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Rope: The 10-shot Hitchcockian wonder

RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT NETWORK

‘Rope’, the 1948 psychological crime thriller directed by the ‘Master of Suspense’, Alfred Hitchcock is today remembered as one of the most interesting experiments ever attempted by a major director working with big box office names, abandoning many standard film techniques to allow for the long unbroken scenes.

The story of ‘Rope’ was based on the successful 1929 British play, ‘Rope’ by Patrick Hamilton, which in turn is said to be inspired by the real life murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924 by University of Chicago students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Incidentally, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wanted to film the play as a vehicle for actor, Gregory Peck. However, the project fell through.

Using an unprecedented technique, Hitchcock shot the film in only ten uninterrupted, continuous takes – each take comprising of a maximum of ten-minute duration – the utmost length of a reel of the film, at that time. To mask the necessary breaks when the reel was over, Hitchcock moved the camera in close up on the back of a character until it filled the entire frame and then pulled away to begin the next shot with new 10-minute reel. The actors and technicians underwent fifteen days of rehearsals to accommodate this unusual procedure. Most of the property on the set was mounted on casters and the crew had to wheel them out of the way as the camera moved around the set. All the moves of the huge Technicolor camera were carefully planned and there was almost no editing. A team of soundmen and camera operators kept the microphones and camera in constant motion, as the actors kept to a carefully choreographed set of cues. The film was shot on a single set, except for the opening establishing shot of the street under the credits.

During one intensive take, a camera operator’s foot was broken by a heavy dolly, and he was immediately gagged in order to stop his vocal noises from being recorded on the film, and hauled out of the studio so that filming could continue without interruption.

The extraordinary cyclorama – a panoramic image designed to give viewers ‘standing in the middle of the cylinder 360° view’ – in the background was the largest backdrop ever used on a sound stage. It included models of the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings, numerous chimneys with smoke, lights coming on in buildings, neon signs lighting up, and the sunset slowly unfolding as the movie progressed. Within the course of the film, the clouds – made of fibreglass – changed position and reshaped eight times.

It is said that Hitchcock’s inspiration for these lengthy takes came when the original play was first broadcast on experimental live television by the BBC, on March 8, 1939. Hitchcock also used this lengthy take approach again, albeit to a lesser extent, for his next film, ‘Under Capricorn’ (1949) and in a very limited way in his film, ‘Stage Fright’ (1950). Hitchcock later dismissed his experiment with 10-minute takes as being just a stunt.

Although ‘Rope’ lasts 80 minutes and is supposed to be in ‘real time’, the time-frame screenplay of the film covers is actually longer – a little more than 100 minutes – the incidents taking place from before seven to after eight-thirty in the evening. This is accomplished by speeding up the action: the formal dinner lasts only 20 minutes, the sun sets too quickly and so on. The analysis of this technique came out with the observation that the viewers, due to this technique, actually felt as if they had watched a 100-minutes long movie.

‘Rope’ was the first of four films that actor James Stewart made with Hitchcock. In fact, this was the only movie Stewart made with Hitchcock that he did not like. Stewart later admitted he felt he was miscast as Professor Rupert Cadell. The actor makes his first entrance 28 minutes after the film has started. Stewart was paid $300,000, a huge portion of the movie’s $1,500,000 budget. Incidentally, Cary Grant was the first choice to play this role.

Actor, Montgomery Clift was the original choice to play Brandon Shaw, before John Dall was signed for the role.

Interestingly, Dick Hogan’s cameo in the film as the murder victim, David Kentley is his last appearance in a film. After acting in ‘Rope’ at the age of 31, Hogan gave up his 11-year film career and returned to his hometown of Little Rock, where he became an insurance agent.

The screenplay writer, Arthur Laurents claimed that originally Hitchcock assured him the movie wouldn’t show the opening murder itself, therefore, creating doubt as to whether the two leading characters actually committed the murder, and whether the trunk had a corpse inside at all.

Warner Bros also made a two-reel film, designed to be shown to professional groups on the techniques used by Hitchcock to make ‘Rope’. The theatrical trailer of the film, on the other hand features footage shot specifically for the advertisement that takes place before the beginning of the movie. In the trailer, the victim, David sits on a park bench and speaks with his fiancée, Janet before leaving to meet his friends, Brandon and Phillip. James Stewart narrates the sequence in the trailer, noting that it is the last time Janet and the audience would see David alive.

