It goes without saying that Alfred Hitchcock might be considered one of the most recognizable directors in history. A name so popular in film that you’ll instantly begin to form a list of his best work at the top of your head (Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds, just to name a few) and you would do so with good reason. Excellent and considered as a pioneer in storytelling, Alfred Hitchcock in his lifetime served as a director on over 50 films (excluding shorts and documentaries). So how do you appreciate a director without watching 50 films? You do so by watching Rope (1948).
Okay I admit it, that wasn’t really much of a segue into why you should watch Rope, but it does help set the stage for what makes Rope stand out among all of his films. Taking place entirely in a studio apartment, two young men strangle one of their classmates to death, hide the body, then invite over his friends and their professor (James Stewart) to a dinner party to discuss and challenge the idea of “the perfect crime.”
If the plot alone wasn’t enough to give you goosebumps, then the idea of shooting the entire film in one continuous shot will.
Over the past couple of decades, Hollywood has been infatuated with the idea of extremely long and elaborate takes. As one of the finer examples, the film Children of Men (2006) sees the film’s protagonist moving chaotically throughout a war zone in one take and shot during the rising action of the story. Not only does the use of one shot build tension, it also creates a surreal realism (horrible oxymoron) for the audience. Without that cut in an edit, we lose ourselves for a moment and forget we’re watching a film.
On a larger scale, the film Silent House (2011) replicated what Rope did and shot the film in seamless segments that inter-cut into each other, simulating the “one take and shot” look. In Silent House, the darkness or as the protagonist crosses behind an object in the foreground is used to disguise cuts in the edit. In Rope, the cuts in the film are disguised as a blend between blocked actions and camera movements.
Going back to that whole “Alfred Hitchcock was a pioneer thing,” it’s totally true. He was crazy and got away with doing quite a few things that wouldn’t fly on set these days. But he knew his way around a scene, which is why the transitions in Rope work so perfectly and are seamless. There’s a large period in film (let’s pretend it’s between the ’20s to the mid-’50s) where scenes largely consisted of several people standing in a long shot without any cuts in the edit, talking for five minutes. Although these shots could also be considered long takes, this was a technique that merely saved the production on budget, and allowed for them to stick to schedule by having one setup per setting, which is what makes the camera work in Rope a thing of beauty. Not only was he trying to give the appearance of the film being one seamless take, but also the camera moved constantly, following and complimenting the scene’s action (which is hard to come by today even).
Along with the camera complimenting the film’s blocking, the camera eventually becomes less noticeable as the story progresses. Not only is the seamless “one take and shot” look slowly building suspense, but the story is doing it all on its own as well. As the night wears on, the two students become restless over the idea that they may have committed the perfect crime and begin to provoke their guest of honour (the professor) into arguing over theory and murder. As the dinner party progresses, the audience is treated to a story that plays out in what could be considered one of the earliest instances of “real-time” filmmaking. The story is largely meant to take place within the exact runtime of the film (give or take a few minutes).
Already the movie has a lot going for it, and if I were to say much more I would be encroaching on spoilers territory. To date, Rope remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best and yet under-appreciated films due to its rocky history since being made. Upon initial release, the film was banned throughout parts of The United States due to the implied homosexuality of several characters, and then in no relation was unavailable for more than 30 years because of ownership of the film’s rights. Eventually Rope was re-released in theatres in 1984.
If you’re to see any of the 50 films Hitchcock has under his belt, I would highly suggest Rope be the one. The film contains that signature Alfred Hitchcock feel to it, and at the same time breaks ground in scene blocking, with coordination between the actors, and the camera.