Desire Roped In
1. Let us count the ways. Rope is simultaneously Hitchcock’s first independent production, his first colour movie, his first of four films with James Stewart (and, incidentally, his first with Farley Granger, whom he would cast again a few years later in Strangers on a Train), the first filmed stage play of his American career and the first of his single-set films (although Lifeboat  already induced – albeit in the open air – the claustrophobia associated with the one-set Rope, Rear Window and Dial M for Murder ). It may also be noted that Rope introduced (or at the very least pushed much further than previously) a type of macabre humor that would later become the trademark of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series.
2. The much-written-about
technique consisted of shooting the whole film in one single take, or,
more accurately, in ten single-take reels (each 950-foot reel running
approximately ten minutes – however, Rope’s reels are uneven in
length; reels 9 and 10 could easily fit on a single one), with close-ups
(mostly of a character’s back) occupying the entire screen at reel ends
so as to make the cut from one reel to the next invisible. Hitchcock actually
broke this demanding self-imposed rule three or four times – including
the after-credits cut from outside to inside the apartment – using
‘ordinary’ cuts here and there, but by and large he adhered to it faithfully.
Ten-minute takes were unheard of then, and while they became less uncommon
later, both in Hollywood (Samuel Fuller in Forty Guns , Pickup
on South Street , The Crimson Kimono ) and abroad
(Miklós Jancsó and Andrei Tarkovsky, among others, were
addicted to them, and let us not forget Jean Rouch’s experiment in Paris
vu par  … ), no one (except Warhol in his minimalist,
fixed-camera non-narrative marathon indulgences) had ever attempted such
a thing as a one-take feature. It will take video to make the first real
one-take feature possible: Alexandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002).
3. In his biography
of Hitchcock, Patrick McGilligan writes: ‘In cities and states across
the country the Hitchcock film was forbidden, or passed by local censor
boards only after ‘eliminations’ in certain scenes’ (which of course could
only result in breaking up the long takes, thus destroying the very purpose
of the film.) McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and
Light (New York: Regan Books, 2003), p.
6. François Truffaut, Hitchcock (London: Paladin, 1986), p. 259.
8. The key argument against Rope is probably André Bazin’s remark that Hitchcock’s long takes, through constant reframings, actually recreate traditional découpage – a fact of which Hitchcock was perfectly aware (he told Truffaut exactly the same thing). I feel that Bazin (who appears to blame Hitchcock for remaining faithful to himself even while innovating) totally missed the point, and did so probably for a simple reason of temperament: he was obviously insensitive to the peculiar kind of pleasure – a sensual, even perhaps erotic pleasure – that an uninterrupted long take can engender.
Rope (1948) is, in many ways, a pivotal film in Hitchcock’s career, (1) and an eccentric, aberrant work (in the literal, but also to some extent in the more common, figurative, sense of those words), both in relation to the Hitchcock corpus and to cinema in general. Chronologically the first of the long unavailable ‘group of five’, it was reissued last and, it almost seems, somewhat reluctantly. Its low-key American release in April 1984 was acknowledged by a largely tepid critical reception (many critics did not even bother to review it), in strong contrast with the enthusiastic response to the earlier re-releases of Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958).
Nothing surprising, really. Rope remains today as problematic a piece of work as it was in 1948. Wearing for the first time a producer’s hat (Rope was the first offering of his short-lived Transatlantic Pictures – Warners only distributed it), Hitchcock nevertheless seems to have given little consideration to playing it safe commercially. Not only did he select as his vehicle a somewhat obscure 1929 British play (one, moreover, lacking a leading lady), but he used his top-billed star, James Stewart, against type in a rather thankless (and non-heroic) role, co-starring him with two almost unknown newcomers. Far from ‘opening out’ the one-set play, he shut himself in, even adopting a filming technique that precluded any wandering away from the set. (2)
Nor was the subject-matter particularly viewer-friendly. Two young men, clearly a homosexual couple, murder a friend in cold blood to punish him for his ‘mediocrity’ and give a cocktail party for his parents and friends – serving food over the body which they have stored away in a chest in their living room, and chatting away about murder considered as one of the fine arts. Such a subject could only arouse the wrath of puritan leagues and upset a large number of spectators, even the more open-minded among them. That the film failed to be a popular success was thus to be expected; one must truly admire Hitchcock’s chutzpah in putting his own money into the production of a project he had undertaken strictly to please himself and impress his peers (clearly, the general public, unfamiliar with, and not caring much about the way movies were made, was unprepared to appreciate – or even to notice – Hitchcock’s stylistic tour de force and the film’s formal originality; likewise, many reviewers of the time did not even mention it.)
