Rope (1948)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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Rope is an 80 minute film with only 9 total shots, though several cuts are meant to be hidden, meaning there are only a small handful of noticeable, traditional cuts in the film.  A modern day action scene running less than a minute is bound to have more than 9 cuts.

So this technique is clearly a choice, even an experiment.  The Player began with an 8 minute shot, and it’s the only thing some people know about that movie.  Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity as well as several other of his films are known for their long takes, and the recent Academy Award for Best Picture, Birdman, is designed to look like one long take.

In each instance, this way of shooting is meant to show something specific or to create a certain atmosphere.  It’s a simple case of form and content influencing each other, as they should.  A film like Whiplash feels lightning quick, particularly the editing of the music numbers, but that’s because the film is about a kid who is relentless, tireless, burned out and a bit manic.  The editing style reflects what and who the story is about.  Similarly, Birdman is about a guy who is separated from his own reality.  He exists in more of a dreamlike state, so the camera floats around, following or leading the characters through small hallways like in a dream.  This style of shooting adds to the question of the film and the protagonist.

In other movies, long takes have begun to feel like a gimmick.  They are pretty amazing when you consider the choreography, camera movement, lighting changes, etc. that go into them.  Here’s an example from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011):

I haven’t seen Hugo, so I can’t discuss anything about the meaning of the scene, but damn, look at those moving walls.

Long takes like this tend to connect characters and locations by showing the space between them as well as the real time quality of the moment.  If a camera tracks from one character down a hallway to another, we know for a fact that they are both there, and that it is in the same moment.  This can be achieved through a cut, but movie audiences have grown accustomed to the amount of time that can occur through a simple cut.  You can start with a bone thrown into the sky by an ape thousands of years ago and suddenly cut to a space ship thousands of years into the future, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The point is, long takes make an effort to show you that is all happening here and now.

Birdman, though, turns this upside down.  The characters wander around in what appears to be a seamless shot, but we jump through time as we don in any movie.  I guess what I’m trying to point out is that long takes don’t mean the same thing they once did, and Rope, though it was made years before this fairly recent rise of long takes, has more similarities to the time jumps of Birdman than it does to traditional long takes.

Rope takes place over the course of one afternoon to night in an apartment as two characters try to get away with murder.  The film, if it took place in real time, would only cover 80 minutes, yet it feels like we start at around 3 pm and end at around 8 pm.  None of the cuts in time are meant to imply a leap forward into later that night, but the lack of traditional cutting creates this slightly creepy environment that, coupled with the murder and one character’s obsession with the righteousness of a certain type of killing, makes you think you’re in some dream-like landscape or the party from Eyes Wide Shut.

The film begins with the murder of David Kentley by two friends, Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger).  Brandon is the leader of the two, and he is incredibly creepy and narcissistic, like plenty of evil characters from other Hitchcock films (think Strangers on a Train).  Philip has more of a conscience, questioning what they’ve done while Brandon flaunts it, but his role in the murder suggests he’s weak, hypocritical and no better than Brandon.

The two young men, recent college graduates, hide David’s body in a… well I don’t know what to call it, it’s a table, but more like an armoire, but smaller.  It’s a chest of drawers with a giant empty space inside.  They then decorate the table and intend to throw a party that night to test the strength of their ‘flawless’ plan.  Again, Brandon leads the charge, and Philip seems to be one step behind, even though he’s been in on this since the beginning.  For two people who decide to commit a murder together, they’re really not on the same page.

So they throw the party, inviting David’s father as well as David’s girlfriend, Janet (Joan Chandler) and Janet’s ex-boyfriend, Kenneth (Douglas Dick).  The whole thing seems fishy to them, as they remark how David is never this late, let alone late at all.  Janet then begins to suspect she and Kenneth (and not David) were invited on purpose, some part of Brandon’s strange plan.

Later, Brandon’s and Philip’s former professor, Rupert (James Stewart) arrives.  Brandon kisses his ass in such a way that it’s clear this man is a god to him.  Through a strange conversation, we realize that Brandon’s justification for his murder is simply that he’s better than David, so it should be okay.  Some people should be allowed to commit murder so long as they’re better than the people they kill.  The justification is clearly horrendous, but Rupert agrees with him and even takes it a step further, providing Brandon with all the inspiration he needs (and has clearly gotten).

Brandon didn’t just want to commit the perfect murder, he wanted to make sure Rupert knew about it.  The dinner party dissolves fairly quickly, and no on leaves happy.  Instead, everyone is off balance, thinking that something must have happened to the no-show, David.  Rupert, sure that something is off, swings back to the apartment after leaving and makes it clear he knows that the two boys murdered David.

