By Peter J. Dellolio
Filmic space and real time in Alfred Hitchcock’s
R O P E
By Peter J. Dellolio
The camera, holding a medium long-shot of the street during the credit sequence, creates irony retroactively, panning slowly to screen left only after the boys are carefully superintended by the policeman’s “watchful” eye. The camera crosses the graveled ledge and stops with a medium-shot of Brandon’s curtained window.
David’s brief scream is heard over this exterior shot before the cut to a medium close-up of his face as he slumps forward with the rope around his neck, held between Brandon and Philip. The camera slowly backtracks to begin the film’s series of unbroken camera movements as Brandon, his palm against David’s heart, confirms that he is dead. Thus the viewer is brought into the murder through a three-step process: a) there is the reassurance of seeing the boys guided and protected by the policeman, b) there is the “arbitrary” transition from the street to Brandon’s apartment window, c) there is the realization that something horrific is occurring behind the surface of the ordinary.
What makes the pan interesting is that the policeman’s protection of the two boys functions as a kind of abstract security that is juxtaposed against David’s helplessness. Brandon’s window, like Uncle Charlie’s (Joseph Cotten) boardinghouse room (Shadow of a Doubt
), seems to be chosen at random, emphasizing the irrational nature of destructive powers. Knowing that the boys are safe and not knowing that David is being murdered is an imbalance of awareness for the viewer that the panning camera captures perfectly. When Brandon and Philip entered prep school with Rupert they were possibly just slightly older than the boys, another submerged element that adds to the suggestions of this camera movement.
There is some circularity in Rope
’s structure that contributes to the viewer’s sense of moral ambivalence, and that circularity is partly suggested by the opening and closing of the living room curtains, a reference to Brandon’s and Philip’s “performance” both of the murder and in front of the dinner guests. There is still plenty of daylight as Brandon opens the curtains and says “What a lovely evening,” an indirect comment on the desire to commit the crime in the middle of the afternoon. “Pity we couldn’t have done it with the curtains open in the bright sunlight,” says Brandon. After everyone leaves, there is the disintegration of the positive light of day; with an uneasy self-consciousness, Brandon says “We’d better close the curtains,” reluctantly admitting to himself that removing and disposing of David’s body is a secret deed that must be performed in the dark. Throughout the film, the viewer is both repelled by and attracted to all of the “secret” material that it possesses, which includes an understanding of Brandon’s and Philip’s “pretending.” Their use of theatre and deception as a form of twisted intellectual pleasure will become the very basis upon which they ultimately reveal themselves.
Beginning with its title, Hitchcock wanted the style of the film to reflect the sinuous path of deception and the hidden guilt of the two protagonists. “He’s got it! He’s got it! He knows! He knows! He knows! He knows!” exclaims a desperate Philip when Rupert pulls the rope out of his pocket, having retrieved it from the books Brandon had heartlessly wrapped for his “gift” to Mr. Kentley. The rope used to strangle David plays its own role almost as if it were another character. It appears in the close-up of David’s face as he is strangled by Philip; then it alarms Philip when he notices that part of it hangs out of the chest; it distresses Philip further when Brandon casually holds it in front of Mrs. Wilson; moments later it is dropped by Brandon into the kitchen drawer; a “coincidence” of timing typical of the rhythm of the film: the kitchen door swings back and forth and we are allowed to see the rope entering the drawer at the last moment; it returns in a medium close-up of the books in Mr. Kentley’s hands described above; and finally Rupert unexpectedly pulls it out of his pocket.
While Brandon and Philip shuffle about the room is disbelief, neighbors and passers-by quickly comment upon and identify the origin of the shots, combining with the emergence of a police siren. “Society,” as Rupert points out, will be outraged by this act ands a democratic, egalitarian justice will take its course. Against the contemporary background of the Nuremburg trials, the larger implication is clear: Nazism is defeated and will not be tolerated in the free world. The perpetrators of mass genocide will pay the ultimate price for crimes against humanity. “You’re going to die, Brandon! Both of you!” exclaims Rupert as he promises to help the legal system prosecute Brandon and Philip. Rupert does not subscribe to an effete, intellectual elitism that disengages the individual from meaningful interaction with the community, although at first this seems to be the case. Rupert in fact demonstrates that the individual must take responsibility for what happens in society as a whole, something that is diametrically opposed to Brandon’s point of view.
Therefore, if Rupert can be said to represent the viewer, his function in the film is two-fold. On the one hand, his sense of moral outrage articulates the point of view of the viewer from the civilized world who finds the crime reprehensible. On the other hand, with remarks like “Strangulation Day” and so on, Rupert becomes “implicated,” just as the viewer is implicated, in the crime. Finding some of Brandon’s remarks funny; knowing that David’s body is in the chest; sometimes enjoying the (often obtrusive) irony of the proceedings: all of this makes the viewer, with Rupert as his/her proxy, a kind of moral scapegoat.
