Week 3: Rope (1948) Long takes and disappointment

Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

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This one is hard. I’m having such a tough time writing this. Which is not a good sign if I’m only on week three. But Rope is posing some very specific challenges here. Let me see if I can explain.

I picked Rope for this week not because of some thematic link, but because it was showing on the big screen at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, a local organization that runs repertory theaters. They do Hitchcock months every now and then; it’s a way for theaters like that to make some money to subsidize all the independent cinema they show for the rest of the year.

Whenever possible, I’m going to try and see films on the big screen, and Rope seemed like a perfect candidate. Filmed in 1948, it’s Hitchcock’s first film with Jimmy Stewart (they would make three other films together, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo) as well as his first film in color. It’s a chamber suspense piece, as two young men murder a friend, then try to hide his body from their dinner guests.  And most significantly, it’s one of Hitchcock’s most technically ambitious movies, a film shot to look like it was all filmed in one long continuous take. Here’s Hitchcock himself in Hitchcock/Truffaut: “The stage drama [the film was adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play] was played out in the actual time of the story; the action is continuous from the moment the curtain goes up until it comes down again. I asked myself whether it was technically possible to film it in the same way. The only way to achieve that, I found, would be to handle the shooting in the same continuous action, with no break in the telling of a story that begins at seven-thirty and ends at nine-fifteen. And I got this crazy idea to do it in a single shot.”

Accomplishing this style of filming was much easier said than done. In the 1940s, studios cameras were big lumbering beasts that could only hold about ten to eleven minutes of film before reloading. That meant that the longest continuous shot could only be around ten minutes. What Hitchcock did, and why the movie is still so famous, was compose a pre-planned sequence of 10 shots, all around 8-9 minutes long, that seamlessly flow into each other so they look like one unbroken shot. At the end of one “shot,” a person walks into frame, blocking the camera. Then there’s a quick dissolve or cut and the second shot picks up, right where the first left off. The effect is to make the entire 80 minute film look like one long unbroken shot.

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Hitchcock on set filming; note the size of the camera to his left.

According to film history, Hitchcock was the first to do this, and I haven’t found anything to contradict that fact. The style of Rope, multiple shots seamlessly edited together to look like one unbroken take, was duplicated in the ambitious 1997 independent film Running Time (directed by Josh Becker, starring the World’s Greatest B-Movie Actor Bruce Campbell). Then in 2002, as digital camera technology improved, director Aleksandr Sokurov actually filmed a movie in one unbroken take: Russian Ark. The movie used a digital camera, steadicam, and surely the world’s strongest and most talented camera operator, to film a 99 minute avant-garde depiction of Russian history with a cast of 2,000 people in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Even more impressive, the film was completed on the fourth take. It’s an exceptional piece of work and is more successful on its own terms than Rope. And in 2015, German director Sebastian Schipper upped the ante with Victoria, a 138 minute unbroken take film (I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s gotten great reviews).

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A still from Russian Ark.

And of course there’s Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning 2014 film. This movie is closer in spirit to Hitchcock’s, because it uses long takes stitched together digitally to show transitions in time. Despite Rope being a clear antecedent to Birdman, Iñárritu bristled at this analogy, saying in Time magazine: “There’s always this comparison with Rope, which I think is a terrible film. I don’t like it. I think it’s a very bad film of Hitchcock’s. It’s a very mediocre film. Obviously, he shot with that intention and it didn’t work — because of the film itself!” Ironically, the same is true of Birdman, as that film is a mess of hot garbage. Visually brilliant hot garbage, but an empty shallow film celebrating the primacy of white men as artists and the failure of women to understand them. This is a film, that won Best Original Screenplay, wherein the only scene between two women ends with them making out, for no reason at all. Rope is not a perfect film, but the structure is sound, unlike the utter pretentious nonsense of Birdman.

Anyway.

Not many filmmakers have attempted the one-take film, but plenty try for long, unbroken takes in their movies. It’s one of those things you obsess over in film school. The kind of thing that you point out to friends and lovers and family members and anyone, ANYONE who will listen: “That’s all one shot.” “It took 32 tries.” “The camera’s on a crane the whole time.” “There’s no cuts.”

Was I one of those students? You bet. Film students love long takes because it’s a way to show off. And boy did I want to show off when I was in film school. I recently found a DVD of my old student films, and while many of them are painful to watch (okay fine, most of them are painful to watch), I was impressed by my constant need to innovate. I was obsessed with post-modernism, shattering the fourth wall, and creating some kind of new cinema that replaced snark and cynicism of with a new sense of freedom. I named my “company” PreModern Films. I was 21 years old. I was insufferable.

And yes, I made a movie that was entirely one take. It’s called “Take 3” and it runs 3 minutes and 40 seconds. I made it for my Experimental Film class in 1998 and you can watch it below on YouTube if you want. I’m actually pretty happy with it – it won an award and I got to go out to Los Angeles and screen it at the DGA theater. But it came about out of desperation.