By this time, Brandon is a mix of guarded and prideful while Philip can barely hold it together.  Brandon asks Rupert how they would’ve killed their friend, and Rupert puts it all together.  It’s a very strange sequence.  Philip tries to shoot Rupert, but he gets the gun and then fires a few rounds out the window to attract the authorities’ attention, telling the boys that he will let society deal with them.  Rupert also looks inward, disturbed that his own teachings have affected the boys in this way.

So the vaguely dream-like quality of this film seems like it is most directly related to Rupert’s character journey.  He is the traditional hero of the film, first because he’s Jimmy Stewart, and second because he’s the good guy who breaks down the villain’s plan.  Of course, the main characters are the bad guys, Brandon and Philip, and we’re in their headspace almost the entire runtime of the film.

What’s strange, is that I can’t tell who we’re supposed to be following more, Brandon or Philip.  We have more sympathy for Philip because he expresses remorse, and he just seems more likable.  By the end, though, Philip is a mess and Brandon is still the same screwed up Brandon.  Our loyalties pivot, somewhere along the way, from Philip to Rupert.  I think, in the end, the whole story is about Rupert.  He gives the long, heavy monologue at the end of the film after verifying that the boys did in fact murder David, and he’s the one who experiences the most personal growth.

He changes from the guy giving the messed up speech justifying murder (insistent that he’s not joking though he may be joking), and then he gives the final speech, explaining how he needs to reevaluate what and how he teaches if it drove two of his students to murder.  He does explain that there is something within Brandon that made him do this, beyond simply Rupert’s teachings, but Rupert does admit fault.  In the end, he defers to society to judge these boys, even if they are composed of the type of murder-worthy people he described in his first monologue.

So the way the camera avoids cutting, even while we’re thrust forward through time, creates an odd energy where everything looks real enough but plays out differently than we’re used to in real life.  It’s like we’re in a worm hole where day turns to night before you know it, like you or me or we are stuck in a trance, and that’s how Rupert feels by the end of this film.  His whole world, professionally at least, has been turned upside down.  He realizes he has created a sort of Frankenstein’s monster and is left to ponder his own culpability in the murder.

I think that’s why I ultimately like this movie, even though parts of it felt too expositional, unbelievable and even a little boring.  There were some quiet moments in this film that would have been cut out of other movies, simply because nothing was happening.  We were just waiting for characters to reach other as they walked through the apartment, but since Hitchcock committed to the single take, he had to let these moments last.  Alfred Hitchcock himself has called this film a ‘failed experiment,’ but I think it serves the story well.  You could argue that the story is flawed, and it probably is.  For example, I don’t really buy that Philip would agree to commit murder, since he seems so shaken up by it afterwards.  He even tells Brandon that he should’ve killed Brandon instead.  If Philip is this forthcoming with what he says, it tells me that he would never have let himself be pushed into this situation in the first place.  Plus, as I touched on earlier, Philip and Brandon are not on the same page at all.  Philip doesn’t realize how badly Brandon wants to flaunt the murder, suggesting that this is all new to Philip.  But why is Philip just now creeped out by Brandon’s behavior?  The murder wasn’t enough to show Philip Brandon’s true colors (and his own true colors)?

But if you accept the story, and I think it’s easy to accept and buy into because it’s Hitchcock, where strange, dark things seem to happen, then I think the style works.  This is a film about a guy rethinking his ways in the darkest way possible.  The lack of cutting and the decision (or need, based on the decided shooting style of the film) keeps Brandon and Philip in the apartment throughout the entire movie.  They are essentially trapped, like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, a movie about Clarisse more than it is about the killer, even though the focus is on the killer.  The story here is about Rupert, even as he comes and goes.  He’s free to roam, free to make decisions and see the world how he wants.  But Brandon and Philip are always imprisoned.  They’re physically trapped, and they’re psychologically trapped once they commit the murder, locked in as you traditionally are when a movie character commits a murder.  But more than that, they are trapped because they don’t have an original perspective or way of seeing the world.  Everything they’ve done (and they’re ultimate fate) is decided by what Rupert has told them.  They kill, not because of some deep, well-thought out point of view on the world and life, but rather because they liked what Rupert said in class and used that to justify their crimes.

So the character with real power here is and was Rupert, and he’s the one left to think by himself when the movie fades to black.

 

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