Bunny Hopping Through A Long-Winded Take On Mr. Hitchcock’s Rope

November 25, 2014 at 6:25 pm (Cinema, Kiran David)

Cast

James Stewart: Rupert Cadell

John Dall: Brandon Shaw

Farley Granger: Phillip Morgan

Joan Chandler: Janet Walker

Cedric Hardwicke: Henry Kently

Constance Collier: Anita Atwater

Douglas Dick: Kenneth Lawrence

Edith Evanson: Mrs Wilson

Dick Hogan: David Kently

 

“Hitchcock is the only poet maudit to have made money” Jean-Luc Godard

Most, if not all, of my friends belonging to an insane film-watching gang had heard or read so much about Rope and the long take that it, in many ways, preconditioned our sensibility before we watched the film. So when USIS—the American propaganda machinery which stood in comical opposition to the equally propagandist but less subtle HOUSE OF SOVIET CULTURE—announced to our joy a screening of this film, we behaved, I will not say like “bitches in heat” as it’s so politically incorrect, in the process denying the reader the imagery I was hoping to evoke, but settle on the a more polite simile “elephants in masth”.

Before viewing the film, what we were led to believe either by reading—or discussions with senior film lovers who had seen the film—was that Rope as a film is in one shot, and that the reel changes were cleverly hidden in blank areas like the back of an actor’s coat or walls etc, creating the illusion of one continuous take. Fortunately for us these were still the days of film viewing, even though it was 16mm, which has some problems, and not 35mm. However this was probably one of the two most traumatic viewings I’ve experienced, primarily because instead of settling down and watching the film I was terrified that I would miss the reel changes. So stressed was I that it’s surprising I did not go incontinent and defecate on the seat. The screening itself for me was a disaster not because of the film but my feeble psychological state. My response to the film became more valid from the second screening which fortunately I managed to slip into at the same venue without a pass (thanks to a Mr. Chandran if my memory serves me well, who ran the auditorium for the USIS).

Now to the movie itself, whose myth in those days stated that it comprised of one shot. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I say this, I do not mean the shots that are camouflaged to hide the magazine changes during the shooting process, as in these cases one has to look beyond the technical limitations, but the linguistic possibility the filmmaker is trying to open up. To accept this is in fact an act of faith between an artist and his audience no less holier than the covenants we have been told existed between God and Man in certain faiths. The viewer needs to respond the way Japanese audiences do to the puppeteers of Bunraku. What I am talking about are the shots or the cuts in the conventional sense. Rope comprises of ten shots of varying length in a film that runs for approximately eighty minutes. Of these ten shots, five are camouflaged and five purely conventional, a word I’m using more to state a point. While it is easy to get this information on the net today for any idiot information junkie, in the eighties one had only attentiveness as a tool.  For me, however, it was less important to figure the nature of the cuts than to figure out the “why”?

Before continuing I have to mention we saw Rope some forty years after it released in 1948. We were therefore already exposed to various films made later that used long takes, many of which fascinated us. Films that immediately come to mind are Godard’s Weekend, many films by Miklos Jancso and others who were not practitioners of traditional narrative forms. Though an outsider within Hollywood, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil begins with a long shot that sets the film up; something the stupid studio ruined by superimposing titles on and also changing the sound design. Fortunately for us it has been restored (in more recent years) to a version that is as close as possible to the original under the supervision of Walter Murch.

Rope, unlike most of these other films and even more recent ones like Russian Ark, has a narrative that is traditional. We therefore have to see whether the long-take that Hitchcock has used works within this traditional context.

The first thing that strikes a viewer is that the so-called invisible cuts in Rope seem more visible than the conventional ones. Creating this seamless long shot was always going to be a problem given the technology of the day. We have to remember that Sukorov’s more recent film used video technology which allowed him to make the film in one shot; the other filmmakers I mentioned earlier created their shots within the length afforded by the reel of negative. They did not try to extend the shot to the next reel. Hitchcock was, in some ways, fighting windmills and not a war. There was something heroic about it that the process could very well overturn. Further, the projection with reel changes and its start marks were going to undermine the notion of this continuousness. Also, from the point of view of the film language and not technical limitation, these hidden cuts seemed awry—they almost made the shots lose their purpose sometimes and messed up what they were expressing. It felt like the integrity of the moment was being compromised. This is a serious problem as Hitchcock normally is as precise as Bresson or Ozu in his film form. Despite these issues, it is quite marvellous the way Hitchcock manages to bring actors to the precise place needed, creating the necessary relationship between the actors and the space they inhabit.

On subsequent viewings I got interested in the conventional cuts, which for all practical purposes would have been used in a typical Hollywood film, though the rhythm, length and context of the shots may have varied from film to film. These conventional cuts, in a regular sense, signify key shifts in tone or narrative, but in Rope they achieve greater resonance mainly due to the relationship they share with the hidden cuts. The use of these two kinds of cuts seem to evoke something that  exists outside the narrative space and seems to be poetic and tragic,  while also making the viewing experience much richer as we ask why the filmmaker used these cuts without trying to hide them (as he does the others).