While not a box office disaster like Under Capricorn (1949), which scuttled Transatlantic Pictures, Rope hardly found a sizeable audience in its day. Reviews were mostly lukewarm or worse. A number of associations and leagues condemned the film as immoral and likely to corrupt youth (that Hitchcock had managed to hoodwink the Production Code about the characters’ homosexuality and thorough immorality is attributable to the literal-mindedness of the censors as much as to the director’s and writer’s slyness; after all, the homosexuality remains implied and the murderers are punished in the end after a moralising tirade that condemns their theories) – yet the protest did not generate the kind of publicity that Baby Doll (1956) would later enjoy. Not unreasonably, the National Board of Review rated the film ‘for mature audiences’, which did not help at the box office. (3) Reactions were equally lukewarm in Europe (although in France, at least, the film spurred considerable critical interest), where Rope also triggered some protest from shocked moviegoers (according to Donald Spoto in his Hitchcock biography: ‘In Zurich, irate theatre-owners begged for prints of Life With Father  to calm their angry patrons’). (4) No one is irate or shocked any longer, but the lack of enthusiasm still prevails. At the time of the American reissue, publicists could only manage to extract, from a rather favourable New York Times review, a quote referring to the film’s extreme ‘coldness’. (5)
Unavoidably perhaps, the critical discourse on Rope has mostly dealt with the legitimacy of Hitchcock’s formal option, about which most commentators have expressed more or less serious reservations (Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, the pioneers of Hitchcockian exegesis, were among the few who did not cavil). Hitchcock himself judged it very harshly, calling it a ‘stunt’ and telling François Truffaut in 1963: ‘I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it.’ (6)
Of course there would be no reason to grant any special importance to the director’s statement about a rather unloved picture were it not for the fact that it expresses the auteur’s symptomatic denial of an intense desire he had experienced fifteen years earlier – a desire all the more pressing that it appeared, to most observers, incomprehensible (and therefore perverted). ‘I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it’; ‘When I look back, I realise that it was quite nonsensical’ (7) – what ‘victim’ of a former passion (whatever its object might have been) would not be tempted, in retrospect, to make similar remarks? But desire works in the present, and does not ‘reflect’. Nor can it be ‘explained’. It is its own, sole justification. Its subsequent denial by the desiring party (quite understandable: ‘Passion is a brief madness’) should not reflect on the effort spent to assuage it, an effort which in the present case has left an indelible trace: Rope, a film that wholly asserts itself as an act of desire.
The mere existence of Rope being, to my mind, sufficient justification of its mode of manufacturing, I have no intention to add yet another voice to the tedious debate over the long take vs traditional editing. (8) My main reason for writing is my own fascination with the film, which is quite independent from the issue of whether it succeeds or fails artistically. I am quite willing to accept that Rope (like most extreme formal experiments) be considered a megalomaniac wager (either daring or silly), leading to an aesthetic dead end. I have no objection to such an approach, except that it belongs with a rather drably prescriptive concept of criticism, always preoccupied with what the artist should have done (or, more often, not done), rather than with what he has actually done and why and how, and with the effect it produces. I am more interested in an investigation of the pleasure I derive from the film – a rather unique pleasure in its nature if not its intensity – which I like to imagine as a sort of echo of the director’s own pleasure. It would be difficult indeed to identify another source of this pleasure than Hitchcock’s (itself unique) formal project and its execution.
Indeed, Rope is different from Hitchcock’s other films as well as, in a sense (and Bazin notwithstanding), traditional cinema as a whole. This is because it does not concern itself primarily with telling a story (there is no plot to speak of; the script has nothing to narrate and the often amusing, sometimes brilliant dialogue is just non-stop drawing-room chatter, even at times mere aural padding), but rather with inscribing on the screen the perpetual motion of a camera in relation to some objects (actors, furniture, props … ) circumscribed within a cramped space bathed in a gradually decreasing light. In other words, a most abstract project. Of course, all of Hitchcock’s movies may be defined as abstract constructions; but, in spite of frequent bravura moments flaunting their technique, they usually remain respectful enough of the sacrosanct transparency for this abstraction, concealed by the narrative flow, to become obvious only in retrospect. With Rope, on the other hand, Hitchcock makes (in Truffaut’s words) ‘a director’s dream’ come true – a sort of forbidden dream at that, a professional taboo of sorts.
| At this
point I must make a confession which my rather peculiar relationship to
Hitchcock’s film renders, if not necessary, at least useful to an understanding
of this article and the desire that urged me to write it.
