Hidden in Plain Sight
Chris Wisniewski on Rope
Twelve minutes into Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, the film’s two principal characters, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger), stand over a trunk containing the dead body of their prep school classmate David. They killed David ten minutes earlier, at the beginning of this long, continuous take, by strangling him with the same rope that gives the film its title. Brandon has a frightfully macabre idea—to have David’s friends and family feast off the trunk during that evening’s planned dinner party, but they need a reason to justify serving in the living room instead of in the dining room. Then Brandon is inspired, and, upon finding the excuse he needs, reaches next to the trunk for some books; the camera tilts down with his hand and then up, into the back of his blue suit. His back fills the frame completely, and in that moment, Hitchcock cuts to a new shot, a shot that starts exactly where the last one left off.
This is only the second cut of the film (the first ends the exterior shot used for the credit sequence, and brings us into the apartment in which the rest of the movie takes place). The cut is designed to be seamless and invisible, a direct suture of one shot onto another. The object is to make these two shots appear to be a part of the same, continuous camera roll. And yet, the movement is awkward; the close-up of Brandon’s back is unmotivated; the edit is jarring and obvious. Even though Hitchcock uses his camera to conceal the cut—to erase it—it is unmistakably, undeniably there.
“Cinema is, first and foremost, montage”, wrote Soviet film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein in 1929. A Marxist, Eisenstein viewed montage as an artistic extension and expression of historical dialectics. Regardless of these political and intellectual leanings (which have fallen, more or less, out of favor in the past fifty years) Eisenstein’s valorization of montage continues to influence filmmakers, critics, and theorists. For Eisenstein, it’s not just that the juxtaposition of two images or shots can be meaningful in the hands of the right filmmaker; it’s that cinema is images, sounds, and moments of time colliding with each other to produce new meanings. The cut is not simply one cinematic tool among many; it is the essential characteristic of the cinema.
Eisenstein is not alone among canonical film theorists for assigning such importance to montage. When Christian Metz first applied the tools of linguistics to film, he saw the shot as the smallest discrete unit of a film, functioning like a sentence within written language. Sequences are built through the ordering of shots, as a paragraph is built with sentences, producing larger systems of meaning (brackets of shots Metz called “syntagmas”). It’s become commonplace today to follow Metz's lead—to speak of the cinema as a language and to talk about movies as though they are texts to be read, and those of us who have been taught to “read” a film have probably learned it, a la Metz, from the bottom up (the shot, the edit, the sequence, etc.). We read each shot visually, narratively, and thematically against and through the shots that precede and follow it. We analyze movies through their editing: the way it structures a story; creates graphic, thematic, and symbolic fissures and matches; establishes rhythm.
If this is the way we conceive of the art and theory of film, then what do we do with a movie like Rope? Rope can be seen as a denial of the edit, a kind of negation or repudiation of its importance and power. At the same time, the presence of the cut despite its elision, its status as “not there but there,” could be seen as the definitive test and proof of the very centrality Rope seems to deny—I'd be more inclined to turn to Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, a movie consisting of one single 96-minute shot, if I wanted evidence against the primacy and inevitability of montage. But then, there’s one more wrinkle to add, a fact about Rope that distinguishes it in a fundamental way from Russian Ark, and this distinction goes to the heart of the issue at hand: Rope was shot on 35mm film; Russian Ark was shot on digital video.
It’s hard to imagine two films more different than Russian Ark and Rope, but in at least one sense, Hitchcock’s ambition when he made the latter in 1948 was similar to Sokurov’s in 2002: both directors wanted to make a feature-length movie consisting of one single, apparently continuous sequence. Contrary to popular misconception, though, Rope is not made to resemble a single continuous take or shot. There are ten cuts in the film; of these, only half are “invisible.” The other five cuts are perfectly conventional, marking a shift in setting, camera position, and/or point-of-view. The movie consists of eleven shots, ranging from about two minutes to about ten minutes in length, and the cuts alternate between conventional edits (cuts one, three, five, seven, and nine) and invisible edits (two, four, six, eight, and ten).
The length of the takes and the alternation of the cuts were consequences of technical constraints, which were determined by the camera and the projection systems used to record and exhibit the movie when it was made. The camera on which Hitchcock shot Rope could hold a little over ten minutes’ worth of film, thus establishing a strict maximum take-length. It almost becomes a game between the viewer and the director: waiting for those cuts, knowing they need to happen soon, anticipating when and how they're going to happen. When the camera seeks out Brandon’s back at the end of the second shot, it pretty much has to. That second shot is one of the longest takes in the film, clocking in just under ten minutes, scraping the upper limits of the technically possible. As Brandon reaches for those books, it's as though Hitchcock solves his technical problem—where to find a moment to cut—just at the moment that Brandon solves his own puzzle: how to justify serving from the living room.
Hitchcock was dealing with another, less obvious constraint on this movie as well: A film reel on a projector could hold a little over 20 minutes of film at the time—two ten-minute rolls. This explains the strange presence of conventional cuts in a movie that so scrupulously avoids drawing attention to half of its edits. Every 20 minutes, there would be a reel change, corresponding with cuts three, five, seven, and nine. This is where we get the conventional edits. Since projectionists in 1948 had to switch projectors at the reel changes manually, they needed to have a little margin of error, a few split seconds on either end to make the switch. If Hitchcock had made these cuts “invisible,” it would have required an impossible level of precision at the reel changes.
