Filmic Space and Real Time in "Rope"
Dellolio, Peter J., The Midwest Quarterly
"Brandon, how did you feel?" "When?" "During it?" Philip Morgan to Brandon Shaw
LIKE ROBERT BRESSON'S L'Argent (1983) and Vittorio DeSica's Bicycle Thief (1949), Rope is possibly one of the most disconcerting films ever made. As Thomas A. Bauso suggests in Hitchcock's Re-Released Films, "[Hitchcock's] central achievement in viewer disorientation is his simultaneous provoking of his audience to regard the crime with horror and his implicating of that audience in the performance of the crime. More than anything else, this complex process accounts for the unpleasant sensations that Rope seems to produce in many of its viewers" (232; italics mine). The film contains elements of irrationality and causes a degree of viewer alienation that was quite rare for the American screen in 1948. In later films greater permissiveness in Hollywood allowed Hitchcock to vividly portray the destruction of an innocent (Psycho, The Birds, Topaz, Frenzy), something that, with the exception of Rope, was almost impossible to introduce in his films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Moreover, the murder of David Kentley (Dick Hogan) in Rope, in spite of his nonexistence as a character, unlike Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Psycho, is particularly heinous because of its utter meaninglessness and cruelty. David's death is made that much more unsettling for the viewer not from knowing him as a character but from being exposed to those in his life who loved him. The screenplay was adapted from the 1929 British play by Patrick Hamilton, produced in the United States as Rope's End, which bears many similarities to the real-life Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924.
What makes Rope compelling is the double-sided manner in which the story unfolds. On the one hand, the viewer experiences the inside jokes and black humor along with Brandon and Philip because it knows about the murder from the beginning of the film. On the other hand, the viewer is subjected to little shocks and traps that Hitchcock introduces, such as when we laugh at Rupert's discussion about "Strangulation Day" or "Cut a Throat Week" only to notice Mr. Kentley looking out the window because he is worried about his absent son. This duality is part of the film's fundamental structure: as the real time of the events unfolds ostensibly without any cuts or filmic compression of time, the camera movements weave in and out and back and forth, creating a seamless continuity that often deepens these traps for the viewer. When we hear Mr. Kentley say off-screen that he is a very fortunate man today, because of the books Brandon has offered him, the camera has moved to a close-up of Philip looking distraught, having been told by Mrs. Atwater that his hands will bring him great fame. In a discussion of these and other examples below, we will see that this kind of double-edged tension between visual and dramatic information puts more and more of an ambiguous moral strain upon the viewer.
Two affluent, homosexual lovers, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger), murder a former prep school companion, David Kentley. Hitchcock was keenly aware of how far a verbal or dramatic nuance could go to suggest a homosexual alliance between characters. In Rope the homosexual sub-text is thematically linked to elitism and perversity. Brandon's espousal of a Nietzschean doctrine of intellectual superiority is more than superficially linked to the Nazi doctrine of ethnic superiority. Brandon and Philip believe they possess a Nietzsehean superiority that places their actions above the judgment of conventional law. During a conversation with Mr. Kentley (Cedrick Hardwicke) that is initiated by Rupert's (James Stewart) tongue-in-cheek discussion of murder as an art ("Not one of the seven lively, perhaps, but an art nevertheless," says Rupert), Brandon asserts his position that those who are entitled to commit murder "are those men who are of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they are above the traditional moral concepts." Mr. Kentley's response is "Then obviously you agree with Nietzsehe and his theory of the Superman?" "Yes, I do," answers Brandon, to which Mr. Kentley softly replies "So did Hitler." The murder of David, an "inferior everyman," becomes a clinical test to validate Brandon's postulate that he and Philip are not only entitled to commit murder but are naturally clever and intelligent enough to get away with it. As Brandon tells Philip "Nobody commits a murder just for the experiment of committing it." The basis for their act is both egocentric and philosophical in that they believe they have the right to commit murder with impunity. This may be called a politically correct ingredient of the scenario: the condemnation of Nazism as it was perceived within the context of post-World War II America, an era that differs from the privileges of the rich in the roaring twenties society of Leopold and Loeb or the fictional characters in Hamilton's play. As Nazi atrocities became more commonly known to the American public during the late 1940s, the perception of good versus evil acquired dramatic proportions for most socially conscious Americans. Hence Brandon's icy sarcasm is quite outspoken for its time: "Good Americans usually die young on the battlefield, don't they?" says Brandon, comparing David's death to the recent fate of so many American soldiers. Citing philosophical justification for taking David's life, Brandon adds that "The Davids of this world merely occupy space" and with the sardonic humor that is sprinkled throughout the film, goes on to say that "he was a Harvard undergraduate . . . that might make it justifiable homicide." It is noteworthy that in spite of what appears to be an indifference to society, Rupert supported the struggle against evil by fighting in the war. "Mr. Cadell got a bad leg in the war for his courage" asserts Mrs. Wilson when Brandon speaks of Rupert's inability to participate in "the perfect murder" because he lacks courage.
