Whenever one watches Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Rope, the first element of filmmaking that comes to mind is the setting: we, along with the characters, spend the entirety of the film in one location.
Rope wasn’t the first film to exist solely in one location but it certainly remains as the most fascinating. It’s like watching an episode of Murder She Wrote or reading an Agatha Christie novel, except our ‘detective’ is merely a teacher and our criminals are already identified by the third frame of the film.
Rope is often lumped in with other films in the mystery genre, yet it plays out like a bonafide courtroom drama in the house of a student. The mystery is erased before we even hear an ounce of dialogue, so why exactly is Rope so unequivocally engaging?
The film is comprised entirely of just ten segments with Hitchcock having pushed the boundaries of 35mm to its limit in 1948. Back then, you could only shoot ten minutes at a time before needing to change the reel. Rather than it being a limitation, though, Hitchcock pushed boundaries to turn it into a positive. After all, the first segment of the film that opens on the strangulation close-up (and ends with a blackout on Brandon’s back) lasts exactly nine minutes and 34 seconds.
Most fascinating is that Hitchcock wanted the film to have a documentary, fly-on-the-wall feel. It was supposed to be a Nietzschean insight into the mind of someone deciding to play God, deciding who lives and who dies, due to their own superiority complex. To ramp up this notion of the audience spying on a delicate situation, Hitchcock decided to make the film look as though it was shot entirely in one take. Due to the aforementioned limitations, though, it was impossible to shoot 80 minutes of footage in one take. Instead, the master of suspense decided to disguise his takes and hide them in the final edit.
Allowing the film to flow as though there are no takes places emphasis on the overarching theme of the story: manipulation. We see the two students, Brandon and Phillip, spin their web of lies before attempting to humanise their actions through various moments of dialogue with the victim’s friends and family. That one-take aesthetic allows Hitchcock to explore the nastiness of the upper-class while also inviting the audience to join him.
Without smart, disguised camerawork and editing, though, this film would not be able to hammer home any of those complex themes. Constant cutting would also make the overall aesthetic bland and nauseating since the film is shot entirely in one location. Time passes by naturally, characters interact naturally. But it is the unnatural style of editing that, ironically, allows the film to feel organic.
Hitchcock disguises his cuts marvelously and, for the time in which it was shot, quite ingeniously. It paved the way for a more creative style of editing, one that accompanies the film’s flow rather than sticking out like a sore thumb.
One of the most interesting hidden cuts is within the first segment, a moment where Brandon steps in front of the camera, his suave, blue blazer engulfing the lens. Momentarily, that allowed Hitchcock to make the cut before resuming the scene from the same exact moment, only with Brandon now walking ahead of the camera.
These cuts simply hide in plain sight and give Rope a free-flowing structure that makes the possibilities for character interaction seem endless. It almost feels that, at any given moment, the room could explode in hysteria and arguments. That unsteadiness is contributed to by the editing.
One thing that has always stood out in regards to the editing is that, yes, there are only ten cuts. Five of those are dissolves, the other five are hard cuts like the one mentioned above. Hitchcock, as an auteur, was obsessive. Every cut, every frame had to be perfect. It is not coincidence then that his ten cuts are divided equally. It is also no coincidence that the entire film alternates between a cut and a dissolve. This patterned structure makes the editing less obvious; it is less interested in diverting audience attention, rather merging into our consciousness without questions being asked.
Momentum is never lost, nor coherence sacrificed. This pattern of editing keeps the audience trapped in the same room as two murderers, hearing their lies and attempts to humanise their heinous act. The real suspense here is that. Hitchcock gives the audience an insight, but removes our voices. We are powerless in alerting the victim’s teacher, friends and family members. We are forced to watch it unfold, knowing that any bit of tension could erupt into another violent act of crime.
It is quite staggering to hear Hitchcock’s words on the film 20 years later in an interview with François Truffaut. “It was a stunt,” the British filmmaker said, “and one that I really don’t know how I came to indulge in.” Despite the director’s reservations toward Rope’s aesthetic, many still find it to be a masterclass in minimalistic editing and a solid foundation of shooting practices. It paved the way for freedom in handheld filmmaking and was the first real film to generate a discussion about the merits and art of editing.
In recent years, disguised editing has aided films such as 2011’s Silent House. Despite not being the greatest film, it is still a fine technical achievement in that it has just seven cuts and all of them are hidden within the final edit. Add to that more popular films like Creed, Anchorman, Back to the Future, and Birdman. Without Hitchcock’s pioneering of such methods, editing may never have reached the levels it has today.
Much is said about his excellence as a master storyteller and crafter of suspense, but Hitchcock was as much a visionary in the technical art of filmmaking as he was as a storyteller.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures