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

Page Three

    Rope’s emphasis on form, based on strategies of opposition and tension, maximizes the expressive mobility of the camera, a mobility that is not only unconventional but also unnatural: the illusion of temporal continuity is not satisfactorily maintained. At the outset of the film, privileged information is imparted to the viewer who is then abused by the many ways in which the movement of the camera inflicts moral damage upon that very privilege. The psychological material of the viewer’s point of view becomes synonymous with the spatial exploration and continuousness. That is the key accomplishment of Rope, in spite of many failings. While Rope is certainly not Hitchcock’s most conceptually sophisticated film, it is his most relentless work, using an elaborate (although strained) visual idea to frustrate the viewer’s need for emotional release.

    For example, during the party Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier), David’s aunt, gives an impromptu palm reading to Philip, a concert pianist anticipating a recital at Town Hall arranged for him by his partner in murder Brandon. Philip stands with his hands outstretched, palms facing outward. Over a medium close-up of Philip’s hands Mrs. Atwater gives her prediction: rope025.jpg“These hands will bring you great fame.” The camera then pans slowly up to a medium close-up of Philip’s face, as he stares ahead with a mournful, troubled expression. As the camera pans upward, Mrs. Kentley, off-screen, refers to the first editions that Brandon has offered to give him: “Well, I consider myself a very fortunate man today.”
    In this example, the homogenous organization of space allows narrative coincidence to provoke the viewer. We are disturbed by the irony of Mrs. Atwater’s speculation about Philip’s future. The viewer knows that the “fame” achieved by Philip’s “artistic” hands will become the public disgrace of being convicted of murder. There is some viewer identification with Philip. Unlike Brandon, he appears to be genuinely distraught over the killing. While’s Philip’s neurotic submission to the killing is both shallow and repugnant, in that he even lacks Brandon’s ugly pseudo-intellectual justification for the murder, Philip does articulate some of the viewer’s moral indignation when he tells Brandon that it will not be easy to deal with David’s parents or that it is a “human” reaction to feel “weakness,” i.e. regret. The simultaneity of Philip’s sorrowful expression and Mrs. Kentley’s statement forces the viewer to make a repellant link between the harmless and the tragic: far from being a “fortunate” occasion for Mr. Kentley, the viewer is aware that he will ultimately discover horror and tragedy in the events of this day. Given the same dialogue and narrative ingredients, classical cutting, say from a close-up of Mrs. Atwater to a close-up of Philip’s hands to a close-up of Philip to a close-up of Mrs. Kentley, would certainly undo the delicately woven strands of perception and emotional identification. Robin Wood (7) comments on some of this, using the simpler example of the slow, left to right pan across Mrs. Atwater, Rupert, Mr. Kentley, and Brandon while they are all sitting on the sofa and Rupert is delineating his methods for eliminating disagreeable members of the populace such as “bird lovers,” “small children,” “tap dancers,” etc. Rupert suggests that “Cut a throat a week” or “Strangulation Day” would be very helpful. Wood is correct in pointing out that Mr. Kentley’s behavior during the pan, i.e. looking out the window with growing concern about his son David’s whereabouts while Rupert speaks with black humor about killing off inferior human obstacles, would have been far more obvious had cuts been used.
    Indeed, the slow backtrack from Philip after the palm reading makes Mr. Kentley’s comment about feeling fortunate all the more “incidental” by removing it from the viewer’s immediate attention. The camera continues backtracking while Janet reassures Mr. Kentley that David will “probably be here in a minute.” Culminating in a long-shot of the entire living room, the camera stops behind the chest containing David’s body, as Philip sits at the piano to play and Rupert arrives. The tracking shot takes its place within the film as a whole that, theoretically, functions as a monolithic, unfurling camera movement. As discussed earlier, there is a freedom of selection at work here. During this shot, the viewer almost simultaneously has access to Philip’s hands, Mrs. Atwater’s voice, part of Mrs. Atwater’s body, Philip’s face and expression, Mr. Kentley’s voice, and as the view of the room widens, Mr. Kentley, Janet, Brandon, and finally Rupert when the camera pans slightly to the left to show he’s arrived. Like several of the more complex camera movements in the film, this shot makes the viewer especially sensitive to elements of timing, perception, concurrence, and contrast, elements that are normally taken for granted in conventional cinema.

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Man, super man and dead man: evaluating the master race over cocktails.

