Monday, January 16, 2012

CANON OF FILM: "ROPE"

ROPE (1948)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Arthur Laurents, from the adaptation by Hume Cronyn based on the play “Rope’s End,” by Patrick Hamilton





It is pretty close to filmmaking blasphemy for anybody to even attempt to remake an Alfred Hitchcock film (Or at least, think you can make a film of his better than he can). Yes, every thriller is going to be/have an obvious homage(s) to one or more of his features, it natural. There’s a reason he is called the Master of Suspense, and why no pretender has come along to knock him off that pedestal. We’re all basically stealing from him, even if we’re not completely aware of it. However, if there is an exception to this, it might be “Rope,” which is oddly enough, my all-time personal favorite Hitchcock film. Not his best, I’ll grant you, and that argument can last forever, but lets say that title either belongs to “Psycho,” or “Vertigo,” with some votes coming in for “North By Northwest,” “Rear Window,” “Rebecca”, his second version of “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” and “Strangers on a Train”.  (I say it’s “Psycho” but, that discussion’s for another time) “Rope,” is one of his experimental films, the first one he shot in color in fact. Based originally on a Broadway play, similar to “Rear Window,” the entire movie takes place within the confines of a New York City apartment. However now, it’s the apartment of the murderer. Actually murderers, Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger, respectively) They’ve just killed their fellow schoolmate David (Dick Hogan, a little stiff), strangling him with a simple piece of rope, and placing him inside a cedar chest. From here on, the movie is only shot not just inside the apartment, but in long takes, to give the illusion of a play. The camera remains on a dolly that continually moves through the apartment. Now, at the time, you could only film a single take for ten minutes, that was the amount of film that the cameras could hold at that time. Nowadays, and this is the reason why this film could be remade, you could actually shoot the entire movie in one lone with a cut. In fact, a few years ago, a movie called “Russian Ark,” actually did that as that film's camera rolled through a Russian museum I believe, and through Russian history. What Hitchcock would do, is set up the long takes, and then, when the camera would run out of film, (or supposed to run out of film) he would then zoom in and focus on a dark color of some kind, often the back of a jacket that comes into frame, and then cut, and then come back onto the jacket, as it moves out of the scene, making it seem like the film is occurring in real time, and that indeed wasn’t an edit. During one cut, he cuts it so close, if you look carefully, you can even see a frame where the camera runs out of film, and turns to all black. Anyway, back to Brandon and Phillip. They’ve killed they’re close friend, and now they’re going to hold a dinner party for their recently departed guest, family and close friends invited. Brandon is charismatic and charming in the kind of way where you think he’s always up to something, and hiding what he means to say. Phillip is more shy and nebbish. There’s an obvious dominant-submissive dynamic in their relationship. (The movie was banned in a few parts of the country for the obvious homosexual undertones, which are more thoroughly explored in the play actually) They’ve committed the perfect murder, and want to flaunt it with the party. The only character that begins to suspect anything is their college professor, Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart). He himself, has a Darwinian view of the universe that actually inspired these two, believing themselves more dominant than David, who they consider to be just taking up space, currently in the chest being used as a buffet table. The filming is incredibly difficult, not just the constant rehearsals with the actors, which does at times come off as the actors, double-timing their lines. The whole set has to be moveable and collapsible, so the camera can move freely, that requires numerous stagehands adjusting and readjusting the set back when they’re not on camera. During one take, apparently the dolly ran over one stagehand’s foot, breaking it. (If you’ve never seen a dolly, they're large, and can weigh at least 3-400 pounds, maybe twice that) They managed to gag the stage hand and drag him offset and continue rolling. During another scene, a guest accidently misses the table when putting down her glass, a stage hand had to dive and catch it. The key with these kind of long takes is timing and lots of rehearsal. Hitchcock likes these confined space tales. He had done it before with “Lifeboat,” and he did “Rear Window,” years later. I like them, ‘cause as somebody who doesn’t get to go to the theatre as much as he’d like to, these sort of films are as close to watching a play as theatre can get. “Rope,” is suspenseful and intimately so. Close-up shots on objects, and the direction in which an actor is looking here are as suspense-filled as anything in Hitchcock’s canon. Yet still, it would be difficult, but we can now see this movie the way Hitchcock wasn’t able to, and actually shoot the film in one take, or at least, mostly one take. There is one cut that’s blatantly obvious and clearly intended as a cut. You’ll know it when you see it, it’s when the focus of the film shifts characters to Stewart as he zeroes in, on solving the mystery of David’s strange no-show.

The link to the entire movie, free on youtube.com, is above. (It was when this blog was first published anyway.)
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