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 Two

    One aspect of Hitchcock’s thinking about how to shoot Rope was technical only. (1) Apparently, he wanted to meet this self-imposed challenge in a novel way, to create a visual style that emerged from the psychological material of the action. Like the glass floor he used in The Lodger to invoke the insidiousness of the suspicious border’s unheard, pacing footsteps or the wrenching transition caused by the aural bridge between the cleaning lady’s scream to the whistle of Hannay’s (Robert Donat) escape train in The 39 Steps, Hitchcock envisioned that Rope, although somewhat disparagingly referred to by him years later, (2) would attain a certain level of aesthetic and conceptual sophistication.

    It is reasonable, therefore, to argue that Hitchcock’s intention for Rope was to connect the unique continuousness of filmic space to the play’s moment by moment progression of real time that is the undoing of Brandon and Philip, perhaps invoking the element of discovery so typical of Greek tragedy. Everything happens within the confines of that apartment and during the party because of the element of inevitability: most of what Brandon and Philip say and do in front of Rupert will ultimately cause the truth to be revealed. However, real time is central to the content and theme of Rope but is not necessarily an adjunct of theatrical time. While the theatre often relies upon a present tense impact, subjective flashbacks or fantastic jumps in time (Death of a Salesman [3], The Glass Menagerie [4]) can esasily be included within the theatrical experience. Patrick Hamilton’s play, like Hitchcock’s screenplay adaptation, relies upon the notion that Brandon and Philip, in a Dostoevskian sense, wish to be found out. For Brandon, this is almost a matter of pride, because he wants Rupert’s approval and admiration for his insane act. rope06.jpgAside from Rupert’s escalating fear that Brandon and Philip had something to do with David’s disappearance, based mainly on his simple observation that both of them say things that suggest a sense of guilt, the viewer realizes that the murder is far from perfectly concealed when the camera tracks in on a medium close-up of David’s initialed hat. Rupert, mistakenly handed the hat by Mrs. Wilson, tries it on with the comic result that it is far too small for him. Now Rupert knows that David has been in the apartment. There is also the reasonable assumption that Brandon’s Sutton Place residence would more than likely have a doorman who could easily confirm to the police that David had arrived that day. Philip suddenly corrects himself when Brandon’s lie that neither of them has spoken to David is tacitly revealed by Mr. Kentley who has overheard David’s conversation with Philip when the party was discussed. In other words, there is much in Brandon and Philip’s behavior to suggest some subconscious desire for discovery.
    Hitchcock’s longstanding attitude toward the filming of a theatrical work should also be given a consideration, (5) given that a quarter of his screenplays (fourteen films) were adapted from plays. Unlike many directors who made films from screenplays that were adapted from stage plays, Hitchcock did not believe that the cinema’s ability to freely present an artificial “outside,” denied to the proscenium that could only imply it, was an advantage that added to the so-called realism of the play on-screen. Hitchcock apparently felt no compunction about refusing to dubiously enhance reality by attaching (as he saw it) superfluous establishing details simply because he was filming a play in which such details were, of necessity, missing. For example, William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) or Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men (1957), both based on contemporary, successful stage dramas, include short segments where some effort was made to punch through the insulated world of the play: exterior shots from Detective Story in front of the precinct, on the precinct roof, in the police van; the opening and closing of Twelve Angry Men with action outside the juror’s room, etc. Hitchcock believed that cinema analyzed the phenomenal world with its own characteristics: nothing exists before or after the cinematic image-event. When presented with single-set stage material such as Rope and Dial M for Murder, he did not believe there was any need to “open up” that material; whereas plays such as Blackmail or Murder! required diversified settings because that was how the action was conceived. Therefore, the viewer does not need to constantly see the entrance to the Wendice’s flat in Dial M for Murder or the concierge in the lobby of Brandon’s apartment building; what matters is the very self-involved, image by image construction of the films. Without editing and by following his dictum of not superficially expanding theatrical material, Hitchcock in Rope provides the viewer with a systematic delivery of visual material as it unfolds in real time.