As Brandon so perversely points out afterwards, "The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create." A number of paintings adorn his apartment and he speaks of art during the party. Murder is Brandon's substitute, as he "always wished for more artistic talent." The underlying theme of artistic and possibly sexual frustration leading to an obsession with destruction perhaps links Brandon with Hitler and Nazi doctrine. Brandon looks upon David's murder as a "work of art" and considers his sudden inspiration to place the candelabra over their victim's improvised coffin, turning it into a "ceremonial altar" from which the "sacrificial feast" will be served to be the crowning touch that "(makes) our work of art into a masterpiece."
In many ways, the character Rupert Cadell represents the viewer. It is Rupert who speaks of murder with a sense of smug superiority; who seems to enjoy the idea of disposing of inferiors from a safe, ideological distance; and who, after realizing that Brandon has used this point of view to murder a human being, becomes outraged that an academic position has been transformed into an excuse for a senseless killing. The viewer, through Rupert's reactions, is forced, in a sense, to make some kind of moral reparation for his/her amusements. The series of ironies and instances of black comedy resulting from the viewer's privileged knowledge of David's murder and the whereabouts of his body make the viewer and, by extension, Rupert, participants in something ugly.
Rupert summons the police by firing shots out an opened window, thus disrupting Hitchcock's most insulated soundtrack by introducing natural sounds for only the second time in the film. In The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto, James Stewart commented on the difficulties during shooting and the necessity of post-synchronization: "We had a lot of rehearsal, but the noise of the moving walls was a problem, and so we had to do the whole thing over again for sound, with just microphones, like a radio play. The dialogue track was then added later" (324). There is some nominal traffic noise after Brandon opens the curtains but it is very low and lasts only a few moments. The first time we hear distinct street sounds is while Philip plays the piano and is questioned by Rupert. When Rupert asks him "What's going on?" there is a siren, perhaps a hidden portent, and Philip looks up at the window for a moment, indicating that he hears it.
These off-screen sounds recall the outside world from the opening pan in which another of Hitchcock's typically ineffectual policemen halts traffic to allow two boys to safely cross the street in counterpoint to the very moment that David is murdered. The film begins, therefore, with a gesture that connects the apparent security of the boys in the street to David's helplessness as he is murdered. The opening pan initiates the whole process of the viewer becoming implicated in David's murder.
The camera, holding a medium long-shot of the street during the credit sequence, creates irony retroactively, panning slowly to screen left only after the boys are carefully superintended by the policeman's "watchful" eye. The camera crosses the graveled ledge and stops with a medium-shot of Brandon's curtained window. David's brief scream is heard over this exterior shot before the cut to a medium close-up of his face as he slumps forward with the rope around his neck, held between Brandon and Philip. The camera slowly backtracks to begin the film's series of unbroken camera movements as Brandon, his palm against David's heart, confirms that he is dead. Thus the viewer is brought into the murder through a three-step process: a) there is the reassurance of seeing the boys guided and protected by the policeman, b) there is the "arbitrary" transition from the street to Brandon's apartment window, c) there is the realization that something horrific is occurring behind the surface of the ordinary.
What makes the pan interesting is that the policeman's protection of the two boys functions as a kind of abstract security that is juxtaposed against David's helplessness. Brandon's window, like Uncle Charlie's (Joseph Cotton) boardinghouse room (Shadow of a Doubt), seems to be chosen at random, emphasizing the irrational nature of destructive powers. Knowing that the boys are safe and not knowing that David is being murdered is an imbalance of awareness for the viewer that the panning camera captures perfectly. When Brandon and Philip entered prep school with Rupert they were possibly just slightly older than the boys, another submerged element that adds to the suggestions of this camera movement.