Any long take – especially a ten-minute (or close to ten-minute) take – grabs my attention, even fascinates me, almost regardless of what it contains (and which is not its content, duration itself being part of the latter). This undoubtedly fetishistic taste can be traced back to my first viewing of Rope, or even earlier, since I became very excited after reading an article on Hitchcock’s long-take technique, rushing to the very first session on the film’s opening day in Paris (in a now-vanished first-run movie theatre on the Champs Elysées, the only one that showed the film in a subtitled rather than dubbed version). I was fourteen or fifteen at the time … and an early reading may reveal to an adolescent a future sexual orientation (a fetish, for example) of which he still had not become aware.
9. In 1962 Hitchcock told Truffaut that MGM had recently bought the negative of Rope and exhibited the film, but this does not seem to have been the case. At any rate, some years later Hitchcock acquired the rights to Rope and four of his ‘50s Paramount pictures, adamantly refusing to have them shown until the package re-release of 1984. The only public showings of Rope I am aware of during that period were two screenings at The American Film Institute in Washington, D.C. in November 1976, for which the AFI undoubtedly had to obtain Hitchcock’s authorisation. As far as television showings, although Rope was theoretically available for TV (Leonard Maltin always listed it in his Movie and Video Guide), I was never aware of any in the New York City area throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s (someone told has told me, however, that they saw it on TV in Los Angeles in the early ‘70s). Of course, Rope seen with commercial breaks (which was the case for virtually all TV screenings in those days) would lose its reason for being.
10. Actually there are three end-of-reel close-ups on John Dall’s back, one on Douglas Dick’s, none on Farley Granger’s.
One major reason that prompts me to ponder Rope is the amazing continuity of my relationship to it over a period of nearly thirty years, a continuity confirmed by its 1984 reissue after a gap of nearly twenty years (Rope was not shown theatrically in the United States, or anywhere else that I know of, after 1965). (9) I experienced pretty much the same kind of pleasure in 1984 as I did at that distant first viewing and the numerous others that followed during the ‘50s – a more sensual than intellectual quality of pleasure. As far as I can remember, I paid very little attention, on that first day, to the story, even less (if any) to the thesis. I did enjoy the dialogue (I was beginning to learn English seriously and picked up a few new words – like ‘exhilarated’, used by Brandon to describe what he felt while strangling his victim, and which rather accurately described my own feelings watching the film), but more, I think, as a kind of musical counterpoint (the dialogue more or less stands in for the lack of music and works as sound background to the camera’s solo ballet) than for its actual substance.
On the other hand, first and foremost, I was enchanted by the supple, almost leisurely yet relentless motion of the camera, its tight, stifling reframings (you feel that you are always a little too close to the characters, as though in the room with them, sticking to them), but also by the cosy set, the huge, slightly curved living-room window bay (the ‘40s had a thing for streamlined design) displaying, with pre-Cinemascope horizontality, an improbably vast New York panorama, the eerie beauty of the artificial twilight, Stewart’s slightly stiff, oblique stance as Rupert (due, we are told, to a war wound – which has no dramatic function but makes for a very Hitchcockian attitude), the aggressive angles formed by John Dall’s and Farley Granger’s often symmetrically displayed jaws and their elegantly broad shoulders in their exquisitely tailored suits (an important detail with all those end-of-reel closeups on their backs) (10), the balance, always on the verge of unbalance, between their three bodies ...
As I saw the film again and again over the years I never asked myself whether Rope was a good movie or (as it is so often called) a failure, a major or a minor Hitchcock. I was (and still am) too attentive to my pleasure (no matter how irrational, and precisely because it was) to allow critical objectivity to intrude upon it. So shouldn’t I disqualify myself from dealing with the film as a critic?
I don’t think so. First, for the obvious reason that our opinions, our tastes and distastes, always have more or less irrational motivations, or at least have little to do with the reasons we give (and give to ourselves) for them. Ultimately it is possible to read any critical text as an unconscious autobiography of its author, even when hidden behind the mask of the most abstract and impersonal intellectual cogitation. We might as well admit this evidence and take advantage of it rather than deceive readers and ourselves. The fact that my reading of Rope comes with an examination of my (very) personal, almost intimate relationship to the film should not be detrimental to whatever interest it may present – quite the contrary.