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Granger, Stewart and Dall

    The structure of Rope was based upon Hitchcock’s belief that the element of real time was the central component of both play and screenplay. Hitchcock devised this highly unusual treatment of sutured camera movements in order to address the key issue of duration in what he believed to be the most inventive and intelligent way. (6) Herein lies the major problem with Rope. While the film is greatly flawed, it does inventively manipulate the interstices between time, space and narrative. However, it is doubtful that the apparent absence of cuts achieves what was certainly Hitchcock’s primary goal: the continuity of real time. By eschewing the element of compression associated with traditional narrative cutting (except for the masked or direct cuts described previously), Rope purports to be “one” camera movement because its shape is dictated by temporal, not dramatic, logic. The problem is that the camera movements sometimes confirm and sometimes question the element of real time. The mechanism for this imaginary continuity is faulty: the five points at which dissolves occur unfortunately call excessive attention to the very artificiality that Rope attempts to avoid. The only way to “hide” these dissolves was to use a character’s back, with the exception of the chest lid mentioned above, as a moving diversion. Unfortunately the necessity of repeating this device whereby the screen is momentarily blacked out only reinforces the viewer’s awareness of the technical transition. There are fluctuations in the volume of the soundtrack: the line spoken by the character that functions as camouflage for the lens (usually Brandon) is sometimes noticeably softer or louder than the next line that is presumably uttered seconds later. The animation of the performers’ body language is also inconsistent. With the next take coming hours if not days later, the actors’ gestures and mannerisms could not possibly remain consistent with what was previously photographed. These cosmetic faults, given the extremity of effect that Hitchcock aimed for, damage the temporal purity of the film. This purity is suggested rather than manifested, making this concept of Rope intriguing but problematic.
    Montage has shown that real time is just one of many factors that can be manipulated through the nature and number of individual shots edited in a given sequence. From the Odessa steps massacre in Sergei Dissentient’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) to the cornfield execution in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), montage has shown that dozens if not hundreds of shots can convey only several minutes of screen time and either expand or contract the real time of the evnt being presented. In fact, it is a rule of cinematic logic that the more shots used in the montage, the less “realistic” is the viewer’s perception and appraisal of time. The difficulty with the moving camera as employed by Hitchcock in Rope is that, by eliminating subjectivity in viewer awareness of time, the film places extraordinary weight on the integrity of the image. This results in clever complexes and conceits of meaning but there is also frequent awkwardness because the viewer sees the strings being pulled, and the spatial illusion of continuous time fails.

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Endnotes:

1. Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Ed. Sidney Gottlieb (University of California Press: Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1995) “My Most Exciting Picture,” pgs. 275-284. (Back)

2. Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Revised Edition (Simon & Schuster, Inc.: New York, 1985); pg. 179. “I undertook Rope as a stunt; that’s the only way I can describe it. I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it.” (Back)

3. Arthur Miller, 1949. (Back)

4. Tennessee Williams, 1945. (Back)

5. Truffaut, pgs. 210-212. “I’ve got a theory on the way they made pictures based on stage plays; they did it with silent pictures, too. Many filmmakers would take a stage play and say: ‘I’m going to make this into a film.’ Then they would begin to ’open it up.’ In other words, on the stage it was all confined to one set, and the idea was to do something that would take it away from the confined stage setting. …that whole operation boils down to very little. Let’s say that in the play one of the characters arrives in a cab. In the film they will show the arrival of the cab, the person getting out and paying the driver, coming up the stairs, knocking at the door and then coming into the room, and this serves to introduce the long scene that takes place in the room. Sometimes, if a stage character has mentioned something about a trip, the film will show the journey in a flashback. This technique overlooks the fact that the basic quality of any play is precisely its confinement within the proscenium. …this is where the filmmakers often go wrong, and what they get is simply some dull footage that’s been added to the play artificially. Whereas in Dial M for Murder, I did my best to avoid going outside. It happened only two or three times, when the inspector had to verify something, and then, very briefly. I even had the floor made of real tiles so as to get the sound of the footsteps. In other words, what I did was to emphasize the theatrical aspects.” (Back)

6. Truffaut, pg. 179. “The stage drama was played out in the actual time of the story; the action is continuous from the moment the curtain goes up until it comes down again. I asked myself whether it was technically possible to film it in the same way. The only way to achieve that, I found, would be to handle the shooting in the same continuous action, with no break in the telling of a story that began at seven-thirty and ends at nine-fifteen.” (Back)

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