Saturday, 11 February 2012

A Daring Experiment in The Macabre: An Essay on Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope"

            This is an essay I wrote for a film class in 2009
                  In 1948, what is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s most innovative film was released. The film was Rope. The film is based on an English play by Patrick Hamilton entitled Rope’s End. The play and the film are also based on two real life murderers named Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. They were college students who killed for intellectual thrills. In the film Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) kill their friend David Kentley (Dick Hogan) because they feel they are above society’s laws. They hide him in a chest and have a dinner for his friends and relatives in the very apartment where they killed him. This macabre set up is not unlike Mr. Hitchcock yet Rope was a daring experiment for him and everyone involved. Through discussion of the film’s experimental nature, intriguing casting choices, and themes, this essay will argue that Rope, for the audience of its time, would be an exciting and sometimes unsettling film experience.

                 A big part of what makes Rope a daring film is its visual technique. Arthur Laurents, playwright, and the screenwriter of Rope, recalls Mr. Hitchcock telling him his idea for the film: “Right from the beginning he’d tell me he was going to do it as a play and with, I think, nine takes or nine reels, something like that” (“Rope”). Upon watching the film he was bothered by the fact that when the film runs out in the camera, the camera closes in on someone’s back.  When this happens more film is put in and then the camera pulls out from the back (“Rope”). This technique creates the illusion that the film is in one take; aside from a few visible cuts. This adds a play like feel to the film, which is appropriate considering its stage origins. At the same time, this technique does not hinder the film as cinema. What this technique does is allow the story to feel like a play and a film at the same time, creating the atmosphere of a four dimensional play. The audience sometimes feels that they are “on stage” with the characters. This visual technique is daring because the camera movements had to be choreographed in advance. As Mr. Hitchcock recalls in his 1948 essay “My Most Exciting Picture:” “To shoot Rope with stage technique under sound stage conditions but with continuous action called for months of preparation and days of exacting rehearsals. Every movement of the camera and the actors was worked out...” (Gottlieb, 276). 

If anything was to go wrong during the filming of a segment then the entire segment had to be reshot.

                Of course, reviews of the film take note of its innovative visual technique. The best way to understand an audience’s reaction to the film in 1948 is to read reviews from that time. Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, did not give the film a favourable review. In regards to the filming technique he says “one must bluntly observe that the method is neither effective nor does it appear that it could be,” and “[t]he physical limitation of the camera to one approach compels it to stay as an eavesdropper on a lot of dialogue and lots of business that are dull. And the yarn, by the nature of its writing, is largely actionless.”  Still, this review would not necessarily keep audiences away. The mention of the film’s visual technique would be intriguing to a reader not already familiar with this aspect of the film; and even Mr. Crowther says the “Hitchcock camera is not inflexible.” Another reason why a filmgoer would not stay away altogether is Mr. Crowther’s dislike with the elements of the macabre in the story: “Also—and this may be simply a matter of personal taste—the emphasis on the macabre in this small story is frightfully intense.” Depending on whom the reader is this mention of the macabre may sound very exciting.

                A more positive review came from an anonymous writer in Time Magazine. He says of the filming technique that “[i]n photographing the action, Director Hitchcock brought off a tour de force... This Hitchcock stunt also required of the actors a sustained discipline that is fairly new to the screen. The result is quite exciting. Continuous action builds a tension all its own.” Continuing on with the actors he says “[t]he players, too, are keyed unusually high by the intensity and interest of trying something new, so that, although their performances are elementary, they have a vividness and vitality which are rare in current movies.

                These two reviews have contrasting opinions. Mr. Crowther believes the film is not cinematic while Mr. Anonymous believes the film is a tour de force in terms of its visual language. The fact that two reviewers could have differing opinions about one film is an exciting prospect for filmgoers. It suggests that the film can spark arguments about its quality. It will not be a film where everyone either likes or dislikes it. Most importantly, these two reviewers focus on Mr. Hitchcock’s directorial innovation. In fact, even Mr. Hitchcock thought this film was exciting.