Here we have Alfred Hitchcock, considered by many to be the greatest director in the history of the cinema, shaping his art according to rules determined by nothing more or less than equipment and apparatus—the physical realities of filmmaking. In this sense, his and Sokurov’s Russian Ark couldn’t be more different—it is the difference between shooting on film and shooting on digital video, and therefore, between editing as necessity and editing as choice. The difference is technical, but it's also theoretical and ontological. With video, there is still an upward limit (a maximum shot length), but the technology has taken that limit beyond the typical running time of the feature film. I'm not entirely certain what that means, theoretically speaking, but I do know that to watch a movie like Rope is to encounter an artifact of a specific time and method of making movies. It is a film in both the colloquial and the technical sense, and its status as such is reiterated every time there’s a cut. Had Hitchcock made it today, he could have, and perhaps would have, made it differently, but it wouldn't necessarily be a film, nor would it necessarily be the same film. Just imagine this movie on DV—how the camera would move differently and how the sense of time and space would change if there were no need for those cuts, cuts we start waiting for as early as that second shot, because we know they have to be there.
Rope is all about denying what we know is clearly there. Based upon a stage play by Patrick Hamilton, itself loosely inspired by the real-life 1920s killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Rope centers on a pair of young intellectuals, Brandon and Phillip, who commit a murder purely for the thrill of it. They fancy themselves superior creatures, Nietzschen Supermen, and, thanks to the philosophical guidance of their former teacher Rupert (James Stewart), they believe their superior status confers upon them a kind of divine right to take another person's life at their discretion. Their lofty self-assessments are the stated motive for a carefully orchestrated—and ultimately, poorly executed—murder: they lure David to their apartment (which they apparently share), kill him, stuff him in a trunk in the middle of the room, and go on to host a dinner party for David's friends and family, as well as their mutual former teacher.
Since we see David killed in the second shot of the film, we spend the next hour waiting for the discovery of the body. The discovery becomes the natural endpoint and the inevitable conclusion of the movie, and to make the big reveal feel all-the-more inevitable, Hitchcock's camera returns consistently to the trunk, which provides a kind of visual and narrative anchor. During the dinner, David's father and girlfriend fret about his mysterious absence, while Brandon and Rupert upset everyone with playful talk of justifiable homicide, again drawing our attention to the trunk’s contents. Throughout the movie, David is “missing” but obviously there, in every line of dialogue, in the way his absence structures the plot, even in the shot compositions themselves. David is a disavowed obviousness—something which is not there but there.
There's another disavowed obviousness, though, something hidden in plain sight: the unspoken homosexuality of Brandon and Phillip. After they kill David, they pop a bottle of champagne, as Brandon, with baited breath, shares his orgasmic exhilaration with Phillip. They go through the evening as a couple, hosting an elegant dinner party and talking about their prep school days, their trips to the country, and when they first met. After the dinner, Brandon plans on taking Phillip to Connecticut to spend a few weeks with his mother, before Phillip makes a Town Hall debut as a pianist. Brandon even suggests that they take a holiday when it's all over. This, it's fair to say, is all pretty gay, but the terms of this intimacy go unexplained, even if they are plainly understood. Hitchcock and his writers were well aware of the subtext: Dall and Granger were themselves both gay, and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the screenplay, even admitted to purging the play of its most overtly queer lines. While making the film, the filmmakers simply called it “IT,” the not-there-but-there queer subtext.
Whatever “IT” really meant to Hitchcock and Laurents, though, IT could just as easily refer to the corpse in the trunk or the poorly concealed edits. The movie is ultimately about all of those ITs: the thing hidden in the middle of the room, the thing written between the lines, the thing erased by taking over the entirety of the frame. Hitchcock and his screenwriters—like Brandon and Phillip—are bad liars; they want to get caught. As an audience, the fun isn't in catching them in the lie, but in already knowing that they're lying and in seeing how the lie is built—narratively, subtextually, and technically—and reveling in its untidy but audacious construction. It’s not that the close-up to Brandon’s back really dupes us into not seeing the cut; rather, it forces us to think about the camera itself, and to see the cut differently. Taken this way, Rope is no stagy theatrical adaptation or middling Hitchcock thriller; instead it’s become a trenchant psychological study and a singular technical marvel.
Realist film theorists have tended to prefer long takes over frequent edits because long takes maintain an integrity of time and space. But Rope, however continuous the action may appear to be, hardly unfolds in real time: Over the course of its 80 minutes, Brandon and Phillip kill David, hide him away, prepare the party in the living room, greet their guests, give them cocktails, serve them dinner and then dessert, and send them home—all before having a private post-dinner drink with Rupert during which their crime is revealed. It happens too quickly, but it doesn't feel rushed, because we have the impression of more time passing. Just watch the window. In the space of the film's running time, the New York skyline goes from sunny bright to evening dark, a subtle visual cue that makes us feel like we've watched an evening go by.
Though Hitchcock seems to hide them, those invisible edits give him the opportunity to make his painted skyline change incrementally, from shot to shot. In comparing the backdrop before and after that second cut, it's hard to notice much of a difference. A few clouds have moved, and the clouds that are there have taken on the slightest pink hue. Even the most astute viewer could hardly see it without a DVD and a frame-by-frame analysis. This tiny change is just one among many; it's a subtle manipulation. But it's a bold sleight of hand. We're so busy worrying about how Hitchcock is going to conceal his edits that we never bother to ask how he's using them. We applaud him for achieving nearly seamless continuity, but he's duped us after all, distorting our perception of time itself, with a simple edit and a few painted backdrops. Hidden or not, there's magic in those cuts.