Visual Analysis of Hitchcock’s “Rope”
Visual Analysis of Hitchcock’s “Rope”
Alfred Hitchcock claimed that Rope was merely a “stunt,” and it is more well-known for its achievement in its technical aspects compared to the film’s actual story. An adaptation from Patrick Hamilton’s play, Hitchcock wanted to utilize fluid motion of the camera between the characters, mimicking what is visible on a stage of a play, and opted for a “one shot” method. Thirty-five millimeter film could only hold ten minutes of footage at a time, but through clever transitions in editing, Hitchcock made the entire film seem as one continuous shot. The camera does utilize traditional shots with the camera, but instead of intercutting between shots, the camera moves and zooms accordingly. The interaction between Rupert and Phillip at the piano is one such scene with no close-ups or various cuts in framing shots. At this point, the audience has been aware of David’s body in the chest, and David’s killers Phillip and Brandon have not yet run into any obvious issues at the party; the guests themselves are unaware of what transpired minutes before they arrived and do not know the whereabouts of David (all they know is that he is missing). This scene serves to escalate the initial tension in the third act, and is really the first real situation where it is hinted that Rupert may be starting to catch on to the mystery surrounding David’s absence. Phillip’s personality is integral to the way this scene develops, and his submissive, cautious, and self-conscious nature clashes with Rupert’s determination to uncover the truth. This power dynamic between Phillip and Rupert is exemplified in this interaction between them and is one of the most intense moments in the entire film, and the usage of mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound are integral to building the suspense in this scene and depicting the two contrasting characters.
Mise-en-scene in Rope functions to contrast the actual objects or people being shot by the camera with the conflict that happens “behind the scenes.” In this specific scene, everything is in the camera’s view typically exists with positive or neutral connotations: the piano, drinks and glasses, portraits on the wall, the background of the city at dusk, and the two men talking. None of what is shown by the camera seems negative or out of order on the surface level, but of course, the audience knows that the stakes of the interaction between Philip and Rupert are high with David’s body hidden in a chest merely a few steps away. The dialogue juxtaposes the setting and visuals to an extreme extent: if the scene is listened to on mute without any context, the viewer may only see a conversation between two men, with perhaps a small disagreement, but never actually experience the waves of tension that come with the context of the moment. The usage of mise-en-scene impacts the audience psychologically more than anything, with the difference between the tense mood and the harmless objects being shown by the camera. The physical position of the two characters is also integral to the development of the tension in this scene. Phillip, already playing the piano, is confronted by Rupert, who walks up the piano from the side directly facing Rupert. Throughout this sequence, Rupert is typically bending over slightly with his arm on top of the piano in an intimidating position, and seems to come closer and closer to Phillip as the tension escalates. Phillip’s position is one of vulnerability, as he appears to be “stuck” not only in his role in the crime but also physically, sitting down at the piano. Behind him and to his left are walls, there is no room to “escape” the interaction with Rupert, he cannot move forward because of the piano, and Rupert is directly to his right. In fact, Rupert himself seems to be aware of Phillip’s vulnerable position by stopping him when he gets up to get a drink, exclaiming that he should keep playing. Mise-en-scene functions to escalate the tension between the characters by positioning them in such a manner that outlines their power struggle. Finally, the chest, while not in this scene, still has a mental impact in regard to mise-en-scene and a influence on the audience overall. A reason why the conversation between Rupert and Phillip is so intense is not just the dialogue, but also the fact that the audience cannot see the chest in the shot. Of course, the chest does resemble a sense of uneasiness, with a body inside it, but the audience is often reassured when the chest is shown because Hitchcock reminds the audience that the crime has not been uncovered yet. While the audience does not sympathize with the actual crime, they have a sense of uneasiness whenever there exists the possibility that the body may be discovered.