But, above all, it may be argued that when the creator’s and the consumer’s desire so ideally coincide, the complicit sympathy established between the spectator and the work is likely to be enlightening enough to push the (at any rate questionable) preoccupation with objectivity into the background. ‘Perverts’ understand each other, and I am grateful to Hitchcock to have made the film that I, without knowing it, wanted to see even before it was made; and to have made it, without knowing it, for me alone, as it were.
11. One can go even further. Thus Noël Simsolo in Hitchcock (Paris: Seghers, 1959) assigned equal responsibility to the professor and the two young men, writing: ‘These three, by killing God, became the Devil, and the party given by Brando and Charles [sic] is a veritable black mass.’ Note the interesting double slip of the pen whereby Simsolo rechristened Brandon and Philip. In his flexography, Simsolo called the Farley Granger character Philip Charles. Actually Charles was the first name of the character in Patrick Hamilton’s play. Neither in the film nor in any other filmography I am aware of is the character called anything but Philip.
12. Gérard Legrand, in an article on the re-issued Hitchcocks (Positif, July-August 1984) but more specifically focused on Rear Window and Vertigo, remarked that the structure of both films, like those of Rope and The Man Who Knew Too Much, ‘implies a suggestion, or a threat, of strangling.’ One might add that the literal strangling which, in Rope, is executed by means of the title rope, is duplicated by one of the killers’ figurative and suicidal strangling: Brandon, who cannot resist the desire to allude to the ‘work’ he is so proud of, gleefully scatters clues around (including the rope itself), thus manufacturing the rope with which he will hang himself.
13. This episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, directed by Hitchcock himself in 1957, has interesting common points with Rope, as well as with Psycho. As in the two films, the camera in the opening shot is placed outside a window, getting ready to spy on a couple. The spectator’s voyeurism is both satisfied and (as almost always with Hitchcock) frustrated: in Rope the murder is committed behind drawn curtains as the camera is still outside. Similarly, in One More Mile to Go the camera gets inside the house only after the deed (again, a murder) has been done, while in Psycho we enter the hotel room through the window only after the act being spied on (in this case sexual intercourse) has been completed. Rope’s visual frustration is echoed, in One More Mile, by an auditory frustration: we cannot hear the words of the husband and wife fighting because the window is closed. Finally, this opening scene of One More Mile is filmed, Rope-style, in a single take.
14. ‘What to do with the corpse’, a question that is the very subject of The Trouble With Harry (1955), is one of the practical problems that fascinated Hitchcock. Rope offers a paradoxical solution: instead of trying to get rid of the body, the murderers place it right in the middle of their apartment and give a party around it: this is the principle of Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’. Brandon, however, shares with other Hitchcock killers – who are clever enough to conceal all trace of their act – a feeling of pride and a decidedly aesthetic delight in his deed. In that regard he may be seen as a forerunner to the especially inventive murderers featured in such segments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents as The Perfect Crime (1957) or Arthur (1959) – both directed by the Master. In the latter, the murderer feeds his victim’s ground remains to the chickens he raises (again, food and murder go hand in hand). In the former, a detective looking for the perfect crime, which he ends up by committing himself, burns his victim in a kiln and turns it into an elegant little vase. Like Brandon, as a finishing touch to his ‘work’, served the meal on the chest-coffin or used the strangling rope to tie up a pile of books he gave to the dead man’s father, Arthur sends some of the chickens he has fed as described above to the policemen who had investigated the victim’s disappearance and had first suspected him, while Arthur displays the vase among souvenirs of the various criminal cases he solved during his life. Asked by journalists about the case related to the mysterious vase, he gives ambiguous answers that sound like a veiled confession. Those characters, like Brandon, are artists who cannot bring themselves to keep their masterpiece from public recognition.
15. Ann Todd, who played Gregory Peck’s wife in The Paradine Case, told Donald Spoto a significant anecdote: ‘Hitch prepared an elaborate five-minute take in the film – up a staircase, into a room, with me and Greg Peck talking all the while. We rehearsed it with all its complications, then shot it about thirty times to get it exactly right. But then Selznick heard about it, and came down to the set, demanding that the whole thing be done in the ordinary way, in short takes and intercuts. "We’re not doing a theatre piece!" [Selznick] cried. And that was that. Of course Hitchcock had to give in; he knew who he could bully, but he also knew who he had to obey.’ Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius, p. 300. Hitchcock would take his revenge in his next film: being his own producer, he no longer has to take orders from anybody, and can afford to shoot takes as lengthy as he pleases – the longest takes possible, in fact. One may actually wonder whether the Rope enterprise was not conceived as a response to the humiliation inflicted by the producer upon the director on his set.
