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His first work in colour, and one of his most experimental, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope received a mixed critical reception upon release. And yet it seems to be not only a groundbreaking piece of work, technically and conceptually, but also a great film. It’s riddled with many brilliant little self-references and in-jokes. It’s clearly stagey, a play on screen and in words, and intentionally so. While it does not exploit the potential of the cinematic medium in terms of its traditions, instead Hitchcock pioneers all sorts of wonderful new things. He once told his daughter that he wanted to put a play on screen, and this was his chance. Rather than being bound in gallery or circle seats, the audience is brought within the action, becoming the lens as it dances about the cast (who, unbeknownst to us, must dance around the gigantic colour camera in turn). The making-of documentary is compulsory viewing to fully appreciate the degree of choreography required, and the phenomenal de- and reconstruction of the set that took place. Indeed, this demanded a sharpening of the already acute micromanaging tendencies of Hitchcock, to the chagrin of actors (directed by order, down to the minutae of facial expression). Every detail, before and behind the camera, lived in the director’s mind.

RopeIt might well have been shocking to behold in 1948. After all, Rope came out twice as close to the impressionist movement as we are today (if I might borrow a little from Stanley Cavell). In the work of those painters, the tools of representation were manifest in the image, in an endeavor to overcome the centuries-old problem of subjectivity, by asserting their presence to the world. With the advent of cinema, it became possible to come closer to achieving that goal, but by quite the opposite means – the motion picture asserted the presence of the world to us while completely denying our presence to it. The apparatus of the art form was immersed in the world, and invisible to the audience. We are not present to the scene, but the scene is present to us, bound by cell and screen, in time. And here, in 1948, the most gargantuan mechanisms of mechanical reproduction are deftly concealed within scenes that can barely contain them. But the audience sees what no one present in the making of Rope could see – the action from the inside, as imagined by Hitchcock.

Conceptually, too, Rope pushed the envelope. While never straying into exceptionally dangerous waters (it would take thirteen years, until the release of Victim in 1961, for a serious commentary on the intolerable status quo to emerge from the cinema) it was a brave foray into themes of homosexual identity, pioneering, as was the play on which it was based. Critics were right to pick on Jimmy Stewart in this respect – he clearly doesn’t have the charisma and sexual energy to pull off his key role in this essential subtext. Nevertheless, what is particularly interesting is how much of the exposition, ideas and character development, become necessarily on-the-nose, because there is hardly room left in subtext for such narrative trivialities. It would not have been possible to talk forthrightly about these issues, so they are stuffed in-between the lines at every opportunity. It’s easy to dismiss the script as too obvious, unsubtle, if ignoring everything that simmers beneath the surface. Where would there be space for the murder morality tale if not in the dialogue? Between every line is a wealth of sexual tension, suggestion, and furious intercourse of suspense.

Far more of far greater stature has been said about Rope, so I will conclude here. Of the many films of Hitchcock available on DVD, this is one not to be missed.


Rope, Dir. Hitchcock, Writ. Cronyn & Laurents, Prod. Bernstein, Transatlantic, USA, 1948; available on DVD


Written by James P. Campbell

01/05/2009 at 12:10

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