Cinematography and editing, somewhat similarly to mise-en-scene, are used in this scene to escalate the suspense and directly force the audience into engaging with the conflict. There are no traditional cuts in this scene, but the lack of cuts in the editing has its own importance. The way the camera moves and the style with what it shoots is very human, as if the audience themselves is viewing the conflict and moving and looking around on their own. In the interaction between Rupert and Phillip, the camera sets itself to establish the scene and does not move until Rupert goes to get Phillip a drink. As Rupert gets up, the camera follows him to his position by the table, leaving David out of the shot as he continues to play the piano. At most points in the film, there is more than one character visible in any given shot, and by having Rupert walk over to the table by himself and completely isolated visually, it puts the audience in his shoes. The camera also seems to focus and zoom in on Rupert and no one else, and by doing this Hitchcock forces the viewer to ponder the question of how much Rupert really knows. This intermission between the tension allows the audience a breath of fresh air and a break from the tense dialogue, before throwing them back into the chaos. The camera’s movement reflects this intention as it moves away from Phillip and the piano before moving back in and continuing the suspense and conflict between the characters. The camera’s position and movement from the piano to the table and back to the piano visually locks the audience into conflict between the characters, and like Phillip, the audience feels trapped within the scene. While there is no editing in this scene, the lack of it helps to push the audience along with the same purpose that cinematography has. That lack of edits conveys the feeling of the audience becoming more than just a spectator, someone that could possibly be at risk of getting caught, along with Phillip and David. If the shots did cut from one to the other, the audience could feel somewhat detached from the actual crime, instead of being directly inside the conflict.
In Rupert’s questioning of Phillip, sound has an extremely important role in building suspense and creating tension between the two combating characters. Throughout this scene, random sounds are used to create a rise and fall in tension, and they go along with the dialogue, often getting louder when Rupert’s questions get more and more focused on David’s absence. The beginning of the scene starts out with Phillip playing the piano and repeating the same theme throughout their interaction: Rupert even inquires “You are very fond of that little tune, aren’t you?” The pure sound of the tune itself has quite an impact on the audience. It is in a major key, which is typically known as the cheerful or happy key, as opposed to a minor key which is often seen as ominous or foreboding. The importance of the little tune being played in a major key is that along with the visuals created by Hitchcock’s usage of mise-en-scene, it sets a very lighthearted tone to the situation. However, as the Rupert’s questions start to become more direct and inquisitive, Phillip’s tune switches back and forth between major and minor keys, almost as if he himself is switching between mindsets. Not only this, but the subtle transition into a more minor sound and slightly more chaotic style of playing has an effect on the audience subconsciously. The piano’s sound moves the audience along with the tension of the dialogue, and matches the worrying nature of Phillip himself. Other than the piano, Hitchcock uses different sounds to increase the suspense as well. At the beginning of the scene, Rupert exclaims “I get quite intrigued when people don’t answer questions, and quite curious,” to which Phillip responds “Did you ask me a question?” Rupert then says “Yes, Phillip, I asked you a question,” but as he says this, a siren outside the apartment can be heard, to which both men react to. The dialogue continues, and at the loudest point of the siren Rupert states “I asked you what is going on here.” This extremely direct question seems to anger Phillip, but the siren may have an effect as well, perhaps symbolizing the impending doom of the “law” coming for him. The only time Phillip actually stops playing the piano is when Rupert comes back to hand him his drink, and at this point the rest of the people in the party can be heard in the background. As with the usage of cinematography to pull away from the confrontation at the piano, this momentary pause in tension and the insertion of the background noise allows the audience to be pulled out of the action between the two characters. As the background chatter diminishes, the audience is forced back into this small “world” between Rupert and Phillip once again.
After this momentary break with the piano’s sound and with the dialogue, Rupert sets a metronome on the piano and lets it run. The tempo of the metronome is quite a bit quicker than the tune that Philip is playing, and as Rupert’s questions start to directly inquire about the whereabouts of David, Phillip seems to speed up his tune to match the tempo of the metronome. The appears to occur subconsciously and may show how uncomfortable Phillip is with the situation but could also show how much he is worrying internally, as his hands seem to match the speed of the metronome by themselves. At the start of the climax of the scene, Rupert speeds up the metronome and tells him “That’s the second time you haven’t told [the truth]. Phillip asks, “When was the first?” and Rupert responds “When you said you’d never strangled a chicken.” The constant sound of the piano suddenly stops abruptly, with Phillip taken aback, and this pause in sound has a bit of a shock effect on the audience. Phillip’s sudden reaction appears to come from Rupert’s very utterance of the word “strangle,” the very method Phillip and Brandon used to kill David. Rupert tells Phillip that he remembers seeing him strangle a chicken on a farm about a year ago, and he was quite good at it as well. Again, Rupert stops the metronome and speeds it up to an even faster tempo than the one before. At the very height of the climax in the scene, after quick back and forth lines with Rupert accusing Phillip of lying and Phillip defending himself, Phillip suddenly stops playing and exclaims “I can’t play with that thing!” The metronome, used by Rupert almost strategically to make Phillip uncomfortable, not only succeeds in doing so, but unnerves the audience as well. The combination of the siren, the different keys and style of the piano piece, and the metronome’s constant tempo suddenly speeding up at times and clashing with Phillip’s tune creates an overall uneasy feeling within the scene. Besides the dialogue itself, Hitchcock utilizes sound almost as a trap, to lock in the audience within the scene and make sure that they cannot escape, similarly to Phillip.
