80 min - Crime | Drama | Mystery
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Hume Cronyn (adapted by), Patrick Hamilton (from the play by)
Stars: James Stewart, John Dall and Farley Granger
It is nice having someone that you admire backing you up. Even if he doesn’t know it. This happened a few years ago when I watched Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. I found it dull and repetitive, but I wouldn’t dare saying out loud. It’s an unquestionable masterpiece, isn’t it? Well Roger Ebert begged to differ.
It is a terrible film, paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong and not even “manipulative,” because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but a true believer.
Every time I’m at odds with the experts’ opinion – by experts I mean the IMDB users – I refer to Ebert to fundament my opinion. This time it happened with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. I read about it in Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye, and its concept stirred my curiosity. Rope is a sort of ultra-complicated getting back-to-basics. Hitchcock tried to make an entire movie seamlessly uncut, like in the good ol’ days.
The thing is: the good ol’ days weren’t that good to begin with.
Cutting is essential to film, and although Hitchcock tries his best to conceal the limitations of filming everything in one single shot, the movie ends up feeling more like an academic exercise than a Hollywood movie. Don’t get me wrong, it is a great exercise, just not a great movie.
Despite its 8.1 classification on IMDB, it was obvious to me that this wasn’t a good movie, and that this gimmick, if not the main culprit, was an accessory to the fact. Ebert to the rescue, explained why:
In an ordinary movie, closer shots indicate more intensity, longer shots are more objective. Camera movement helps establish mood. Close-ups punch home dramatic moments. Cutaways, or “reaction shots,” make it clear who is reacting, and when.
Deprived of the cinematic language, Hitchcock had his hands tied. Imagine Dickens trying to write a novel with a tenth of his vocabulary…
There are only 4 or 5 cuts during the whole movie, and they are disguised, though poorly, by the camera pitching in the characters back and emerging from the darkness. That means in a 90 minute movie, each shot would take about 15 minutes. The average shot length at the time was between 8 and 11 seconds and it has crept its way down to a range of 4-6 seconds in recent years. It’s incredible how Hitchcock managed to choreograph his entire team to work perfectly for such long periods of time. I can only imagine the frustration of James Stewart messing up a line 14 minutes into the shot.
The other thing this gimmick does, is making you forget about the plot. I just realized that if you didn’t know what the movie was about you still don’t. Sorry about that.
Brandon and Phillip, a supposed homosexual couple, since sexual tension is established, but not acted upon, has read a little bit too much Nietzsche and a little bit too little Dostoyevsky. They decide to become Nietzsche’s Superman and prove to themselves that they are not, in fact, bound by the laws of morality and ethics that shackle lesser men. They decide to kill their colleague David, hide him in an old wooden trunk and, as logic dictates, invite the newly deceased parents’ and a few friends over, to dine on the corpse.
Brandon thrives on the fear of discovery, but Phillip is the modern Raskolnikov, consumed with guilt from the moment the deed was done, and liable to give in first. I’ll just assume he’s the bottom. James Stewart plays one of the guests. The only one that, according to Phillip, could solve the mystery of David’s disappearance. Brandon has chosen him for that same purpose. He was the one that embedded these magnanimous thoughts on the heads of these two gullible young men.
The movie is a game of tensions between the couple and their former mentor, with that trunk and the fear of discovery always looming. But we take no part on it, there’s no emotional involvement. And there is such a necessity of explanation of these complex philosophical ideas that for a big part of the movie I go back to my tenth grade classroom, where I used to fall asleep.