16. This was clearly expressed by Hitchcock himself, telling Truffaut about the filming of the first take of the first reel of Rope: ‘I was so scared that something would go wrong that I couldn’t even look during the first take.’ Hitchcock, p. 265.
17. Under Capricorn had been intended as the first Transatlantic production, but Ingrid Bergman was committed to a play on Broadway followed by Arch of Triumph (1948), so Hitchcock switched to Rope instead. He managed, however, to sneak Bergman into the film through a bit of dialogue whose sole purpose is to praise her charm – ‘Oh, I think she’s lovely,’ Janet says of Bergman in the comical conversation in which no one can remember the title of any of the movies they discuss.
as a Knot of Hitchcockian Themes and Tropes (A Digression)
Since this article is not primarily concerned with the relationships between Rope and the rest of the Hitchcock corpus, I shall merely mention a few of the more notable as clues [for the reader who might not have seen the film].
Although somewhat clumsily characterised, Rupert Cadell, the philosophy professor played by James Stewart, already exhibits some of the ambiguities later developed in the characters he will play in Rear Window and Vertigo. Both innocent and guilty (his teaching has – against his will – ’corrupted’ his two students), he is forced by their crime to question his complacency. A catalytic investigator, he discovers the murder (like in Rear Window) through his ‘unhealthy’ but justified curiosity. Brandon Shaw, a cynical, if not frankly Satanic character (he is the tempter who talks his fainthearted accomplice into breaking the Law to become the equal of God) (11) recalls, with his elegance, charm, black humor and total depravity, Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and heralds Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train (1951). His domination of Philip (a character whose last name is never mentioned, which suggests his subjection, while his mentor-friend is always called by his last, never his first, name) also announces, to a certain extent, the Bruno-Guy relationship (with Granger again playing the weaker, manipulated party). While there is no actual exchange of murders in Rope there is, at the very least, an exchange of ideas of murder: Rupert planted the seed in the two young men’s minds; Brandon talks Philip into acting upon it; in the end, they both hand the responsibility over to him.
In both films, moreover, the crime is (or claims to be) ‘perfect’ because it is gratuitous. Strangulation also takes place in both, as it does in many other Hitchcock films; actually shown or suggested, there is strangling in more than one third of his movies (and it was the subject of many a Hitchcockian joke, including a lot of publicity stills showing him strangling some actress). (12)
Food, the importance of which in both Hitchcock’s life and work is well-known, occupies a central place in Rope, since the killers serve a meal to their guests, and, as is often the case in Hitchcock’s films, is linked to murder and death – Brandon perversely chooses to serve the food on the chest containing the victim’s body, rather than on the table where the maid had originally displayed it. The chest itself anticipates other confining containers that will store later Hitchcockian corpses: a car trunk in Psycho (1960) and on television in One More Mile to Go (13), a potato sack in Frenzy (1972) … The opening of the chest at the end will be echoed in the last shot of Psycho (Marion Crane’s car being hauled out of the swamp) – Hitchcock’s dead bodies do not stay in closets (or chests), they always return to the surface. (14)
A whole article could be devoted to the importance of the long take technique in Hitchcock’s work. While the systematic use of the ten-minute take may at first sight seem utterly alien to the highly fragmented découpage of his other films (except for Under Capricorn, in which the Rope experiment persists in a number of very complex single takes reaching or coming close to ten minutes), his interest for elaborate camera moves in long takes neither appears nor subsides with his two independent productions – see the long crane shots through a huge room ending up in an extreme closeup in Young and Innocent and Notorious. Shooting The Paradine Case (1948), the film he made immediately prior to Rope, Hitchcock had used a new, more compact dolly allowing long continuous movements going in and out of rooms without a cut. (15)
More than twenty years later, he would devise one of the most famous camera moves of his career for Frenzy: the long tracking-out shot starting from the murderer’s apartment, going down the stairs, out of the building and across the street to the sidewalk opposite (Hitchcock used a device similar to the ones that mask reel ends in Rope, so that this tracking shot – actually filmed in two sections, one on a sound stage, the other in exteriors – seems uninterrupted).