Produced at a budget of $1.5 million to $2 million, ‘Rope’ collected $2.2 million at the box office on its initial release, and was a break even. The film was later re-issued in 1983.

The 1959 movie ‘Compulsion’, directed by Richard Fleischer is based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Meyer Levin, which in turn was a fictionalised account of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial. Furthermore, ‘Swoon’, an independent film released in 1992 and directed by Tom Kalin also tackles the same story, but focuses more on the homosexuality of the killers.

 

TRIVIA

‘Rope’ is the first colour film of Alfred Hitchcock, made in Technicolor, and by showing sunset, the darkening sky and a flashing neon light outside the apartment window, he used colour to enhance the feeling of suspense and time passage.

‘Rope’ was Alfred Hitchcock’s second ‘limited setting’ film – the first being ‘Lifeboat’ (1944) and the subsequent are ‘Dial M for Murder’ (1954) and ‘Rear Window’ (1954) – where almost all the incidents take place in a restricted space.

The cameo by Alfred Hitchcock is a signature occurrence in most of his films. In ‘Rope’, he is considered to have made two appearances. Hitchcock is a man walking down a Manhattan street in the opening scene, immediately after the title sequence. Then at the 55th minute into the film, a red neon sign in the far background showing Hitchcock’s profile with ‘Reduco’ – the fictitious weight loss product used in his ‘Lifeboat’ (1944) cameo – starts blinking as the guests are escorted to the door. As actors, Joan Chandler and Douglas Dick stop to have a few words the sign appears and disappears in the background several times.

Many years after the release of ‘Rope’, it has been claimed through reviews and opinions that the film included a homosexual subtext between the characters of Brandon and Phillip, even though homosexuality was a highly controversial theme during the 1940s. The movie somehow made it past the Production Code censors, however, during the film’s production, those involved described homosexuality as “It”. Interestingly, many towns chose to ban the film independently when released.

 

PLOT

Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and his friend and roommate, pianist Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) strangle their mutual friend, David Kentley (Dick Hogan) with a piece of rope and then temporarily place his body in a trunk, intending to dispose it later that night. Over champagne, Brandon boasts to Phillip that they have committed the perfect crime because they are exceptional men. As an added touch, they have planned a dinner party that evening for David’s parents; his fiancée, Janet Walker (Joan Chandler); his friend, and Janet’s former fiancé, Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick); and their former prep school housemaster, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart). Brandon also attributes the impulse for the murder to Rupert, who had once professed to believe that murder is a crime for most men, but a privilege for the few. After Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanson), Brandon’s housekeeper, sets the dining room table for dinner, Brandon decides it would be far more interesting if the dinner was set out on the trunk that holds David’s body.

The guests arrive as scheduled, but because Mrs Kentley is ill, Mr Henry Kentley (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) is accompanied by his sister, Mrs Anita Atwater (Constance Collier). Professor Rupert is the last guest to arrive, who expounds his theory that murder should be an art, reserved for the few who are superior beings. When Mr Kentley asks who will decide who is superior, Brandon responds that men of intellectual and cultural superiority are above traditional moral concepts. Privately, Professor Rupert asks Brandon if he is planning to do away with someone.

As the evening progresses, Mr Kentley becomes alarmed by David’s failure to arrive; Janet grows dismayed by Brandon’s efforts to reunite her with Kenneth; and Phillip becomes more and more agitated. When Brandon gives Mr Kentley a bundle of books tied with the rope, with which David was strangled, Phillip cracks. Disturbed by the odd behaviour of Phillip and Brandon, Professor Rupert tries to determine where David might have gone. After a distraught Mrs Kentley telephones the apartment to report that David is not at home, the guests leave hurriedly. Mrs Wilson gives Professor Rupert a hat, but it is not his, and he notices the initials D K inside.

After everyone leaves, Brandon and Phillip quarrel when Phillip admits that he is frightened. Then Professor Rupert rings the doorbell, claiming to have forgotten his cigarette case. Once inside, he speculates on what happened to David. He reconstructs the crime and then pulls a piece of rope out of his pocket and starts to play with it. This action drives Phillip into hysterics. Professor Rupert then finds David’s body where it is hidden. When Brandon explains why they committed the murder, Professor Rupert responds that his words have been given a meaning by Brandon, which he actually never intended. He then opens the window and fires several gunshots into the air, and together, the men wait for the police to arrive.

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