Flickhead
Film Analysis
By Peter J. Dellolio

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Filmic space and real time in Alfred Hitchcock’s

R O P E

By Peter J. Dellolio

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“Brandon, how did you feel?”
“When?”
“During it?”
—Philip Morgan to Brandon Shaw

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    Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) is known as a questionable experiment because of its virtual abandonment of cutting in lieu of a moving camera. The magazine of a 35mm motion picture camera holds ten minutes of film. The separate camera movements in Rope, each lasting approximately ten minutes, were attached by dissolves, some seamless, some not, which occur as the camera moves either across a character’s back or the surface of an object, such as the final camera movement which commences with a dissolve across the chest lid when Rupert discovers, to his horror, David’s body. “I hope you like what you see!” declares Brandon defiantly as he realizes that Rupert’s decision to open the chest is unalterable.

    Rope explores some of the fundamental characteristics of the cinematic abstraction of time and space by using the mobile camera as an agent that gives plastic reality to subjective material. In Rope, a synthesis of real time and filmic space forces the viewer to absorb narrative information on multiple, often distastefully ironic levels. At the same time, the viewer is given freedom of selection in terms of how, when, and why her/her attention is split, inviting some comparison with similar choices experienced during depth of focus shots, a spatial configuration that Hitchcock characteristically avoided. The movement of the camera throughout the film places the viewer in the ethically, emotionally, and psychologically uncomfortable position of perceiving perversity in the relationship between image and dialogue.
    Since, a) Rope has not been critically discussed very often, and b) there has been some uncertainty as to how many cuts and dissolves occur in the film, the following detailed sequence should eliminate any ambiguity as to where and when cuts and dissolves appear in Rope:

Cut No. 1: From an exterior medium-shot of Brandon’s (John Dall) apartment window to a medium close-up of David’s (Dick Hogan) face.

Dissolve No. 1: As Brandon picks up the books, explaining to Philip (Farley Granger) that their excuse for serving from the chest will be to make the books more accessible to Mr. Kentley (Cedrick Hardwicke) by transferring them to the dining room.

Cut No. 2: From a medium close-up of Kenneth’s (Douglas Dick) face to a medium close-up of Philip’s back as Janet (Joan Chandler) enters and is greeted by Brandon and Philip; the cut occurs as Brandon tells Kenneth that he has good chances of romantic success with Janet.

Dissolve No. 2: As Kenneth brings a glass of champagne into the bedroom for Janet.

Cut No. 3: From a medium close-up of Philip vehemently denying Brandon’s chicken strangling story to a medium close-up of Rupert (James Stewart) observing their behavior with marked interest.

Dissolve No. 3: As Brandon discusses David’s absence with Rupert who is holding two desserts.

Cut No. 4: From a medium shot of Rupert standing between Brandon and Philip, suggesting that something is upsetting them both, to a medium shot of Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) informing Brandon that there is a call from Mrs. Kentley.

Dissolve No. 4: As Brandon reaches for the telephone on the foyer table to call for his car so that he and Philip can leave with David’s body.

Cut No. 5: From a medium close-up of Brandon’s hand over the gun in his jacket pocket to a medium close-up of Rupert wondering about the best place to hide David.

Dissolve No. 5: As Rupert lifts the lid of the chest to discover David’s corpse.

    Rope, therefore, offers the viewer an apparently seamless link between filmic space and real time based on the interplay between off-screen and on-screen material. This relationship between filmic space and real time will first be discussed from Hitchcock’s creative point of view. Second, the specific problems and limitations in this relationship will be addressed. Third, several key examples will be analyzed to support the position that this relationship can sometimes create a complex interaction between off-screen and on-screen material, an interaction designed to make the viewer’s response to narrative information as morally ambivalent as possible. Fourth, some attention will be focused upon the way in which thematic concerns such as homosexuality and Nazism relate to the nature of viewer identification that is specific to Rope’s form. Fifth, the character Rupert Cadell will be discussed as a proxy for the viewer, in that the whole relationship between filmic space and real time contributes to both Rupert and the viewer becoming a moral scapegoat. A conclusion will establish that Hitchcock devised the relationship between filmic space and real time so that interstices of irony would result from the resonance between off-screen and on-screen material; that these interstices would be based upon a sovereign formal system; that ultimately this system, while capable of some expressive results, is too problematic to produce a conceptually harmonious work.