Playing with Fire/Double-dealing
Pleasure and anguish – the pleasure of anguish and the anguish of pleasure – are inextricably linked in Hitchcock’s cinema. With Rope he both wanted to please himself (give himself pleasure) – this is Truffaut’s dream coming true – and to play at frightening himself. The particular anxiety involved here is that experienced by the film director, uncertain as to whether his long takes are going to come out successfully – an uncertainty that increases with the length of the take. (16) The pleasure of filming is all the more intense as the anguish is greater. This playing with fire on the part of the filmmaker echoes the murderer, who derives his pleasure from creating the conditions of his own downfall: if there is no danger, no anxiety, then there is no jouissance. Hitchcock and his character become unsettling mirror images of each other – both God-like, both believing in their limitless power. Brandon is convinced of his own impunity, which leads him to pile up provocatively careless actions (either deliberate or – as in the case of the victim’s hat, mistakenly handed to Rupert – accidental … but isn’t this a Freudian slip?); Hitchcock was convinced of his absolute mastery of technique, which led him to pile up seemingly insurmountable difficulties.
Thus the congruence of form and content reaches far beyond the formal principle of the continuous take espousing and buttressing the real-time narrative unfolding. The superimposition of the filmmaker’s and his character’s playing with fire, of their respective anxieties, of their desire and scheming, turns the film’s anecdote into a mise en abyme of its manufacturing principle.
A Substitute Fetish
In most of his films (and certainly all his major works) Hitchcock’s fetishism is openly sexual and naturally focuses on the heroine, played by a series of fetishised actresses most consciously desired by Hitchcock – a desire probably (certainly, according to Donald Spoto) unfulfilled and thereby most likely to exacerbate the fetishist compulsion. The absence, at the time of Rope, of the desired woman (Ingrid Bergman), added to her sexual non-availability, (17) is concretely reflected in Rope by the lack of a heroine. The ever-present Hitchcockian couple is, this time, a homosexual (sterile) couple, and the only woman (aside from the maid and the eccentric aunt, both excluded, by virtue of their age and unsexy appearance, from the category of possible objects of desire), the nondescript Joan Chandler, is physically the opposite of the director’s favorite actresses (Hitchcock seems to have deliberately chosen for the role an almost unknown actress – beyond brief parts in Humoresque  and The Street With No Name , Rope seems to have been her last film). Defined in the film only as David’s fiancée, she hardly exists at all, since David is dead.
Lacking a heroine, Hitchcock came up with a substitute fetish for Rope: the ten-minute take. His exclusive concern for camera work on this film replaces the attention he lavished on his leading ladies in other films (it is easy to understand the performers’ displeasure, starting with Stewart who complained that Hitchcock only rehearsed the camera). This technical fetishism is actually quite similar to the sexual fetishism it substitutes for (besides, Hitchcock’s interest in some classic sexual fetishes – such as women’s shoes – is well-known; there are traces of them in many of his films – but not, in point of fact, in Rope). And just as the sexual fetishist’s desire remains beyond the comprehension of all but his fellow perverts, Hitchcock’s desire as expressed through Rope’s continuous take was understood neither by his peers and actors nor by the critics who, in most cases, discussed the technical device from the sole viewpoint of its narrative and dramatic efficiency – or lack thereof.
My bringing together two apparently very different kinds of fetishism is not merely metaphorical. The tension resulting from the practice of the long take, while not erotic in itself, is not unlike sexual tension itself, especially in the course of shooting. The concentration required to bring a long take safely to its end creates a suspense similar to the one engendered, in sexual intercourse, by the concentration that postpones orgasm in order to prolong pleasure. The jouissance of the long take is erotic precisely in that it essentially consists in making the pleasure last. In comparison, short takes, on which traditional découpage mostly relies, tends to suggest premature ejaculation, an analogy confirmed by the atmosphere that prevails on a movie set during and after a take: extreme tension and concentration of all participants for a few seconds, sudden relaxation with the director’s ‘cut!’ – the ambiance becoming positively post-coital.
18. A curiously dissenting
view was expressed by Maurice Schérer (Eric Rohmer) in the first
issue (May 1950) of the short-lived Gazette du cinéma. Writing
about Rope (which he considered ‘the most important [film]
we have seen in many a year’) he claimed that some of the objections made
by the film’s detractors might be partially justified if the
film had been made in black and white. His argument (not very convincing
at the time, and even less so now) was that the jump from one shot to
the next ‘which the eye doesn’t even notice’ in a black and white film
‘gives us a shock every time colour brings to the image the only element
it lacked to create a perfect illusion of reality.’
