intellectually well-endowed young men to demonstrate their 'superiority' by committing 'the perfect murder'.  That Alfred Hitchcock was drawn to the case may testify to his ambivalence: after all, he had recently referred to his audience as 'the moron millions'.(1)  

Accordingly, the killers' unsuspecting tutor, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), is a crucial character, finally brought to the realisation that his glib teachings derived from Nietzsche have been terribly misunderstood by the two young men, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) - and that he himself is guilty, because of his own arrogance, of failure to see such a possible outcome. 'Until this moment,' he tells them, 'the world and the people in it have always been dark to me.'  Of all the many exposés of human subjectivity by Hitchcock's films, Rupert's epiphany at the end of Rope may be the most telling, involving, as it does, his explicit admission that his respect for 'intellect and superior logic' has not been sufficient.  In its way, the case of Rupert in Rope anticipates that of the police inspector in I Confess(1953) whom we also watch apply a relentless logic that manages to get it wrong. 

 Technically, Rope is remarkable - and remarkably painstaking.  It purports to take place in real time, without cuts, although of course it does no such thing.  The sleight of hand involved may be demonstrated by concentrating on the successive cloud and lighting effects which the film uses in order to subtly suggest a progression from mid-afternoon to late evening.  (See below.)  First, though, consider the layout of Brandon and Phillip's apartment situated somewhere in 'an apartment high up in the East Fifties' of New York City, as specified in the script.  Most of the film takes place in what I'll call the living room.  This is dominated by a wide studio window which faces over Manhattan; in a side wall are set two smaller windows which face a narrow side street.  Next to the living room and opposite the side wall is a small entrance hall containing a telephone.  Further along a corridor is the dining room, and then a kitchen with a swing door visible from the living room.  Offscreen somewhere, and not seen during the film, is the bedroom which contains a second telephone.  Considerable thought has obviously gone into this layout, as into the view out the main window which, in the course of the film, will be shown to have several aspects. Officially, the film has 'eight cloud changes during its nine reels, dropping from a sky full in reel one to one or two in reel nine'.(2)  That rather simplifies matters, but it gives the general idea.

"...dominated by a wide studio window
which faces over Manhattan."
(Click to enlarge the photos and use slideshow)
At the least, Hitchcock did not want his single-set film to infringe his rule against ever merely showing 'pictures of people talking'.  Nor does it.  It has its own dynamism which needs to be appreciated before any dismissal of it as 'a failed Hitchcock experiment' (which, incidentally, he took further - especially the lighting effects - in his next film, Under Capricorn). The titles sequence seems designed to contrast with what follows.  For one thing, it takes place outside.  Briefly we see a nanny pushing a pram along a sidewalk.  Next, the view freezes, with no traffic or pedestrians visible, as the credits roll up the screen.  Finally, both passing cars and pedestrians re-appear, and a traffic cop at a pedestrian-crossing escorts two small children across.  The street seems an elegant one.  After this, the camera swivels to show a balcony and then a window. Following a pause, we hear the sound of a man's scream.  But the window has its curtains drawn.  Cut to inside the room and a close-up of gloved hands throttling a young man to death. Then the camera pulls back.  By now, the film's second reel has begun.

"...a close-up of gloved hands throttling
a young man to death."

That first cut is obvious enough, and is even required - demanded - by the fact of the scream.  The remaining reel-breaks (in the camera about every ten minutes; on a commercial 35mm projector with its larger, more accommodating spools, about every twenty minutes) are more or less 'invisible', or at least disguised, to suggest one continuous length of film and an unbroken continuity: a form of induced 'suspense'. The cuts themselves basically fall into two categories.  First, cuts which occur during a momentary blackness induced by the camera tracking into, say, a character's back and then out again.  Second, cuts on a character's reaction or on a piece of action so that we hardly notice the cut (if at all).  The 'experiment' would prove useful in many of Hitchcock's subsequent films, although he soon came to realise that the so-called 'ten-minute take', by itself, risked a certain cumbersomeness.  He had chosen the one-set film Rope as being more fitting than most movies for its use.  Nonetheless, there is little sign of it just a few years later in Dial M for Murder (1954), which also takes place largely in one room.  A case of Hitchcock once bitten, twice shy, perhaps.


Cabined, cribbed, confined

Still, the confined feeling of Rope is meaningful to the degree that its central character - Brandon - dominates much of it, although he meets his match before the end in Rupert.(3)  From the outset, Brandon is, to say the least, an oppressive character, as shown in the way he treats the docile Phillip. We sense a need to break away, or break out.  But Phillip typically does as Brandon tells him, as when Brandon says to follow him and bring the other silver candle-holder from the dining-room.  Brandon might easily have carried both candle-holders himself.  He evidently takes pleasure in ordering Phillip around, and is used to being obeyed. Also, most of the other characters are ordinary enough if measured against Brandon's yardstick of 'the superior few'. 

