Article: Alfred Hitchcock's Rope - A Film Ahead of Its Time

Lee gives us a history lesson in Hitchock's classic film, Rope.

"I'm so stoned right now.
Join me on this cloud."

Years after it's release, Alfred Hitchcock called his film Rope (1948) an "experiment that didn’t work out." He was relieved the film only received minimal re-releases during the decades following it's premier. The “experiment” was a movie presented in realtime. To help achieve this concept, Hitchcock decided to shoot and edit the film so as to appear as one continuous long take. To add to the challenge, Rope was Hitchcock's first color film, and the director wanted to showcase a sunset on the Manhattan skyline in the picture.

The film, based on the British play “Rope’s End” by Patrick Hamilton, starred John Dall and Farley Granger as two college grads who murder one of their fellow classmates to prove their own superiority. As a means to challenge the flawlessness of their “perfect crime,” they invite guests to a dinner party in their New York loft while the body is hidden in the room. Among the guests is the student's college professor Rupert Cadwell, played by James Stewart.

An impressive set was built, feature a large panoramic window that provided a view of the Manhattan skyline. This view was created using a massive cyclorama and model buildings that had actual working lights and smoking chimneys. Eight different fiberglass cloud formations were also built to absorb the multiple hues of lights that were to be used to simulate the sunset during filming.

The use of color added even further difficulty. The first Technicolor cameras were massive bulky machines. To create the mobility needed for the long takes, the walls of the set were built on casters so they could be moved and replaced to accommodate the  camera's movements. Furniture and props also had to be moved and returned, all during the course of filming as the large camera made it’s way across the set. Aside from the opening credit sequence that takes place outside, Hitchcock only used ten carefully planned shots to film Rope. A reel of Technicolor film at the time was only 10 minutes long, so each shot had to be meticulously outlined.

"Dude, how'd your hair
get so perfect? I'm jealous!"
The long takes also required further directions for the actors. Lengthy performances were nothing out of the ordinary as most of the cast were established stage actors. Though the unique set did add extra challenges with its mazes of wires, cables, and tracks. Not to mention the walls that were constantly moving just off screen. Rope required a extra degree of focus for all involved. One mistake by the actors or crew meant starting the long shot over, which required the unfavorable task of rearranging the set, cables, and heavy camera; or starting over in an adjoining room. During a press conference for the film’s release, James Stewart was asked about the long take rehearsals."The only thing rehearsed was the camera” he joked.

Once filming was complete, Hitchcock decided to re-shoot the last five scenes because he wasn't happy with the look of the sunset. Even after the re-shoot he was still frustrated with the lighting transition from sunset to twilight. It was one of the most difficult filming  experiences of the director’s career.

Rope struggled at the box office, and the reviews for the film were unfavorable, calling Hitchcock's filming method "gimmicky," and a "thin exercise in suspense.” Rope was banned in numerous American cities because of the films strong homosexual subtext. At the time of it’s release, The Motion Picture Production Code prohibited any reference to homosexuality on film. Although it was never mentioned in the picture, Rope suffered criticism due to the implied relationship between the two male leads John Dall and Farley Granger. The fuel for the implications may also have come from the fact that those actors were actually homosexuals in real life. The criticism was nothing new considering Hitchcock was known for pushing the envelope in his films.

"So, this is the scene where you
guys swap wives. We're really
pushing the envelope
with this one."
Another hurtle that hurt Rope was the theater experience. A movie projection reel at the time could only hold 20 minutes of film. When the reel finished, the movie would stop momentarily while the projectionist switched reels. Not only did this take away from the non-stop shot, it also created a hiccup in Hitchcock's real time story telling. On paper it was a great concept, but it was way ahead of it’s time.

James Stewart would later reveal he felt he was "badly miscast" in the film, and that Rope was the only movie he did with Hitchcock that he didn’t like. It’s was a unique role for Stewart. He doesn’t make his appearance until 28 minutes into the film. Rather than playing the typical good guy hero that he was accustomed to earlier in his career, his role in Rope is a conflicted antagonist. His crescendo of suspicion adds an uneasiness to the film. Despite his dislike, Rope was a much needed refreshing change of character for Stewart.

Today Rope has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Public opinion has greatly swayed in the movie’s favor, and many critics considered Rope to be one of Hitchcock's most fascinating films. Today the real time "gimmick" and non-stop camera experiment is an impressive accomplishment, especially considering the limited technology available when the film was made. With memorable performances by leads Dall, Granger, and Stewart, Rope unwinds with classic Hitchcock suspense. It’s originality and outside of the box approach rivals many of today’s recycled films. Years later, it remains one of the most experimental movies to have ever come out of Hollywood. While its disappointing that Hitchcock considered Rope to be a sub par stunt, today's audience have the advantage (and open mind set) to experience and appreciate Rope as the director originally intended.

-Lee Lind