21. Ironically, the two cinematographers who worked on Rope, Joseph Valentine and William V. Skall, received the 1948 Oscar for colour photography (together with Winton Hoch) for … Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman.
22. Hitchcock said he had to reshoot the last five reels of the film (that would be more than half the running time!) because of their lurid orange tint. While he blamed his cinematographer for this chromatic excess – Valentine was replaced by W.V. Skall for the reshoot – one may wonder how he could shoot the entire movie before noticing this glaring defect, which should have been obvious while viewing the dailies (all made up of very long takes, not the usual bits and pieces). Isn’t it possible that Hitchcock more or less unconsciously wanted his flaming sky?
Hitchcock’s megalomania, which drove him to control (to direct) everything both in his public/professional and private life, does blossom in Rope, not only because the camera and its technique are sovereign, but because such supremacy, which is the director’s, allowed Hitchcock to create a metaphorical representation of the perfect sexual act – one entirely controlled throughout its proceeding up to its culmination. Thus this technical experiment so often decried for being gratuitous is actually characterised, at a certain level, by a high degree of necessity. If it is gratuitous, it is in the same way as the act of the two murderers, which they considered justified by its perfection.
The Colours of Hell
A few remarks on colour in Rope will provide me with a transition to a different (but complementary) reading of the film’s use of the ten-minute take and of its impact on the spectator.
Colour is an essential constituent of Rope, even though its function and certainly its effect may not be as obvious as it initially appears. It is difficult to imagine Rope in black and white in spite of the fact that, in the context of its time, the use of Technicolor for such a film seems an oddity, almost an anomaly. In 1948, most Hollywood movies were still shot in black and white (it was the heyday of film noir, which, as it name indicates, could not be conceived in colour). Colour was still confined to the least realistic genres (musicals, exotic adventures, fantasy, a few comedies, a few westerns and other period pieces), based upon the rarely questioned belief that Technicolor was ‘unrealistic.’ (18) Rope obviously does not fall into any of these categories.
One of the few earlier uses of colour in a ‘psychological drama’ set in the present was Leave Her to Heaven, released in December 1945. Reviewing it for Time in January 1946, James Agee merely expressed the traditional view as to the effect of colour in movies: ‘The story’s central idea might be plausible enough in a dramatically lighted black-and-white picture or in a radio show with plenty of organ background. But in the rich glare of Technicolor, all its rental-library characteristics are doubly glaring.’ (19) Still, cinematographer Leon Shamroy was awarded his third Oscar in four years for his colour photography (after The Black Swan  and Wilson ). Thus a certain ambivalence had begun to exist as to the role of colour and its field of extension; the new thrill of Technicolorised drama, while mocked by some, received official consecration from the profession. (20)
In Rope, which was not even nominated for an Academy Award, (21) the function of colour is deliberately naturalistic and dramatic: to show daylight pass into dusk and night, and to enhance the mounting tension. One immediately notices that there is, if not a contradiction, at least a tension (another one) between the two functions: the latter draws the film toward expressionism (this is obvious, for example, in the use of a blinking neon sign strategically placed outside a window to intermittently light the faces ot the soon-to-be unmasked murderers), while the former claims to be strictly realistic. Besides, one should not neglect the most obvious: the harshness of Technicolor (a result, maybe, less of the supposed limitations of the process than of the use Hollywood aesthetics had opted to make of it), which at the time tended to impose a quasi-phantasmagorical atmosphere upon melodramas, whatever their (quite modest) claim to realism might have been. Such Technicolor dramas of the 1945-48 period as Leave Her to Heaven, Duel in the Sun (1946) and Rope have in common perverse (or perverted) protagonists who break the most sacred human and divine laws. Colour, and particularly red, often aggressively enhanced, becomes emblematic of their perversity.
Which brings us back to the Satanic or infernal aspect of Rope. The film’s characters are prisoners of a hell whose flames are the reddish blaze of the sky and clouds at sunset. (22) It is a hell they have created, over which they intend to rule, but which becomes the trap to ensnare them. The spectator – this is another effect of the long-take technique – is as much a prisoner of it as they are: the movie, that strip of film which, for once, no editing scissors have cut, is the rope that ties us up, just as it unreels an invisible bond around the characters.