There is some circularity in Rope's structure that contributes to the viewer's sense of moral ambivalence, and that circularity is partly suggested by the opening and closing of the living room curtains, a reference to Brandon's and Philip's "performance" both of the murder and in front of their dinner guests. There is still plenty of daylight as Brandon opens the curtains and says "What a lovely evening," an indirect comment on the desire to commit the crime in the middle of the afternoon. "Pity we couldn't have done it with the curtains open in the bright sunlight" says Brandon. After everyone leaves, there is the disintegration of the positive light of day; with an uneasy self-consciousness, Brandon says "We'd better close the curtains," reluctantly admitting to himself that removing and disposing of David's body is a secret deed that must be performed in the dark. Throughout the film, the viewer is both repelled by and attracted to all of the "secret" material that it possesses, which includes an understanding of Brandon's and Philip's "pretending." Their use of theatre and deception as a form of twisted intellectual pleasure will become the very basis upon which they ultimately reveal themselves.
Beginning with its title, Hitchcock wanted the style of the film to reflect the sinuous path of deception and the hidden guilt of the two protagonists. "He's got it! He's got it! He knows! He knows! He knows! He knows!" exclaims a desperate Philip when Rupert pulls the rope out of his pocket, having retrieved it from the books Brandon had heartlessly wrapped for his "gift" to Mr. Kentley. The rope used to strangle David plays its own role almost as though it were another character. It appears in the dose-up of David's face as he is strangled by Philip; then it alarms Philip when he notices that part of it hangs out of the chest; it distresses Philip further when Brandon casually holds it in front of Mrs. Wilson; moments later it is dropped by Brandon into the kitchen drawer, a "coincidence" of timing typical of the rhythm of the film: the kitchen door swings back and forth and we are allowed to see the rope entering the drawer at the last moment; it returns in a medium close-up of the books in Mr. Kentley's hands described above; and finally Rupert unexpectedly pulls it out of his pocket.
While Brandon and Philip shuffle about the room in disbelief, neighbors and passers-by quickly comment upon and identify the origin of the shots, combining with the emergence of a police siren. "Society," as Rupert points out, will be outraged by this act and a democratic, egalitarian justice will take its course. Against the contemporary background of the Nuremburg trials, the larger implication is clear: Nazism is defeated and will not be tolerated in the free world. The perpetrators of mass genocide will pay the ultimate price for crimes against humanity. "You're going to die, Brandon! Both of you!" exclaims Rupert as he promises to help the legal system prosecute Brandon and Philip. Rupert does not subscribe to an effete, intellectual elitism that disengages the individual from meaningful interaction with the community, although at first this seems to be the case. Rupert in fact demonstrates that the individual must take responsibility for what happens in society as a whole, something that is diametrically opposed to Brandon's point of view.
Therefore, if Rupert can be said to represent the viewer, his function in the film is two-fold. On the one hand, his sense of moral outrage articulates the point of view of the viewer from the civilized world who finds the crime reprehensible. On the other hand, with remarks like "Strangulation Day" and so on, Rupert becomes "implicated," just as the viewer is implicated, in the crime. Finding some of Brandon's remarks funny; knowing that David's body is in the chest; sometimes enjoying the (often obtrusive) irony of the proceedings: all of this makes the viewer, with Rupert as his/her proxy, a kind of moral scapegoat.
As in much of Hitchcock's work, Rope depends upon a unique relationship between style and theme. Hitchcock was intrigued by a conceit based on the rope-like convoluted camera movements and the destined fate of his protagonists as the real time clock winds down to their unmasking. In Alfred Hitchcock Reader, Maurice Yacowar suggests that "The continuous shooting of Rope, which Hitchcock calls his 'abandonment of pure cinema' because it eschewed his normal dependence upon dramatic editing, grows out of both the title image--something continuous that will tie one up--and the main theme of the film--the continuity of word into deed; a murderous human reality is spun out of a musing that was considered safely theoretical" (21-22). Hitchcock spoke of a project that would have been a documentary on food during a typical twenty-four hour period. An online Wikipedia article describes the aborted film: "One unrealized film idea was to show 24 hours in the life of a city, with the frame being the food: how it was imported and prepared and eaten and then at the end of the day thrown away into the sewers."