For experimental film I had a much longer more elaborate film all planned out. I remember being inspired by Beck and his ideas of pastiche, but it soon became clear that I had neither the resources or the money to make this ridiculous, excessive movie. The way film school worked was, you had an assigned date to check out your equipment and book your crew, and that date was fast approaching. So I wrote a new movie, with only two characters, that could be shot in one take. Doing it in one take meant that I’d have little to no editing to do, plus it would be cool as shit. The film depicts a man and a woman who meet and have a conversation about feeling trapped (they also steal dialogue from some Monty Python sketches but let’s not focus on that). In classic Hollywood editing, you show an establishing shot of a scene (the wide shot) then show over the shoulder shots of characters talking to each other, then closeups, then extreme closeups. You move from the macro to the micro, establishing the scene and then drilling closer into the emotions at stake.

In my little movie, every time the movie would “cut,” the actors pause and the camera physically moves to the next shot. It’s kind of a commentary on the confining nature of editing and filmmaking itself. It’s under four minutes and while it’s no Scorsese film, it holds up okay (Sidenote: most student films are terrible, as they should be. You’re literally learning the language. Martin Scorsese’s thesis film, however, remains one of the best student films I’ve ever seen. Infuriating that he had that much talent even as a kid. Watch it here if you don’t believe me)

As a student, I had fallen under the spell of the long take. In 1998 I had seen Rope but I remember thinking it was a little dull. But as I’ve watched it again it’s continued to grow on me. Multiple people have told me it’s one of their favorite Hitchcock films. Part of its initial lackluster response comes from the fac that Hitchcock himself characterized it as an experiment and a failure, saying in Hitchcock/Truffaut, “No doubt about it; films must be cut.”

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Yet Rope holds up surprisingly well. It definitely retains its theatrical roots but the basic idea remains compelling: a pair of young men murder a colleague for the thrill of it, because they believe themselves his moral & intellectual superior. I’d always read that the play and subsequent movie were based on the Leopold & Loeb case, but I’d never done any research; I was surprised to find that the initial concept is identical. Leopold & Loeb, two students obsessed with Nietszche’s theory of the superman, kidnapped & murdered a young acquaintance whom they deemed their inferior. It’s rumored that Leopold & Loeb were lovers, something Rope also borrows.

Outright portrayals of gay men or women were unthinkable in 1948, but there had been “flamboyant” men as the butt of jokes for decades, even as their sexuality was never discussed. Hitchcock’s brilliance is to treat these two characters with virtually none of the usual double-entendres; aside from one or two pointed lines, there’s nothing on the page to suggest that they’re anything but friends and roommates. In practice, actors Farley Granger and John Dall convey a palpable intimacy through their body language and shared gestures, making their coupling evident if completely unspoken. Additionally, screenwriter Arthur Laurents and Granger were both gay in real life and according to Granger’s autobiography even started an affair during filming. Both men were given the room by Hitchcock to to hint at a subtext, and the end result remains surprisingly nuanced.

Some critics have pointed to this as a demonization of homosexual behavior, portraying gay men as deviant killing machines with no morals. Yet their homosexuality is almost beside the point. Philip (Granger) is instantly full of remorse & fear, and it’s clear that he’s been bullied into the act by Brandon (Dall). Brandon connives and schemes to set everyone in motion throughout the entire film, literally toying with lives for his own amusement. Yet he too is a victim in a way, his head filled with thoughts of Nietzsche and his supermen at a young age by the boy’s cynical old schoolmaster Rupert (Jimmy Stewart).

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Rupert embodies a kind of nasty, brutish, “modern” view of humanity, who thinks nothing of talking playfully about how casual murder would cut down the lines at the theater and then argues with another dinner guest when they politely ask him to stop. He clearly sees himself as superior to everyone at the party, so it’s fitting that he not only discovers the truth about Brandon, Philip and the missing dinner guest; he also has to come to face to face with what he’s helped to create. The climax is one of the few weak moments in the film, as Rupert insists that “you’ve thrown my own words right back in my face,” but also tries to absolve himself of his own guilt in the matter. But it’s not that simple, and Stewart’s weariness and fear come into play as he himself seems to doubt his own words before he collapses, waiting wordlessly for the police to arrive. It’s one of Hitchcock’s best endings.

Some people have claimed that Stewart is miscast in Rope, and if you only knew him from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you might think so too. But this is post-World War II Jimmy Stewart, a man who came back from flying bombing raids over Germany with a coldness in his eye that was never present before. Stewart was a brilliant actor and his desperation in It’s a Wonderful Life and sexual obsession in Vertigo, combined with his work in Rope prove that he’s more than capable of handling dark, complex roles.

The more I watch Rope, the most remarkable thing about the movie is not the long takes or the way Hitchcock hides his edits. It’s the fact that Hitch orchestrates the actors in constant motion, keeping the scene changing, keeping the film interesting with asides and snippets of overheard dialogue. One of the best shots in the film is simply of a covered chest, which we know is hiding David’s body. As the guests chatter away, the shot remains fixed on the maid who is methodically clearing away the plates and table settings from the chest, then retrieving books that are stored in the chest, then taking away the tablecloth, then finally reaching to open the chest just before Brandon shuts it closed. It’s Hitchcock’s suspense “bomb” analogy in exceptional form.