In traditional decoupage, each cut introduces a change in point of view, guaranteeing our free will, a possibility of choice which we of course delegate to the director and the editor, but which operates as though it were our own. A cut is a respite, the invisible, out-of-time crack between two shots, a breach that allows us to escape the bondage of the continuous. Conversely, the uninterrupted take builds an invisible yet solid wall that abolishes such freedom. The only choice we have left is to close our eyes or look away – in other words to refuse our role as spectators, which would consign the film, and ourselves as spectators, to nothingness. To the extent that we accept to play the game, we cannot escape from a sustained, cut-less viewing. This is the extreme of Hitchcockian voyeurism: the continuous shot turns the spectator into a voyeur who literally cannot look away from the spectacle ‘offered’ to his gaze.
Thus the Hitchcockian hell in Rope is this endless gaze (that can only end with the film itself) which abolishes all freedom. A hell curiously reminiscent of the metaphorical hell in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (No Exit). The theme of the uninterrupted gaze, which is central to Sartre’s play, reappears in Rope as a stylistic option which places the spectator in a situation similar to that of the characters in Huis Clos. At the beginning of the play the male protagonist defines his new condition as ‘la vie sans coupure’ or ‘life without a cut’, which accurately describes Rope’s continuous take and the viewing experience it imposes upon us. Sartre’s characters’ ‘atrophied eyelids’, unable to blink, echo the sustained gaze of Hitchcock’s camera, rejecting the blinking of editing. The living room in Rope, like the hotel room in Huis Clos, provides the set for the infernal condition (a set from which one cannot possibly exit), and the continuous take is the formal snare that draws us to that set/trap and locks us up in there for eighty minutes, ‘with our eyes open.’
23. Waiting – a facile extrapolation – for Godot; or, if one prefers, for God’s return?
25. The other stretch of prolonged camera stillness is the famous shot in which the chest is framed in the foreground while the maid is seen shuttling in depth of field between the kitchen and the living room as she clears the chest. The stillness of the camera, however, contrasts with the methodical back and forth motion of the maid, which builds up a tension similar to that engendered by the playing of ‘Mouvement perpétuel #1’ to the beating of the metronome Rupert sets in motion while he questions the pianist.
Why does the predictable (indeed inescapable), anticlimactic ending of the film (the two murderers and their teacher are waiting, motionless and silent) (23) have so much impact on the spectator (few critics have failed to mention its power)? Probably because it reintroduces some amount of freedom after eighty minutes of oppressiveness and confinement. The opening of the chest brings the dangerous game and the abstraction of the philosophical discussion to an end; the opening of the window, which at last allows the sounds from the outside world, from which we had been cut off, (24) to reach us, brings the reassuring promise that the moral chaos engendered by the perpetrators’ murderous perversity will be followed by a return to balance and order, to the ever-threatened ‘normality’ – a return represented by the arrival of the police summoned by Rupert’s gun shots out the window and announced by the mounting wail of a siren.
Simultaneously, the camera frees (unties) us, positioning itself for the first time in a space behind the chest that had remained off-frame until then (and where our imagination probably located a fourth wall); it stays there, motionless like the characters, for the last feet of film, sole moment of total immobility in a movie characterised by its perpetual motion (which happens to be the title of the Poulenc composition – the only music heard in Rope – which Philip plays on the piano). (25) We are finally free – free (but only for a brief moment) to direct our gaze toward whatever we please; but mainly, we have to admit, free to leave the theatre, since the film is over. Freedom was regained for nought.
Therein, perhaps, the reason for my continued fascination with Rope. As the endless shot comes to an end a spell is broken, and regained ‘freedom’ seems lacklustre in comparison. Desire, ever reborn, Phoenix-like, ever yearns for a reprise of the experience.
Coming to the end of these reflections, a demanding reader may take me to task for not shedding much light on the ancient and never diminished fascination which I had set out to question. A legitimate criticism. But questioning is one thing, getting answers is quite another. Anyway, how could one satisfactorily account for what I have identified, in opening, as a fetishistic attachment? Psychoanalysis should probably be called upon.
|26. Barthes: ‘Law, Science, the Doxa refuse to understand that perversion, quite simply, makes happy’. Richard Howard (trans.), Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 64.
Except that this poetic discipline, with its pervasive metaphors and analogies, tends to explain everything except pleasure – which, in the last analysis, remains the essential mystery, a mystery without which nothing else would have to be explained. Besides, is it so surprising that pleasure (my pleasure) should remain the same over several decades? One cannot be cured of a perversion (which suggests that the perversion, far from being bad, may fulfill a secret, beneficial function). And furthermore, who could really desire to desire no more? (26)
Translated, revised and updated by the author from a text which first appeared in Cinéma 84 (November 1984).
© Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Rouge 2004. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors of Rouge.