"Brandon might easily have carried
both candle-holders himself."

These characters are: Mrs Wilson (the hired housekeeper (4)), Mr Kentley (the bookish father of the murdered boy), Mrs Atwater (his sister-in-law), Janet (the late David Kentley's girlfriend) and Kenneth (a self-admitted average student).  Even Rupert is 'only' a housemaster at a prep-school, although he gave valiant war service, and knows his Nietzsche.  Rupert effectively becomes the spokesperson for a modest egalitarianism when he persists in getting to the bottom of the 'strange' feeling (his word) that he has experienced during Brandon and Phillip's party, purportedly thrown to celebrate their imminent departure for a holiday in the country. The audience's sense of oppressiveness, though, becomes most conscious only at the film's end, when Rupert throws open the apartment window and fires several shots from a pistol to attract attention and summon the police.  A critic once commented: 'you can feel the fresh air'.


'Did you think you were God, Brandon?' Rupert has just asked.  If James Stewart delivers those words a touch defensively, with an exaggerated, even vengeful, show of anger ('You're going to die, both of you'), it is because Rupert's epiphany has come with a rush, and his new realisation is painful.  Hitchcock doesn't hold back, even adding to the drama by having alternating red, green and white flashes pierce the room from a neon 'STORAGE' sign just outside the side windows.  (No-one has closed the curtains since the evening started.)  There is something accusatory about the successive flashes, a bit like the arrowed 'Direction' signs at the start of I Confess pointing towards the scene of a murder.  Hitchcock likened them to a musical effect.  He probably took the idea from the novel Enter Sir John (1929), on which Murder! (1930) was based, where the three colours evoke Harlequin.  The implication there, and perhaps in Rope, is that people are all 'merely players' and that there's little essential difference between them - for all that Rupert tries to deny it.  Or at least that we are part of one motley. 


Various effects

Hitchcock's 'effects' invariably make a point, even if - it may seem - he was prepared to 'cheat' on occasions.  Early on, we cut to David Kentley's strangling by Phillip,  while Brandon pins the victim's arms.  When the view widens, we see that the curtains were drawn shut.  A line of dialogue covers this, without really explaining it.  We hear Brandon say, 'A pity we couldn't have done it with the curtains open … in the bright sunlight.'  But this only poses the awkward question: how did the two killers explain to their victim (whose death-scream we heard) that for purposes of his murder the curtains would need to be closed?!  Scarcely less unlikely, perhaps, is the moment near the end when Rupert holds out the incriminating piece of rope that was used for the strangulation.  

"...Rupert holds out the incriminating
piece of rope..."

Up until now, our most recent view of the rope has been when the audacious Brandon used it to tie a bundle of rare books that Mr Kentley takes away as a gift from David's two 'friends'.  ('Such nice boys!', we had heard him tell Mrs Atwater.)  Rather improbably, it looks like Rupert had chased after Mr Kentley and given a reason why Rupert needed to take away that piece of rope - leaving the old man to manage the books untied!  (Conceivably he had a car parked just downstairs.)  At other times, Hitchcock was simply ingenious.  For his token cameo, he came up with the idea of appearing as his famous profile in a distant red neon sign that we see briefly before a change of camera-angle obscures it again.


Hitchcock worked on adapting Hamilton's play with his actor friend Hume Cronyn (Herb in Shadow of a Doubt).  However, the final screenplay was written by the American playwright Arthur Laurents. The latter seems to have been chosen for his knowledge of the gay scene.  A similar consideration influenced the casting of actors to play Brandon and Phillip, who are clearly lovers, though it's not explicitly stated.  As far back as 1938, Hitchcock had written: 'I like an actor to play a part for which his personal experience in life has raised him.'  One of the qualities of Rope, in its play and film versions, is the study it offers not of gayness, exactly, but of how one partner (Brandon) dominates the other (Phillip).  The screenplay is explicit: it describes Brandon as 'psychopathic'  and Phillip as 'neurotic … [someone who] wants to be and needs to be dominated.' 

"...clearly lovers, though it's not
explicitly stated."

