Rope – Hitchcock tricking you into seeing what’s “there” when it’s the unspeakable “there.”

I’ve had to watch a slew of Hitchcock in the last few weeks for work, and although I have seen so many of them I confess to having a marvellous time.  I can’t really pin point a very favourite Hitchcock film, but I will say Spellbound, Rebecca and Rope are the front-runners at this point. Rope, in my opinion has always been underrated.  It was a flop when it first hit the cinemas and really, Hitchcock was brave to venture out with James Stewart and a one room setting again immediately after with Rear Window, but of course this time (as we all know) he was greatly rewarded.

The story of Rope, for those of you who don’t know it, is based on the real life crime of Leopold and Loeb two young men who killed a third young man simply for the sake of killing him. For the film, this story is combined with Nietzsche’s theory of the Ubermensch such that the young men kill out of a belief in their own superiority as human creatures, obeying a set of rules made by themselves and not dictated to from some external power, ie the law or god. Their lofty self-assessments are the stated motive for a carefully orchestrated—and ultimately, poorly executed—murder: they lure David to their apartment (which they apparently share), kill him, stuff him in a trunk in the middle of the room, and go on to host a dinner party for David’s friends and family, as well as their mutual former teacher. Rope was Hitchcock’s first color film, produced in 1948. It was adapted by Hume Cronyn, from Patrick Hamilton’s stage play and Arthur Laurents was credited with the final screenplay.

We all know the story of Rope so I won’t spend time going into it here. Instead I thought I would use my two cents to focus on an aspect of the philosophical that has always appealed to me in Rope.  That of the hidden or unseen that is right in front of our faces.

When David is murdered by Brandon and Philip in broad daylight in the middle of the day) he is placed in a trunk in the centre of the room where the two men then host a dinner party where David is the missing guest at the party. As the party wears on and all the attendees worry more and more about where David might be, we the viewers become more and more aware of David’s presence in front of them all. As the film moves through its paces the visual focus of the trunk where the dead David lies becomes so much the focus that after dinner a large part of a scene where the cast discuss where David might be, the camera remains fixed on the trunk, the housekeeper slowly removing the remains of dinner from the trunk preparing to open it to replace the books that need to be returned there. Because we have seen David killed in the second shot of the film and because we know he is in the trunk we spend the next hour of the film waiting for David’s body to be discovered.  The way that Hitchcock’s camera constantly moves toward the trunk, using it as a kind of visual anchor implies there will be a discovery of the body. Throughout the movie, David is “missing” but obviously there, in every line of dialogue, in the way his absence structures the plot, even in the shot compositions themselves. David is a disavowed obviousness—something which is not there but there.

Another disavowed obviousness – that is something hidden in plain sight –  is the homosexual relationship between Brandon and Phillip. After they kill David, they pop a bottle of champagne, as Brandon, with bated breath, shares his orgasmic exhilaration with Phillip. They go through the evening as a couple, hosting an elegant dinner party and talking about their prep school days, their trips to the country, and when they first met. After the dinner, Brandon plans on taking Phillip to Connecticut to spend a few weeks with his mother, before Phillip makes a Town Hall debut as a pianist. Brandon even suggests that they take a holiday when it’s all over. This, it’s fair to say, is all pretty gay, but the terms of this intimacy go unexplained, even if they are plainly understood. Hitchcock and his writers were well aware of the subtext: Dall and Granger were themselves both gay, and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the screenplay, even admitted to purging the play of its most overtly queer lines.  Leopold and Loeb were gay. While making the film, the filmmakers simply called it “IT,” the not-there-but-there queer subtext.

This is further enhanced by the way Hitchcock has made the film itself. Much has been made of the single shot technique. It is undeniable and admirable. And yet, something that always puzzled me when I watched this film (I’ve seen it many times) is that the so-called “single shot” moments, often use an obscure point to make the film reel transition.  The most memorably example – which Hitchcock uses at least twice – is the focus in on Brandon’s back. It makes no sense for the camera to be taking a closeup of Brandon’s back, it is not part of the narrative nor is it part of the image flow. Also, there are actually normal cuts as well within the film. It’s almost as if Hitchcock is not trying to make a single shot but rather draw our attention to the fact that he is trying to make a single shot.