As in much of Hitchcock’s work, Rope
depends upon a unique relationship between style and theme. Hitchcock was intrigued by a conceit based on the rope-like convoluted camera movements and the destined fate of his protagonists as the real time clock winds down to their unmasking. (12)
Hitchcock spoke of an unrealized project that would have been a documentary on food during a typical twenty-four hour period. (13)
It is clear from this unmade film that Hitchcock was fascinated by the enclosure of a temporal system and the logical, visually enunciated progression of details and information. As in some of the superior examples of avant-garde filmmaking from the ‘60s and ‘70s, especially the films of Michael Snow, one sees that with Rope
and his jettisoned documentary, Hitchcock was very much aware of how formal constructs could be used to turn a film into a structural event based on a single theme or idea.
The moving camera allows Rope
to impose a certain kind of functional presentation. The camera numerously adjusts its viewpoint because of its unchecked mobility, a mobility that does not distinguish between functional necessity and expressive emphasis. For example, when Brandon and Philip move from the living room to the dining room to the kitchen during their initial peregrinations within the apartment in preparation for the party after the murder and the concealment of the body at the beginning of the film, the camera must
follow them in order for the spatial-temporal continuity of the narrative to be maintained. This logic of display is characteristic of the film as a whole. The camera records characters’ movements and most changes in grouping, such as when guests arrive or when Janet asks Brandon to step into the foyer to express her annoyance at his having invited her ex-boyfriend, Kenneth. While it is problematic and flawed, Rope
’s uniqueness lies in its refutation of cinematic compression: Rope
has no filmic time. Unlike most films, Rope
does not offer diverse, successive or concomitant happenings that occur in compressed, subjective time. Without editing, the moment-by-moment quality of Rope
’s temporal verisimilitude becomes a prerequisite for a narrative presented as it happens. The technical inadequacies discussed above lessen the effectiveness of this verisimilitude and diffuse some of its impact.
Rope is based upon the explorative examinations of a moving camera. Given this method, as in the case of the palm reading camera movement, there was some potential for complexity and subtlety. When a shot obeys the functional laws of simple exposition, such as the many pans and tracking shots that follow characters’ behavior and actions, there is no “expressive” articulation. Hitchcock relies on the consistency of this visual-rhythmic system to then introduce spatial motifs that communicate significance as if by chance or as though they functioned as a by-product of the condition of camera mobility that governs the film. The palm-reading example discussed earlier is an illustration of this idea. The incidental relationship between Mr. Kentley’s off-screen remark about feeling fortunate and Philip’s on-screen expression of remorse could not have been possible if the moving camera was not an omnipresent factor. In some ways this reflects Hitchcock’s life-long preoccupation with the original principles of cinema: early viewers’ fascination with narrative, time, and the frame; the undoing of natural expectations through the inherently illusionary character of the medium; the belief that technical functions of cinema (camera movement) can influence ideas, etc. Unfortunately, Rope reches its potential in just a handful of shots.
, for better or worse, is an anomaly of modern cinema. No narrative feature-length film before it used the mobile camera to create a seamless whole from beginning to ending, and since then only Aleksandr Sokurov has attempted such a task, with Russian Ark
(2002). Hitchcock’s use of the moving camera to make emotional content and psychological conflict parallel with formal design was, in fact, a relatively unusual idea for its time. There are, as analysis of the film’s more inventive camera movements indicates, some high marks in Rope
’s metaphysics. What is unrealized and technically self-conscious in Rope
must be measured against those insights the film does provide regarding what cinema can do when one of its innate expressive capabilities is pushed to conceptual extremes.
Author Peter J. Dellolio is currently working on an exhaustive critical study of the films of Alfred Hitchcock called Hitchcock’s Cinematic World: Shocks of Perception and the Collapse of the Rational. Chapter excerpts from this book have appeared in The Midwest Quarterly, Literature/Film Quarterly, and North Dakota Quarterly.
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12. The Alfred Hitchcock Reader, Eds. Marshall Deutelbaum & Leland Poague (Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa: 1986): pgs. 21-22. “Hitchcock’s Imagery and Art,” Maurice Yacowar. “The continuous shooting of Rope, which Hitchcock calls his ‘abandonment of pure cinema’ because it eschewed his normal dependence upon dramatic ending, grows out of both the title image—something continuous that will tie one up—and the main theme of the film—the continuity of word into deed; a murderous human reality is spun out of a musing that was considered safely theoretical.”(Back)
13. Wikipedia article on Alfred Hitchcock. “One unrealized film idea was to show 24 hours in the life of a city, with the frame being the food: how it was imported and prepared and eaten and then at the end of the day thrown away into the sewers.”(Back)