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Hitchcock directing the extensive rehearsals for Rope.

Something was nagging at me though, when I was researching this film. A movie shot in long unbroken takes, with the camera sometimes operating as a point-of-view for the characters…where had I see that before? Then I remembered. Lady in the Lake.

In 1947, Robert Montgomery, mainly known before World War II for light comedies (including acting for Hitchcock in 1941’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith) directed and starred in Lady in the Lake, an adaptation of one of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories. Aside from an explanatory prologue, the entire film is from the point of view of Marlowe (played by Montgomery). The camera moves as though walking through rooms, a hand reaches out to open a door, and the only time we see Marlowe is when he’s looking at “himself” in a mirror. The movie manages several long conversations, unbroken dialogue (or cleverly hidden cuts) and some exceptional camera movement.

Lady in the Lake not as good as Rope. Nowhere near as good. But the technical achievement is remarkable. Montgomery uses dissolves between scenes and the occasional straight edit, so it’s not as “pure” as Hitchcock. But some sequences, including a scene where the camera-as-POV crawls across the ground after an auto accident, are breathtaking. The mythology of Hitchcock goes on at length about the difficulties of making Rope, of having the actors stepping over electrical cables, walls and furniture being pulled in and out of place to make room for the camera, and the balletic choreography required. But where is this praise and making-of featurettes for Lady In The Lake, a film that also required the creation of a new mobile dolly system and extensive technical tricks? The film was shot a year earlier by a first-time director and it displays almost equal creativity and technical ability, not to mention that it was made by Hitchcock’s friend & colleague. Can we honestly believe that Hitchcock never saw Lady in the Lake, perhaps as he was preparing for Rope? If he did, he never acknowledged it.

Meanwhile, Hitchcock is lionized while Montgomery’s film is forgotten. Of course, anyone claiming that Hitchcock wasn’t almost inconceivably talented is simply out of their mind. But was Hitch sometimes taken at face value, or given accolades that might have belonged to someone else? Absolutely.

Which brings me to the final point I’ve been grappling with: the standard narrative about Rope. Hitchcock made a film that looks like one long take, with edits cunningly hidden through the film. Hitchcock, rebelling against technological limitation, found a way to capture what he saw in his mind, and trick the viewer at the same time, making us think we were watching one long shot, up to that point the longest in screen history.

It isn’t true.

Not even close. As I was sitting in the theater, paying attention to the camera movement, I was suddenly jolted out of my seat. I may have made a noise. Because there, almost twenty minutes into the film, is a straightforward, textbook cut. No person passing in front of the camera or obscuring the frame. No clever dissolve or trick. Just a character (Kenneth) looking at someone arriving, and then the film cuts to Brandon & Philip welcoming a guest to the party.

“Maybe I was wrong,” I thought. I kept watching. It happened again. And again. I counted three instances while watching, but as this helpful video below shows, there are ten edits in Rope and five of them are standard edits, no trickery or disguise at all. They’re skillfully done, and it’s a tribute to how unobtrusive conventional Hollywood editing can be that these cuts are rarely noticed. But they’re there.

Doesn’t this go against Hitchcock’s own stated goal, his own “crazy idea to do it in a single shot”? They’re clearly not a mistake. Hitchcock planned and made sketches for all his films ahead of time. He knew exactly how the puzzle would fit together. Did he realize, in the editing of the film, that some cuts were necessary? Or did he just not care, and he continued to drop this line of bullshit because people wanted to believe it?

And pretty much everyone bought it, myself included. I’ve seen Rope at least five or six times over the course of twenty years. I’ve never noticed any of these edits until last night. It’s clear that some critics and writers are aware of this irregularity in the film, but almost all established resources stick to the idea that it’s shot as one continuous take.

So now it’s 12:20am and I’m sitting on my sofa with my dog sleeping next to me, writing on my laptop, unable to stop. I’ve spent the past three days grappling with this. Am I disappointed? Disappointed by a man who died thirty six years ago, one of the great geniuses of cinema? Maybe. Maybe I’m disappointed in the critics who never noticed this challenge to Hitchcock’s own statements about the film. Maybe I’m disappointed in myself, for never seeing what was right there in front of me.

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Through many years of loving movies, almost as long as I can remember, Hitchcock has been my constant. Films that I loved when I was young grew deeper and richer to me as I rewatched them. Because every time you watch a film or read a book or look at a painting or listen to an album it’s a different experience. The art stays the same, but you’re always changing, so each experience is different. That’s why it’s fun to revisit art; to see how the baggage we bring with us affects the way we look at these cherished pieces of expression.

So I still think Rope is better than Hitchcock says, and it’s an interesting depiction of homosexuality, and Jimmy Stewart and Farley Granger and John Dall are all amazing, and I’m still excited about this project and I’m looking forward to 49 more films. But I’m disappointed. It’s sad when an artist lets you down, even if you only discover it sixty-eight years after the fact. Or maybe it’s the realization that even your favorite artist can fall prey to their own bullshit.

Watch It: Rope is not available on any streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO). It is available to rent or buy on iTunes or Amazon Prime, and can be found at almost any existing rental store or library collection.

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