Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Then the camera turns to face a window, curtains drawn, and we hear a man scream. Cut to a well-groomed young man being strangled by two well-groomed young men in an upscale apartment. The murder weapon is a piece of rope.
Thus begins Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” the first of four collaborations between the “master of suspense” and actor James Stewart. Along with “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” these late 40s and 50s movies form the richest vein in the director’s work. “Rope” is the most unfairly neglected.
The victim’s body is hidden in a chest used as a serving table for a party. The guests include the man’s fiancé, best friend, father, and aunt. The guest of honor is the murderers’ old college mentor, James Stewart. The cat and mouse game will be to enjoy the thrill of avoiding detection – and seeing if their old master will catch on.
Much has been written about “Rope.” The opening scene immediately following the murder is filled with double entendre. Made in 1948, every line of dialog circles around the two attractive young men who share an apartment as if they just did the unspeakable “it” – and wishing they hadn’t had to keep the curtains drawn.
The movie ends with a blunt, urgent speech by Stewart. During college, he had shared twisted theories about how the intellectual elite are above the law and can justifiably commit murder. Unfortunately, his pupils failed to note his facetiousness. The bluntness is forgivable though. The atrocities of Hitler’s own misappropriation of Nietzsche’s Superman were topical in 1948.
Most discussion about the movie though is related to what connects the beginning and ending, a rather unusual filmmaking experiment for Hitchcock. This discussion has also led to a misconception.
Hitchcock wanted the movie to play like a play in real time and he accomplished this by using long, uninterrupted takes as the camera follows the characters throughout the three rooms of the apartment.
This posed a number of problems including putting pressure on the actors to get it right or have to redo as much as eight minutes of work, something that caused Stewart much frustration. It’s amazing that he worked with the director three more times.
Another challenge was the enormous Technicolor camera. Hitchcock had to orchestrate an elaborate ballet of cast and crew and movable furniture and walls. When a character breaks a champagne glass and bloodies his hand, a makeup person had to sneak in – avoiding the camera – and replace the glass in his hand while applying the blood.
The misconception is that it was shot entirely using ten minutes takes – the length of a roll of film – with the necessary cuts clumsily concealed by closing and opening on a character’s back. Actually, the shots range from roughly four to eight minutes and each transition – like a fade-out – signals a new movement in the action.
The most dramatic transition isn’t even disguised. It is a cut to Stewart’s face as he begins to catch on, signaling the game is truly on.
“Rope” has not been rated, but it is filled with the director’s sense of the macabre. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Jan. 27 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.