Saturday, November 5, 2011


One of the things I love most about Alfred Hitchcock is the way he would find ways to challenge himself. Sure, he mostly stayed within the thriller genre, so there was always the relative safety of knowing he's doing what he does best. But Hitchcock would sometimes find ways to intentionally restrict himself as a director, such as limiting his camera's perspective to only that which his protagonist could see, in Rear Window.

Rope is Hitchcock at his most experimental, taking away from his arsenal what is perhaps the most important tool a director has for building suspense: editing. Rope is a story told in (seemingly) a single shot. The limitations of the time, specifically the length of a reel, forced him to hide a cut in there every 10 minutes or so. What does Hitchcock do without editing? He finds a million other ways to increase tension.

The story follows two old prep school chums, Brandon and Phillip, who in the film's opening, have just finished strangling a man (David, a third "chum") to death. Brandon believes they have committed the perfect crime, Phillip is not so sure. All that's left to do is to wait until dark, and take the body out to the country to dispose of it.

It's not going to be that easy, though, is it? Brandon is so cocky and brazen, his head so full of philosophical justifications of his own intellectual superiority, that he can't help but see just how far he can dangle his accomplishment over everybody's heads without them catching on. The best way to do that? Throw a dinner party before they go, the guest list full of associates and loved ones of the victim himself.

Among the guests are their housekeeper, David's girlfriend, his father and aunt, the 4th chum in their Chummery, and Rupert, their old teacher, the one who filled Brandon's head with these philosophical notions (played by Jimmy Stewart). James Stewart is the biggest name in the movie, so you know he has a meaty role.

Brandon takes every chance he possibly can to drop little hints of what he and Phillip did in front of the guests. Phillip is just trying to keep it together. Rupert can see that something suspicious is going on, and is putting the pieces together. It's pretty much one of Hitchcock's "perfect murder" setups, where a character starts off thinking they're secure, and we get to watch as their schemes slowly crumble do to a missed detail here and there.

The fun of the movie is in Hitchcock's inventiveness in finding tension and suspense without edits. The camera swoops all around the apartment, following different conversations as they happen in real time, and panning in on objects, letting the audience in on details that the characters may not be aware of yet. The music is only source music, never soundtrack, and it is provided by the jittery Phillip, nervously fumbling through an off-kilter, lilting piano tune.

The lighting is pretty masterful, as well. Set in a New York high rise, the movie uses a phony backdrop of the New York skyline outside. The movie is set at dusk, though, so with some clever trickery, the backdrop is replaced with darker and darker ones as the sun sets. Things reach a crescendo when the blaring neon lights on the building across the street burst on, washing the room in anxious reds and greens.

Some of the edits in Rope are more subtle than others. Most of the time, Hitchcock just pushes in on the back of an actor's jacket and hides the cut there, where the screen is all black. There's a particularly seamless one early in the film, where he cleverly overlaps the sound of piano and dialogue from the next shot in with the previous.

Rope is more known for its gimmick than its content, but I found the story to be quite entertaining. Jimmy Stewart is always fun to watch, isn't he? Hitchcock was the master of pulling our strings, and there's a subtle psychology to the way he would put together a story, especially within his editing. It's interesting to see that he was just as able to mess around with us without the benefit of his greatest tool as he was with it.

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