ROPE Deconstruction of a Scene: A trunk, a talk and a hat

When Alfred Hitchcock began production on Rope he set quite a challenge for himself in deciding to shoot the film without editorial cuts, other than those necessitated by changing film reels.  This meant that the actors would have to go 8 or more minutes without a single break.  While Hitchcock eliminated editorial cuts, he did not choose to have a static camera.  The roving camera became his substitute for cutting.

Let’s take a look at one segment, which lasts just a few short minutes, but has no cuts at all.  We will see how Hitchcock used the camera to create tension without editing.

At this juncture in the movie, dinner is wrapping up, and everyone is worried about the whereabouts of David Kentley.   The viewer knows that the body of David Kentley is just a few feet away in the trunk.  As Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) begins to clear the remains of the food, the camera stays on her, even though all the dialogue is happening off screen.

 

For two minutes of screen time, we watch Mrs. Wilson leave and return; once, twice, and a third time.  The other characters are all talking off-screen.  All we can see is a little bit of Rupert Cadell’s (Jimmy Stewart’s) back.   The dialogue is all about David.  Where is David?  Who last saw David?  Who spoke to David and when?  Hitchcock had to make sure that the dialogue was not essential, because he knew very well the viewer’s attention would be riveted by the on-screen action.  Will Mrs. Wilson open the trunk and expose the murder?  Finally she begins to open the trunk, and is stopped by Brandon (John Dall), who turns the two shot into a three shot.

 

Now the camera, which has been static for well over two minutes, pans right to show the others in the room.

 

The camera continues to pan right, stopping on Jimmy Stewart in a medium shot.  Clearly he is intrigued by the evening’s events.

 

Now the camera begins to track to the left, backing out of the room, as most of the characters head towards the door.  The camera lingers on Mr. Kentley (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) who is clearly distraught over his son’s absence.

 

As the camera pulls back to the entryway, we stop again as Kenneth (Douglas Dick) and Janet (Joan Chandler) create a two-shot.   This shot serves a couple of purposes.  It allows the characters a brief reconciliation, and it frames Hitchcock’s red neon “cameo” in between them.

 

Next Brandon steps into frame left, once again changing the two-shot into a three-shot.  This happens several times in the film.  Where a conventional movie would use cutting here, Hitchcock achieves his desired effect without needing to cut.

 

Now the camera will pan to the right, showing us two characters who did not leave the other room.  Cadell is still thinking, trying to put the puzzle pieces together, while he watches Phillip (Farley Granger) get increasingly drunker.

 

Finally, Rupert Cadell will walk in the other room to collect his hat and leave.  Now comes another piece of brilliant staging.   Cadell puts on the hat, realizes it’s not his, and looks inside the brim, seeing the letters “D K”.   In a conventional film, this shot of the hat would certainly have been a close-up cutaway shot.  But Hitchcock, by having Jimmy Stewart naturally lower the hat to look inside, allows the camera (and the viewer) to see it as well with no need to cut.

 

Rupert Cadell leaves, and Brandon closes the door, believing the evening to be a success.

 

So in these few minutes of screen time, Hitchcock has accomplished several things.  He starts with two minutes of tension building by keeping the camera static on the trunk.  He then uses the roving camera to show us every character in the film.  We see single shots, two shots, three shots, group shots.  We also get an almost casual glimpse of the final clue that will help Jimmy Stewart solve a murder.  And all of this is done with no cutting at all.     Some critics refer to this movie as a gimmick,  but Hitchcock clearly got the emotional effect he was seeking through the use of the camera, without the need for cutting.

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Happy Birthday, Jimmy Stewart.

James Stewart, the great American film actor, was born on May 20, 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania.  Stewart is one of the most celebrated American actors ever to appear on screen.  He was and is a truly American actor, an Everyman, someone with whom the audience could identify, and sympathize.

Stewart was incredibly prolific; in a career that spanned over half a century, he appeared in hundreds of films, television shows, radio programs, stage plays, and fought for his country in World War II.

James Stewart was nominated for five Academy Awards in his long career, surprisingly winning only once;  he took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1941, for The Philadelphia Story.   Stewart made four films with director Alfred Hitchcock during the course of his career, but was not nominated for an Oscar for any of these collaborations.    This is equally surprising, especially considering the power of his performance in 1958’s Vertigo,  certainly one of the most memorable roles of his film career.

Director Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart worked on three films together early in Stewart’s career.  This collaboration produced two unforgettable movies, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life.

James Stewart is one of the most decorated celebrities to serve his country in combat.  His rise from private to colonel in only 4 years is quite astonishing.  During the Second World War, he ultimately served as the command pilot of a B-24 bomber division, which flew many missions deep into Nazi territory.  He received the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, for actions he performed in combat.

Stewart was already a major star before the war, but it was after returning home that his career really exploded.   Consider for a moment Stewart’s film output during the fifties.  In this one decade, from 1950-59, Stewart starred in 22 films!!  His output just in this one decade includes Harvey, three films with Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo), The Spirit of St. Louis with Billy Wilder, The Greatest Show on Earth with Cecil B. DeMille, Anatomy of a Murder with Otto Preminger, and 8 movies with director Anthony Mann!  All in the same decade!  Five of the Mann/Stewart collaborations were westerns, including Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur.  These westerns, which were shot on location whenever possible, had a gritty realism, and featured Stewart playing characters who were hard around the edges and morally ambiguous, a far cry from the characters he had played for Frank Capra early in his career.  These films are credited with revitalizing the western genre.

Stewart continued to work well into the 1980’s.  He died on July 2, 1997.

Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart made four movies together.

Rope (1948) –  This is probably the weakest of the 4 Hitch/Stewart collaborations.  It is worth watching more for the technical proficiency employed than the plot.  Stewart was so unhappy with the technical delays that occured on set, he is rumored to have said he would never work  with Hitchcock again!  Thank goodness he didn’t keep his word.

Rear Window (1954) – Stewart was so enchanted by the screenplay, he agreed to take a percentage of the gross rather than an upfront fee, which turned out to be a very lucrative decision.  The film was a hit in its day, and continues to entertain a new generation.  It is routinely considered one of the greatest films of all time.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – The most underrated of their four collaborations, this is actually a very entertaining and suspenseful movie.  It also did quite well at the box office.

Vertigo (1958) – A dense, psychologically complex work, which features brilliant performances by James Stewart and Kim Novak.  This film bombed upon its release, and received little critical acclaim.  It was decades after its release when the true power of this film began to be appreciated.  An absolute, undisputed classic.

So on the 104th anniversary of Jimmy Stewart’s birth, I’d like to say thank you for all the incredible, memorable performances Jimmy.  And for your service to your country.

Here is a clip of Jimmy Stewart honoring Alfred Hitchcock, when he recieved his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979.

In the late 1980’s, five of Hitchcock’s movies (including all four Jimmy Stewart collaborations) were re-released to theaters.  Here is the re-release trailer, narrated by Stewart. (Universal Pictures owns the rights to all of these film titles.)