It is clear from this unmade film that Hitchcock was fascinated by the enclosure of a temporal system and the logical, visually enunciated progression of details and information. As in some of the superior examples of avant-garde filmmaking from the 60s and 70s, especially the films of Michael Snow, one sees that with Rope and this jettisoned documentary, Hitchcock was very much aware of how formal constructs could be used to turn a film into a structural event based on a single theme or idea.
The moving camera allows Rope to impose a certain kind of functional presentation. The camera numerously adjusts its viewpoint because of its unchecked mobility, a mobility that does not distinguish between functional necessity and expressive emphasis. For example, when Brandon and Philip move from the living room to the dining room to the kitchen during their initial peregrinations within the apartment in preparation for the party after the murder and the concealment of the body at the beginning of the film, the camera must follow them in order for the spatial-temporal continuity of the narrative to be maintained. This logic of display is characteristic of the film as a whole. The camera records characters' movements and most changes in grouping, such as when guests arrive or when Janet (Joan Chandler) asks Brandon to step into the foyer to express her annoyance at his having invited her ex-boyfriend, Kenneth (Douglas Dick). While it is problematic and flawed, Rope's uniqueness lies in its refutation of cinematic compression: Rope has no filmic time. Unlike most films, Rope does not offer diverse, successive or concomitant happenings that occur in compressed, subjective time. Without editing, the moment-by-moment quality of Rope's temporal verisimilitude becomes a prerequisite for a narrative presented as it happens.
Rope is based upon the explorative examinations of a moving camera. Given this method, there was some potential for complexity and subtlety. When a shot obeys the functional laws of simple exposition, such as the many pans and tracking shots that follow characters' behavior and actions, there is no "expressive" articulation. Hitchcock relies on the consistency of this visual-rhythmic system to then introduce spatial motifs that communicate significance as if by chance or as though they functioned as a by-product of the condition of camera mobility that governs the film. In some ways this reflects Hitchcock's life-long preoccupation with the original principles of cinema: early viewers' fascination with narrative, time, and the frame; the undoing of natural expectations through the inherently illusionary character of the medium; the belief that technical functions of cinema (camera movement) can influence ideas, etc. Unfortunately, Rope reaches its potential in just a handful of shots.
For example, during the party Mrs. At-water (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: "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, Mr. 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 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Kentley, would certainly undo the delicately woven strands of perception and emotional identification. Robin Wood comments on some of this in Hitchcock's Films, using the simpler example of the slow, left to right pan across Mrs. Atwater, Rupert, Mr. Kentley, and Brandon while they are 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": "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 respond to his charm and to 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 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" (37-39). 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 ("Cut a Throat Week" and "Strangulation Day") 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. 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.
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 class and cut himself. Hitchcock did not believe that the camera should be moved for superficial reasons and his most intelligently motivated camera movements are summoned by very carefully chosen narrative information. As he says in Sidney Gottlieb's Hitchcock On Hitchcock, "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" (0.08). The same principle is applied in another of Rope's more elaborate shots: as Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) 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 at 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 towards 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.
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 towards 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 dose-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 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.
Rope, for better or worse, is an anomaly of modern cinema. No narrative film before or since has used the mobile camera to create a seamless whole from beginning to ending. The use of the moving camera to make emotional content and psychological conflict parallel with formal design, was, in fact, a relatively unusual idea for its time. There are, as analysis of the film's more inventive camera movements indicates, some high marks in Rope's metaphysics. What is unrealized and technically self-conscious in Rope must be measured against those insights the film does provide regarding what cinema can do when one of its innate expressive capabilities is pushed to conceptual extremes.
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Raubicheck, Walter, and Walter Srebnick, eds. Hitchcock's Re-released Films, From Rope to Vertigo. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1991.
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Publication information: Article title: Filmic Space and Real Time in "Rope". Contributors: Dellolio, Peter J. - Author. Journal title: The Midwest Quarterly. Volume: 50. Issue: 1 Publication date: Autumn 2008. Page number: 87+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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