Alfred Hitchcock's
Cinematically Coiled

By Jen Johans

*Note: Contains Plot Spoilers*

Detours and Lost Highways, Foster Hirsch wrote that the legendary master of
suspense, director “Alfred Hitchcock is usually placed outside noir.  But at heart, no
director is more deeply noir,” (15).  While most critics consider his film
Vertigo to be the
first official noir film made in color,
More Than Night author James Naremore shares
that according to both
The New York Daily News and Warner Brothers, Rope was “the
first film in history to use color for a suspenseful story of murder and detection,” and
that it was the auteur’s first journey into Technicolor (187).  “
Rope is a psychological film
that can be linked to the noir series only because of its spellbinding sadism,” (Naremore,

The film tells the story of Phillip and Brandon, two young ambiguously gay thrill killers,
(inspired no doubt by Leopold and Loeb) who commit the perfect murder of a young man
and then stage a dinner party that evening, dropping clues and daring guests to grow
more suspicious of their jests and the man who has failed to make an appearance.  The
murder is committed just as the film begins with an eerie cavalier approach and
aftermath.  It seems “there is no motive for Brandon and Phillip to kill David Kentley;
they are simply acting out the existential theory of their former teacher Rupert Cadell,”
Teach Yourself Film Studies, Buckland, 90).   The film’s idea that “one might murder
someone just to prove that he could,” (
Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia) has caused
countless Hitchcock scholars to link the film to its sources of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky
(whose work is discussed in the film). While the film’s startling similarity to the Leopold
and Loeb case caused it to be banned and exhibited only to adults in certain cities, much
has been written about the underlying elements of homoeroticism that were especially
daring for the 1940’s.  According to Naremore, “Hitchcock escaped broader and more
official censorship chiefly because he based
Rope on a prestigious West End play and
because his treatment of amorality and homosexual love was every bit as ironic, indirect,
and dandified as the two characters who commit the murder,” (100).  The film’s subtle
hints of gay subtext are more and more apparent on a second viewing and with the
benefit of research as I learned on
Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia that the two leading
actors were gay as was the screenwriter and composer whose music is used.  Initially,
Hitchcock wanted Montgomery Clift and Cary Grant for the leads but both men turned it
down, perhaps concerned that they would be “outed,” (
Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia).

In addition to the ambiguously gay text of the film, over the years most critical ink has
been spilled regarding
Rope’s unconventional shooting style (the film is comprised of
several near reel-long takes and seamless cuts).  In
Hitchcock/Truffaut, the director’s
legendary interviews with filmmaker Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock tells the Frenchman
that he undertook the film as merely a “stunt,” (179). He explains his decision to impose
the strict rules of shooting in real time:

    The stage drama 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. (179)

Yet, Warren Buckland shares that Hitchcock’s self-imposed limitations still freed up a
startling amount of creativity as, “the camera moves almost continuously around the
apartment, in the hallway and in the kitchen, demonstrating Hitchcock’s skill in
translating mise-en-scene into mise-en-shot,” (89).  Indeed, the film seems to be of most
interest to film students, opening “a series of questions… about the basic principles of the
classic Hollywood style,” and “the making and reading of cinematic narratives,” as
Deutelbaum and Poague note in
A Hitchcock Reader (138).

Hitchcock/Truffaut, most of the text dedicated to Rope consists of the painstaking
and technical achievements by the director with "his first foray into color" filmmaking.  
James Naremore addresses the issue of color best in
More Than Night:

    One of the cinema’s purest aesthetes (almost as Wildean as the two killers
    in the story), he [Hitchcock] seems to have been intensely preoccupied
    with the lighting effects and the color scheme, even to the point of firing
    his photographer… Hitchcock made sure that color in Rope would be
    subdued in keeping with the upper-class, artistic—intellectual world in
    which the drama takes place. (187)

The film’s set was ingenious as well, with a specialized floor enabling the camera to be
more mobile and making the background setting to the apartment “a giant cyclorama
with clouds of spun glass and miniatures of the New York skyline lit by 2000
incandescent bulbs and 200 neon signs,” so that when action occurred, “the clouds move,
the sun sets and the lights come on in the city,” as noted on the
Rope DVD.

While Hitchcock has spoken poorly of his “stunt” over the years, Truffaut wasn’t content
to let him get away with his negativity.  In
Hitchcock/Truffaut he shared:

    I don’t agree that Rope should be dismissed as a foolish experiment,
    particularly when you look at it in the context of your whole career: a
    director is tempted by the dream of linking all of a film’s components into
    a single, continuous action.  In this sense, it’s a positive step in your
    evolution… [and] one remarkable aspect is the painstaking quest for
    realism.  (184)

Indeed, even though the amoral main characters and the rather suffocating feel of the
extensive reel-long takes inside the apartment (which make the 80 minute running time
feel like at least 120), the film is worth watching due to its technical achievements and
for fans of Hitchcock, interested in witnessing the evolution from the master’s black and
white works into the utilization of color he would perfect later in the 1950’s with
Window, Vertigo
(my personal favorite) and the gorgeous but minor, To Catch a Thief.
(c) Jen Johans.
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