    Another complex camera movement begins after the arrival of Mr. Kentley and Mrs. Atwater. The camera pans from Mrs. Atwater who squints myopically into the living room as she mistakes Kenneth for David. “Oh David!” says Mrs. Atwater as the camera sweeps past Janet and Kenneth, panning quickly over to a medium shot of Philip. During the abrupt pan, there is Brandon’s off-screen correction and the crack of glass. When the camera finishes its movement with a close-up of Philip’s hands, we realize that Mrs. Atwater’s misperception was so unsettling for Philip that he has broken his champagne glass and cut himself. Hitchcock did not believe that the camera should be moved for superficial reasons (8) and his most intelligently motivated camera movements are summoned by very carefully chosen narrative information. The same principle is applied in another of Rope’s more elaborate shots: as Mrs. Wilson begins clearing away the food, she discusses the sudden switch in the dining arrangements with Rupert who stands next to her eating his dessert. The camera slowly tracks in on Mrs. Wilson and Rupert, isolating Rupert at one point when he appears more than a little curious after learning about the “mad rush” in the morning that changed into Brandon telling Mrs. Wilson to take “the whole afternoon” for grocery shopping. As Mrs. Wilson continues summarizing to Rupert the last minute shift of books to the dining room and food to the chest, the camera slowly backtracks as their voices become less audible and the music volume increases, making the final part of Mrs. Wilson’s explanation unintelligible. At this point Philip appears to the left of the frame, emerging from off-screen. He is worried by Mrs. Wilson’s obvious demonstration to Rupert that something peculiar happened with the chest. In a close-up shot, Philip turns toward the camera, facing the dining room, and starts to mouth Brandon’s name; composing himself, he walks over to Mrs. Wilson and Rupert and casually points out the convenience of serving dinner in the living room.

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Frayed nerves, broken glass

    These camera movements connect threads of narrative and psychological material by manipulating elements of off-screen space. The sweeping pan which rushes the viewer across the living room toward Philip makes Brandon’s nervous explanation to Mrs. Atwater that she has mistaken Kenneth for David and the sound of Philip’s glass cracking all the more demonstrative precisely because these aural components occur off-screen. The viewer is taken away from Mrs. Atwater precisely at the moment that she blinks and smiles, believing that David is in the room. Mrs. Atwater’s error, in a sense, is a catalyst that propels the camera; the energized pan across the room suppresses viewer awareness of Brandon’s hasty rectification and the breaking glass before it connects the unexpected confusion about David to Philip. It is only when the camera tracks into a close-up of Philip’s bloodied hands that we realize how the energy of the camera movement has expressed the deep-seated turmoil that is in Philip.
    The slow, forward tracking shot that isolates Mrs. Wilson and Rupert functions similarly. As Mrs. Wilson continues to explain the oddities of the day, Rupert becomes more suspicious. When the camera withdraws, Hitchcock makes the dialogue less audible and raises the volume of the music. When Philip suddenly enters the frame, the viewer can no longer follow what is being said but knows what the conversation has been about. Thus, Philip’s anxiety as Mrs. Wilson continues gesturing towards the chest is highlighted not only because he is emphasized in medium close-up as he’s about to call Brandon, but especially because the viewer already knows all of the details being discussed, details that will lead Rupert to the truth. For Philip there is simply the fear that Mrs. Wilson is merely pointing to the chest; for the viewer, there is a laundry list of inconsistencies in Brandon’s and Philip’s behavior earlier that day, dutifully pointed out by Mrs. Wilson. That Philip should pop into the frame at this point, reminding the viewer of off-screen dimensions of significance, is very effective: Philip comes upon something frightening by chance; the viewer cannot anticipate who will appear within the frame because of the moving camera. The viewer has learned specific things that Philip does not know; the tracking shot makes us privy to Mrs. Wilson’s and Rupert’s conversation. The reverse tracking shot takes the viewer out of the field of perception by manipulating distance and aural levels; Philip experiences the end result of this process while the viewer has confidential knowledge.

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Endnotes:

7. Hitchcock’s Films, Robin Wood (New York: Paperback Library, 1970): pgs. 37-39. “We listen to the clever talk of Rupert and his ex-pupil Brandon about the right of the ‘superior being’ to place himself above accepted morality, even to kill. It is all light-hearted, on Rupert’s side at least, his manner relaxed and engaging; we repond to his charm and the outrageousness—the freedom and irresponsibility—of his joking. But underlying this amused response we are never allowed to forget what this philosophy, adopted as a code of life, has led to. The camera tracks away from Rupert and Brandon to the right, where Cedric Hardwicke sits in growing uneasiness, and, just as the camera takes him in, turns to look out of the window. We know he is looking to see if his beloved and belated son is coming—the son whose murdered body is in the chest in the middle of the room—and the smile freezes on our faces. The effect is achieved not only through the actor’s performance (which is superb) but by means of the camera movement, which links the father’s movement with the other men and at the same time integrates it in the entire situation; a cut there would have made the point much too obvious, and dissipated the emotional effect by losing the continuity of the gaze. The camera movement makes us respond simultaneously to two incompatible attitudes whose conflict forces us (whether or not on a conscious level) to evaluate them.” (Back)

8. Gottlieb, pg. 208. “The motion picture is not an arena for a display of techniques. It is, rather, a method of telling a story in which techniques, beauty, the virtuosity of the camera, everything must be sacrificed or compromised when it gets in the way of the story itself.” (Back)

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