Both of the actors were gay. Underlining the gay ambience is the fact that the musically-trained Phillip repeatedly plays gay French composer Francis Poulenc's 'Perpetual Movement No. 1' on the piano; at the time of the film's making, Poulenc was touring America as accompanist to his friend, baritone Pierre Bernac.  However, it's noteworthy that Phillip never plays the piece right through.  Perhaps there’s a suggestion here about the limits imposed by human subjectivity (Hitchcock’s perennial subject) that will allow only an incomplete grasp of the full picture.  No doubt, Phillip would eventually master particular works, like Poulenc's, but he would be left with little knowledge of most other fields of knowledge.  (Ironically, he and Brandon are in any case destined to die at the end of a rope.) In its way, what I call Hitchcock's use of Vague Symbolism is displayed here.


Hitchcock himself had no taste for purely conceptual matters.  He once observed: 'Directors who lose control are concerned with the abstract.'  As noted already, characterisation in Hitchcock's films was made as concrete and specific as possible, and conveyed to the audience by visible (or visual) means more often than not.  When the show-off Brandon drops the piece of rope, the murder weapon, into a kitchen drawer, he does it with a flourish and not the slightest sign of shame or remorse. To reinforce this particular 'effect', and its significance, Hitchcock uses a showy gesture of his own: we see what Brandon is doing in the brief moment before the kitchen swing-door closes again.


More specifically

But perhaps the best set of 'effects' in Rope to demonstrate Hitchcock's attention to the visual, and the palpable, concerns how we are made to feel the passing of time. This involved the cloud and lighting effects I referred to earlier, plus innovations in the use of Technicolor after considerable experimentation beforehand - Rope was the director's first colour film - and even the re-shooting of an early reel or two.  The woman wheeling the pram in the street suggests to me that the time of day is no later than mid-afternoon, as do the two small children using a pedestrian-crossing, who are holding hands with a traffic cop (no parents in sight).  Have they just come from school?  They scarcely look old enough.  

Be that as it may, a moment later we find ourselves inside Brandon and Phillip's darkened apartment, and soon afterwards watch Brandon opening the curtains, which allows us our first view of the Manhattan skyline.  'What a lovely evening!' we hear him say, with considerable irony.  Although the sky is grey rather than blue, there's a long wisp of cloud in the top left-hand corner, and a larger cloud-mass lower down, behind one of the tall (office?) buildings in the distance.  There's also another long wisp in the top right-hand corner.  Still, there is plenty of bare sky as well. Perhaps that's what Brandon means.


A few moments later - no more reel changes yet - a slightly altered camera angle lets us glimpse how there may be another large cloud behind a building on the right. Hitchcock thus takes advantage of the moving camera to add variety to what we see out the window.  However, by the time that Mrs Wilson arrives to begin her meal preparations, there has been another reel change.  The clouds on the left now appear to have grown.  A little later, Kenneth is the first guest to arrive.  I'm not sure that the clouds have changed their position but those clouds are now lit from underneath as if by the setting sun.  No mere painting, it seems, the view out the window is a construct that allows three-dimensional modelling.  Another cut, disguised by character movement, occurs when Brandon followed by Phillip go to welcome Janet in the entrance hall.  Mr Kentley and Mrs Atwater arrive next, and are admitted by Mrs Wilson.  As the near-sighted Mrs Atwood enters the living room, she mistakes Kenneth for David Kentley.  'David!' she exclaims - much to Phillip's consternation.  The camera swivels to show that he has broken a glass in his hand, and we may register that someone has turned on a table-lamp behind him. When the camera moves to the window in front of which the guests are (mostly) standing, a detectable rosiness is now striking the clouds behind them, as well as the sides of several of the buildings.  Further, a thin chimney in the middle-distance is emitting white smoke: a cold evening (facilitated by the near-absence of cloud cover) may be fast approaching.

Hitchcock and the cast of Rope

Incidentally, many of the buildings in the middle- and near-distance look as if they serve an industrial rather than a commercial function.  (Was Hitchcock careless in making the sedate street we saw at the start so close to them?  I don't know New York City, so I can only speculate that various types of districts co-exist there within short distances of each other.)  The camera now moves well back to show Phillip seated at the piano; out the window, a red glow is striking just the top of one of the larger buildings. Next to Phillip, Rupert is standing, having noiselessly arrived in the room after being admitted by Mrs Wilson.  On the cassone (chest) containing David Kentley's body, Brandon is now lighting two single candles.  And once again, when the camera changes angle, our view out the window also changes; now it looks as if there are a couple of large clouds on the right, and both are catching the evening light.  This effect will become more pronounced in the next few minutes. Several more of the tall buildings soon have the rosy glow; a red neon sign in the distance has come on (it seems to alternate green); over on the right, in the middle-distance, other chimneys are now smoking.  Etc.