Then I found this marvellous essay that deals specifically with this problem I have always wondered about. I stole the term “disavowed obviousness” from here.  Chris Wisniewski gives what I think is an excellent explanation for why Hitchcock is making such a big deal of the single shot issue when he is obviously not making single shots. This is a large chunk of his essay that I’ve spliced out to use here. But I found this so interesting I wanted to add it to this post:

It’s hard to imagine two films more different than Russian Ark and Rope, but in at least one sense, Hitchcock’s ambition when he made the latter in 1948 was similar to Sokurov’s in 2002: both directors wanted to make a feature-length movie consisting of one single, apparently continuous sequence. Contrary to popular misconception, though, Rope is not made to resemble a single continuous take or shot. There are ten cuts in the film; of these, only half are “invisible.” The other five cuts are perfectly conventional, marking a shift in setting, camera position, and/or point-of-view. The movie consists of eleven shots, ranging from about two minutes to about ten minutes in length, and the cuts alternate between conventional edits (cuts one, three, five, seven, and nine) and invisible edits (two, four, six, eight, and ten).

The length of the takes and the alternation of the cuts were consequences of technical constraints, which were determined by the camera and the projection systems used to record and exhibit the movie when it was made. The camera on which Hitchcock shot Rope could hold a little over ten minutes’ worth of film, thus establishing a strict maximum take-length. It almost becomes a game between the viewer and the director: waiting for those cuts, knowing they need to happen soon, anticipating when and how they’re going to happen. When the camera seeks out Brandon’s back at the end of the second shot, it pretty much has to. That second shot is one of the longest takes in the film, clocking in just under ten minutes, scraping the upper limits of the technically possible. As Brandon reaches for those books, it’s as though Hitchcock solves his technical problem—where to find a moment to cut—just at the moment that Brandon solves his own puzzle: how to justify serving from the living room.

Hitchcock was dealing with another, less obvious constraint on this movie as well: A film reel on a projector could hold a little over 20 minutes of film at the time—two ten-minute rolls. This explains the strange presence of conventional cuts in a movie that so scrupulously avoids drawing attention to half of its edits. Every 20 minutes, there would be a reel change, corresponding with cuts three, five, seven, and nine. This is where we get the conventional edits. Since projectionists in 1948 had to switch projectors at the reel changes manually, they needed to have a little margin of error, a few split seconds on either end to make the switch. If Hitchcock had made these cuts “invisible,” it would have required an impossible level of precision at the reel changes.

Here we have Alfred Hitchcock, considered by many to be the greatest director in the history of the cinema, shaping his art according to rules determined by nothing more or less than equipment and apparatus—the physical realities of filmmaking. In this sense, his and Sokurov’s Russian Ark couldn’t be more different—it is the difference between shooting on film and shooting on digital video, and therefore, between editing as necessity and editing as choice. The difference is technical, but it’s also theoretical and ontological. With video, there is still an upward limit (a maximum shot length), but the technology has taken that limit beyond the typical running time of the feature film. I’m not entirely certain what that means, theoretically speaking, but I do know that to watch a movie like Rope is to encounter an artifact of a specific time and method of making movies. It is a film in both the colloquial and the technical sense, and its status as such is reiterated every time there’s a cut. Had Hitchcock made it today, he could have, and perhaps would have, made it differently, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a film, nor would it necessarily be the same film. Just imagine this movie on DV—how the camera would move differently and how the sense of time and space would change if there were no need for those cuts, cuts we start waiting for as early as that second shot, because we know they have to be there.

To bring us back to Laurent’s “it” comment, we have the distinct reference to another “it” here. Whatever “IT” really meant to Hitchcock and Laurents, though, IT could just as easily refer to the corpse in the trunk or the poorly concealed edits. The movie is ultimately about all of those ITs: the thing hidden in the middle of the room, the thing written between the lines, the thing erased by taking over the entirety of the frame. Hitchcock and his screenwriters—like Brandon and Phillip—are bad liars; they want to get caught. As an audience, the fun isn’t in catching them in the lie, but in already knowing that they’re lying and in seeing how the lie is built—narratively, subtextually, and technically—and reveling in its untidy but audacious construction. It’s not that the close-up to Brandon’s back really dupes us into not seeing the cut; rather, it forces us to think about the camera itself, and to see the cut differently. Taken this way, Rope is no stagy theatrical adaptation or middling Hitchcock thriller; instead it’s become a trenchant psychological study and a singular technical marvel.