Primary Analysis of Hitchcock’s “Rope”
Shocking, horrific, and filled with suspense, Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) was a self-proclaimed experiment in filmmaking. Adapted from a Patrick Hamilton play, the film was received with mixed reviews, but the pioneering method of making the film appear as one shot was seen as a venturesome attempt by Hitchcock to try something unique. Featuring James Stewart in the starring role alongside Farley Granger and John Dall, the story was inspired by a true story of a murder in 1924. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two lovers, killed a young man believing in a Nietzschean philosophy of superiority among the inferior. The relationship between these two men (as depicted in the film Granger and Dall) and their murder divided critics, but the suspenseful subject matter attracted audiences because of their own “morbid curiosity.” (Vanity “Film Reviews” 14). However, the film was not a major hit at the box office and even Hitchcock did not regard his own film as a success. While not particularly a hit, critics praised Hitchcock for his unique approach to shooting the film and for the bold attempt to tell a brutal story based on the murder from decades before.
The anticipation and media coverage about Hitchcock’s plans for Rope and the rumored type of production it was going to be was perhaps as prominent as the reviews and reaction to the film after its release. Major talking points by enthusiasts and film magazines were the length that Hitchcock was going to be shooting for and how he would be filming. In December of 1947 Boxoffice magazine released an issue which stated that Hitchcock “allotted a three-week period to exhaustive rehearsals for the cast, headed by James Stewart, and expects to get the picture before the cameras sometime in January” (Boxoffice 18). The magazine stated that this left Hitchcock with just under two weeks to work on the picture, and because of this constricted length of time for shooting Warner production executives would be following and monitoring the film closely. Most big-budget films took much longer to shoot than around ten days, but Hitchcock claimed to be confident in the abilities of his cast and crew to complete the picture on time. For comparison, his previous film The Paradine Case was shot from December of 1946 to May of 1947. Because of the nature of Rope and its filming style, there was no need for a large allocation of time. With only ten cuts in the film, the long takes were either immediately unusable or deemed appropriate enough to make the final cut.
Hitchcock’s popularity was rising during this time period before the golden years, and his groundbreaking approach to the filming of the story was anticipated by critics and viewers alike.
His goal to mimic the action that is visible in a stage play was reflected in Rope through the fluid camera motion, stopping only when the film is used up in each reel (Yates 250). Newspapers and film journals heavily anticipated the outcome of this style of filming, a method that had been used before but was certainly not common, especially not in big budget films that Hitchcock was working on at the time. While the film itself did not receive the most attention from audiences, the very same critics that eagerly anticipated how Hitchcock’s one-take method would work ultimately appreciated the usage of the mobile camera. A 1948 issue of Variety magazine reviewed the film’s style and its lack of cuts by claiming that the method “paid off for presenting something different in production and does serve to emphasize the sordid story” (Variety “Film Reviews” 14). While film critics understood the usage of the one-take to convey the story on a technological basis, the same article in Variety stated the effect on the audiences is of a “distracting interest” and does not add to box office merits of the subject on which it is used (Variety “Film Reviews” 14). This is the only real criticism that the magazine has in the discussion of Rope, however, it is also states that the plot itself could have been a “more entertaining subject.” They claim that it is in questionable taste to have a murder committed for practically no reason other than to satisfy a sadistic urge.