Mr. Hitchcock dictated an essay in 1948 entitled “My Most Exciting Picture.” The film discussed in the essay was Rope. He recounts a prop men’s exhaustion while working on this film:

“This,” he announced, “is the damnedest picture I ever worked!”

All of us, including myself, seemed to agree with him.

Yet Rope was probably the most exciting picture I’ve ever directed.  Observers called it “the most revolutionary technique Hollywood had ever seen” (Gottlieb, 276).

It is quite interesting that Hitchcock picked Rope as his most exciting picture up to that time since he already had a strong body of work, including Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Notorious (1946). The fact that he thought it was his most exciting picture at that time suggests that an audience would be excited as well; especially since Mr. Hitchcock was a director interested in how to manipulate his audience.  

Another reason why this film would be exciting for the audience at the time is the use of Technicolor.  In the essay, Mr. Hitchcock brings up the fact that this was his first film in Technicolor and the role it played in the film:

Technicolor helped but it wasn’t the star of the picture. Rope, incidentally, is the first time I’ve ever directed a Technicolor picture. I never wanted to make a Technicolor picture merely for the sake of using color. I waited until I could find a story in which color could play a dramatic role, and still be muted to a low key. In Rope, sets and costumes are neutralized so that there are no glaring contrasts. The key role played by color in this film is in the background. I insisted that color be used purely as the eye received it (284).

Part of what makes Rope an exciting film is the contrast between its subject matter and its use of Technicolor. The first interior shot in the film, inside Brandon and Phillip’s apartment, is darkened by closed curtains. There are shadows as well, suggesting film noir rather than a Technicolor film. Brandon and Phillip’s jackets are brown and dark blue. The contrast between the subject matter of this film and the use of Technicolor is very effective in showing the audience that Technicolor can be used in films with dark subject matter. At this time Technicolor was used for films that were fantasy or had an epic scope. Dramas were black and white affairs. The use of Technicolor in this film foreshadows how colour would eventually become common in dramatic films, especially with the emergence of Eastman Color in the 1950s.

The marketing of this film emphasizes the authorship of Mr. Hitchcock. In the theatrical trailer the film is called “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope” when the title is first seen on the screen. This relates to what the auteur theorists thought about some filmmakers, that they were the principal authors of a film; but that is beside the point. This moniker suggests that the people behind the trailer knew Mr. Hitchcock’s name was a huge selling point for the film. The name “Alfred Hitchcock” means excitement and suspense and would suggest that audiences of the time would be excited to see his new film. The trailer shows Brandon and Phillip’s former house master Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) confronting them at the end of the film. In some respects this spoils the film; though the trailer almost seems to be saying that because the director is Alfred Hitchcock the audience will still see the film. Also, the trailer cuts to black as Rupert and Phillip wrestle with a gun while shots are fired. The element of suspense is still there. What is also interesting about the trailer is how it does not reveal the visual technique of the film; almost as if it should be a secret to audiences walking in. If some audience members did not read the reviews or hear anything about this technique, the visual language of the film would be quite shocking.

In the trailer, James Stewart’s name is also emphasized. Mr. Stewart became a frequent collaborator with Mr. Hitchcock, starring in three subsequent films for him; Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958). In Rope, similar to Vertigo, Stewart is cast against type as Rupert Cadell. In Brandon and Phillip’s college days he talked about the idea that murder is an art form and only the privileged few should be able to commit murder; the victims being “inferior” individuals. At the party he talks callously of how murder could solve everyday problems; no waiting in line, and so forth. His callous nature towards talking about murder during Brandon and Phillip’s college days leads to the death of David Kentley. Mr. Stewart was known for playing more wholesome and idealistic characters than Rupert Cadell, such as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939), and George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). Both films where directed by Frank Capra, who was a more sentimental director than Mr. Hitchcock. In his review for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent says of Mr. Stewart: “As Jefferson Smith, James Stewart is a joy for this season, if not forever.” Mr. Crowther said of his performance in It’s a Wonderful Life that “[a]s the hero, Mr. Stewart does a warmly appealing job, indicating that he has grown in spiritual stature as well as in talent during the years he was in the war.” Both of these quotes demonstrate the type of actor he was, one of warmth, an actor who epitomized “the good guy”. Rupert is more morally ambiguous than either Jefferson Smith or George Bailey. While he does become a hero figure at the end of the film, he is still partly to blame for David’s death. He did not think what he said would be taken very literally by Brandon and Phillip. Seeing Mr. Stewart in a role like this would have been fascinating and sometimes unsettling to an audience who see him as a more wholesome figure.