With the approach of night, more lights appear outside; in the apartment, other table-lamps go on (although a nervous Phillip objects when Rupert switches on a lamp on the piano); all the candles on the chest are lit; for a while, the rosiness outside briefly lights up all the buildings; then the clouds darken; and the neon sign outside the window on the right starts flashing.  In a nice touch, we see Mrs Wilson turn on the light in the kitchen.  She is the last person to leave the party, although Rupert, his suspicions thoroughly aroused, afterwards finds an excuse to return.  Altogether, Hitchcock's meticulous attention to detail may never have been better illustrated than in Rope, and within that film no more so than in its countless cloud and lighting effects.(5)


A tour de force

Accordingly, characterisation in Hitchcock is never non-existent or inadequately worked out - that is a myth.  True, Rope is as close to a thesis-film as Hitchcock ever entertained, which brought risks.  (Its thesis, I suggest, concerns the limits of human subjectivity and the dangers of overweening human ego.)  Of critic/author Dan Callahan's many fine points about the film, I particularly like his perception of it as 'a queer project' whose touches are often 'underground' (deliberately left to the individual viewer to interpret).(6)  Callahan spots that Janet is what is called in gay circles a fag hag (Callahan, 152) meaning that she is a straight girl who likes to associate with gay men.  I think of how Brandon is happy to direct her to the telephone in the bedroom, in which presumably she will see a double-bed! Yet it's instructive to learn that Hitchcock was worried about Constance Collier's portrayal of Mrs Atwater as possibly making her appear a lesbian.  'Easy does it!', you can practically hear him telling her.  And while we're on the subject, what are we to make of how, after the murdered David Kentley's body 'went limp', Brandon felt 'tremendously exhilarated' at what he and Phillip had just done?


Originally, Rupert himself was supposed to be gay.  Casting James Stewart in the role, however, put paid to that idea.  Instead, the script makes him that rarity, someone who seeks to elevate himself into 'the superior individual' (a term of Schopenhauer's, I believe) whose trust in 'intellect and superior logic' may or may not see him through.  The fact that he walks with a limp probably signals that he is one of Hitchcock's impotent males (like the wheelchair-bound Stewart character in Rear Window) and thus one more reminder of the film's humanistic thesis.  The script notes: '[Rupert] has such charm and humor (and a smile) that you cannot really be sure whether he means the extreme ideas he propounds or whether he is joking.  Just as you cannot really be sure whether Rupert is essentially good or essentially evil.'  Of course, his final epiphany eventually makes him the very spokesman for the film's thesis. A clever instance of having your cake and eating it?!

" epiphany..."


At the end, a still-stunned Rupert sits guardian-like alongside the trunk containing David Kentley's body, one hand resting on its lid, as the group wait for the police to arrive.  The sound of a siren becomes ever-louder.  Earlier in the film, a similar siren had been heard briefly, an instance of how Hitchcock liked to 'prep' his audiences for many of his effects, as if to render those effects integral and not seemingly manufactured at all. Callahan makes a similar point about the film's use of Poulenc.  Not only does Phillip play the 'Mouvement Perpétual No. 1' at the piano but the same composition had already been used as the basis for the score under the opening credits.  (Apart from that, Callahan notes, the film plays without any musical score, which heightens the tension. [Callahan, 151])  Rope is a remarkable Hitchcock tour de force.



1. Professor Wes Gehring refers to Hitchcock as 'sort of a first cousin to Brandon's character' in Rope.  Wes D. Gearing, Hitchcock and Humor(McFarland, 2019), pp. 162-163.


2.  Ken Mogg, The Alfred Hitchcock Story(Titan, 2008), p. 105


3. Novelist Donna Tartt drew on a roughly comparable situation to Rope’s in her 1992 novel The Secret History. The resemblance has often been noticed. 


4.  Edith Evanson would play the office cleaning-lady in Marnie (1964).


5.  The Ropescript includes a prefatory ’SPECIAL LIGHTING NOTE’, as follows.  ’When the action of the story commences, we see through the large studio window the roofs of cross-town Manhattan.  We are facing a Westerly direction [where the sun sets].  When this panorama is revealed for the first time, the sun is just beginning to lower.  The light is bright yellow, then as the action continues we see the sun beginning to set and the clouds in the sky take on deeper colors.  This light change continues as the clouds move across the sky and finally, when the sun has gone [down], we get the strong afterglow. About this time, various neon signs have begun to appear, starting in the far distance and, as the action of the play goes on, the ones nearer to us begin to light up and climactically a large neon sign begins to light up the whole room.  This sign is not seen through the big window at the back, but comes from two side windows which face a narrow side street.’


6.  Dan Callahan, The Camera Lies (Oxford, 2020), p. 150, p. 151    

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