This discussion of plot and meaning behind the story is one where many film critics diverge on opinion. While Variety claims that the subject matter was a bit shallow, Focus: A Film Review published an article in 1948 defending the controversial usage of the plot that purely centers around a murder with questionable intentions. The main point that the author of this article wants to prove is what he replies to the man described in the anecdote on the right; “because a film is about decadent people that does not mean to say that the film is decadent” (Focus: A Film Review 11). While the article states that the technical aspects of the film are fascinating, it is also says that technique of the one-take could combine the best of two worlds of cinema and theater, but could also destroy film as a distinct art form. This is an interesting contrast in comparison to the article in Variety, which demonstrates how Rope was received different ways even by the same audience.
While most critics and audiences found the topic and the circumstances of the murder in the movie acceptable, some censorship boards and authorities did not. A 1948 edition of the New York Times states that the film was deemed appropriate by the state censor boards of Pennsylvania, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Virginia, but was censored to different extents in some cities and at local theaters. Municipal authorities refused the picture to be shown in Worcester, Atlanta, Seattle, Memphis City, and Sioux City. In Sioux City, the Civic Advisory Committee recommended that the strangulation scene should be removed from the film. The article states that Rope “first ran into trouble in Chicago last September when the police censor board barred the picture on the grounds that it was not ‘wholesome’ entertainment. A week later, after Warner Brothers had appealed the decision, the censor did an about-face, granting the
picture the right of public exhibition with the “adults only” classification” (Pryor 1). A week later Warner Brothers appealed this decision. Many film critics were outraged because of the ban of the film, claiming that other films with much more twisted moral precepts are allowed to be shown while Rope is censored. Clearly, the film’s reception by censorship boards was mixed, mainly because of the supposed crass and disturbing nature of the murder and not because of the implied homosexual relationship between characters Phillip and Brandon.
While opinions are split on the actual content of the story and the technical camera work used to convey it, most reviewers agreed that James Stewart, Farley Granger, and John Dall had fine performances in the film. A section of the Showmen’s Trade Review entitled “The Box-Office Slant” wrote that many will consider James Stewart’s role as Rupert the “best acting job he has ever done.” (Boxoffice 19) It is also stated that John Dall makes an arrogant psychopath seem real and Farley Granger is a convincing neurotic. The performances of Dall and Granger and especially Stewart were overall praised by audiences and critics alike, although like Hitchcock, James Stewart later admitted to not being a huge fan of how the film turned out.
Stewart, already a major Hollywood actor by 1948, was the keystone for the marketing of Hitchcock’s Rope. The marketing campaign for the film, spearheaded by the slogan “Nothing Ever Held You Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope,” featured visuals of James Stewart standing menacingly, with the rope held in his right hand. This striking image was a tool used to capture the attention of the audience and motivate them to watch the film. The prominence of not just the picture of Stewart but also the slogan is significant in understanding the strategy of film marketing and the utilization of an already known actor to draw the audience in. These ads for Rope were often featured in magazines and newspapers as full-page ads, in striking style, almost possessing suspense merely within the advertisement. In one advertisement for Motion Picture Daily, the marketing for the film feature a two-page ad in color with the headline “Today for the First Time to the Public, at the Globe N.Y.” with the characteristics slogan of the film and James Stewart’s picture. (Motion Picture Daily 1-2). Interestingly, it also features first-hand accounts from famous people that have already seen the film, even one from President J. Edgar Hoover. The text states “Nothing Ever Held J. Edgar Hoover like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope” and uses a direct quote from Hoover claiming “Never saw anything like it! Terrific suspense! Leaves you breathless!” Other first-hand accounts are put in the advertisement in the same manner, one from famed columnist Dorothy Kilgallen and one from gossip commentator and newspaper columnist Walter Winchell (Motion Picture Daily 1-2). Based off of these newspaper advertisements, it is apparent that Warner Brothers went through a strenuous marketing campaign that had the sole purpose of drawing moviegoers and non-moviegoers alike into the theaters.
Hitchcock’s typical technical filming style is changed into an adventurous and daring one in Rope. Controversial and divisive, the film was met with criticism, praise, and censorship alike, from some disgusted at its disturbing content to some claiming it a stroke of filmmaking genius. The controversy over the film reflects Hitchcock as an unchanging director mastering the art of the new and the bold. Rope remains one of Hitchcock’s lesser known works but is regarded by film critics and enthusiasts as both underrated and under appreciated.
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“Hitchcock plans ‘rope’ on record schedule.” (1947, Dec 20). Boxoffice (Archive: 1920-2000), 52, 18.
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