Farley Granger, who plays Phillip, played a Russian in The North Star, a film about a Ukrainian village protecting itself from Nazi invasion. In the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers Mr. Granger is compared and contrasted with Gregory Peck. Both made their film debuts in wartime epics “as youthful romantic and Slavic figures;” Peck in Days of Glory (Jacques Tourneur, 1944) and Granger in The North Star (Lewis Milestone, 1943). Mr. Granger is blinded in that film, made into a figure of pity. Granger’s next film was The Purple Heart (Lewis Milestone, 1944). In the film he plays a bomber crew member captured and interrogated by the Japanese. While the IDFF says that unlike Peck, “Granger’s screen persona suggested neither confidence nor the power to lead,” as weak as Phillip is, the casting of Mr. Granger would be a little saddening after seeing him as a hero in a film like The North Star. Phillip is not a romantic figure at all. He is someone who seems powerless in the presence of Brandon. While the audience may pity him, it would not be the same pity as in The North Star, where he is a heroic figure.

The characters of Brandon and Phillip are at the heart of why this film would be unsettling and even controversial. The idea of two people believing they are above moral values is a theme that would have been shocking to audiences; especially if they were familiar with the Leopold and Loeb case. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two college students who murdered a 14 year old boy named Bobby Franks in order to try to commit the perfect crime and, as Alan M. Dershowitz puts it in his book America on Trial: Inside the Legal Battles that Transformed Our Nation, “to prove their perverse misunderstanding of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the “superman,” who was above all laws so as long as he made no mistake” (256-257). The story of Rope, disturbing by itself, is even more effective with the knowledge that real people actually thought like this.

Rope was actually a film that caught the attention of the censors during the time of its release. In an article from The New York Times Thomas M. Pryor discusses how censors wanted the strangulation at the beginning of the film removed. It’s one of the first images the viewer gets in the film and is quite startling. The fact that the censors wanted it removed suggests the audiences would be shocked by it. The fact that a dead body is in the room at all times would also be unsettling to audiences.

Another element of the film that was controversial was the fact that Brandon and Phillip are gay. Mr. Laurents discusses the subtext of the story and the censoring of it:

Rope really comes from an English play by Patrick Hamilton called Rope’s End. And I thought it was going to be easier than it was to make it American. The trouble was when you translated the English dialogue, it became very homosexual, unintentionally...What was curious to me was Rope is obviously about homosexuals. The word was never mentioned...It was referred to as “it.” They were going to do a picture about “it,” and the actors were “it”... The picture was much more successful in Europe ’cause I suppose in Europe, they were used to “it,” and we weren’t here...At that time, because of thing called “a legion of decency” and the Catholic Church, they had a watchdog of censors. And you had to be careful. There were certain rules... With Rope of course, you could never say that they were “it” (“Rope”).

Rupert was also supposed to be gay and to have had an affair with one of the boys. Mr. Laurents believes Mr. Stewart never had that subtext when playing the character: “He was very good as a detective but he had no relation to those boys at all” (“Rope”).  People may have caught on to the fact that Brandon and Phillip are gay. This would be quite shocking to them at the time, especially since Brandon and Phillip are central characters in the film. What also may have shocked them is, as Mr. Laurent says, that the film is a sophisticated portrayal of two gay men (“Rope”). Fortunately, they are not reduced to stereotypes.

                What made Rope exciting for its time were its experimental nature and the casting against type of James Stewart as the morally ambiguous Rupert Cadell. The themes of killing for intellectual thrills and of homosexuality were also elements that would have shocked audiences. The elements that were exciting for its time are still exciting today. Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers have this quality. Rope is sometimes thought of as a failed experiment but the film is a daring experiment in the macabre if there ever was one.

No comments:

Post a Comment