I want to mention a couple of things that make me revisit this film, but before that I want to digress and try to look superficially at some issues that rose during and around its production and release. Most of what I mention here is old hat that may (or better still, may not) have a bearing on what I hope to say later.

Rope is a film adaptation of the British play with the same name that was inspired by the real- life murders committed by Leopold and Loeb (who supposedly treated it as a Nietzschean exercise, something which would have a bearing on the film, referring as it also does to Hitler’s delusion). The play, I believe, was more overtly homosexual (I am deliberately not using words like “gay” as 1947-48 are the years in question). To Hollywood such a thing was poison. Homosexuality within the studio was, I believe, referred to as “it”. The job of the screenwriter was to tone down this aspect and also to make the language more colloquially American.

As mentioned before, while studio people referred to the film as dealing with “it” or having characters that were “it” (more to keep the film from being scrutinized by powers who could create problems), Hitchcock very clearly wanted the shadow of homosexuality over the film where sexuality and criminality are linked (and damned) within a Christian morality. Like Hollywood masters of that time, Hitchcock had the ability to bring in themes that interested him into regular, popular stories and knew, better than most of his peers, how to mould the screenplay to his cinematic needs. Hume Cronyn adapted the play and Ben Hecht worked on it (uncredited). Arthur Laurentis is the writer credited with writing the screenplay.

Laurentis, who was relatively new as a screenplay writer, seemed quite happy with Hitchcock’s treatment of the film but felt let down by the shot in which the murder by strangulation is shown. He did not want the murder seen by the audience, hoping to keep them guessing as to the contents of the chest, and possibly revealing the murder in the end like a typical film. Hitchcock’s was a far more complex idea, and in keeping with his position as a Catholic artist, he wanted the guilt very firmly placed on the perpetrators who are the protagonists of this work—Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan. Besides, it was important for the exposition that Phillip would be the person who strangles the victim while Brandon holds him. Besides visually expressing the nature of their characters in a shot (which is in fact the first to be cut into from the exterior post-credit sequence), it has a relationship to another shot later in the film (which is also a cut that mirrors this action and shifts the tone of the film), expressing a guilt that further isolates Phillip from everyone, even Brandon.

Other than the first shot outside the building on which the credits come on, the rest of the film takes place within the confines of the apartment in which the protagonists live. Beginning with the murder it takes place in between evening and early night. It is of great importance to be attentive to the way Hitchcock uses the entrances of the guests, the first of the two most important being that of Janet Walker (where he cuts in a way simultaneously revealing her and placing her between the killers of the man she loves therefore in a sense marking her fate). This is the only time Phillip goes to the door to receive any guest, Brandon normally goes alone to the door. Here Janet is let in by the housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson, off-screen, suggested by the non-diegetic sound before the two protagonists walk towards the door to receive her. The other entrance that is crucial is that of Rupert Cadell’s first appearance—the only entrance in which one does not hear the door bell nor see him enter; instead his presence is registered by a camera movement in one of the quietest moments of the film. Both these entrances have great significance in the way they are constructed— the connections they make and the bearing they have on the narrative process.

By shooting the protagonists like a typical heterosexual couple in the way they respond to each other, Hitchcock suggests the homosexual relationship between the two of them. In point of fact, the director gives the strangulation scene and the moment after a sexual and post-coital quality, which connects Brandon and Phillip’s sexual nature with the murder, making each act the other’s equal. As an aside, one has to remember both murder and homosexuality would be viewed as sinful within a Christian universe. I am not justifying this narrow view of sexuality but one must understand that in the late 1940s, and within a conservative Hollywood, one could hardly expect greater understanding. For Hitchcock, however, it is not the sin that matters, and he is not making an accusation but rather is exploring the burden of guilt his protagonists carry within a Catholic context. In many of his films, characters suffer from this guilt though they are redeemed in various ways, some even attain a state of grace. In this film however they—and especially Phillip, the clearly feminine part of the unit who is sensitive to this burden—will not find redemption. Brandon, who views himself as a Nietzschean super being who exists outside moral precepts, therefore does not feel any guilt, he however fears being caught and its consequences. Towards the end, there is an implication that by his transgression he takes on his mentor Cadell’s guilt, and frees him. Rupert Cadell has not been a part of this crime, but is present in an intellectual sense; there are other resonances outside the purview of this piece, which is already beginning to feel obnoxiously long, and not seeming to end. I am also omitting more complex issues pertaining to Nietzsche, and by implication, Hitler, both presences which cast shadows on the film; but those (and other issues of how Hitler and others misinterpret Nietzsche) I will save for something I want to write on post-war Hollywood cinema (which being a lazy slob, I may never get around to).

What the film does interestingly lies in the way Hitchcock constructs it, and the way he uses the other characters—the father, aunt, friend, absent mother and girlfriend—to allude to a shattering grief in the future, a sorrow which will not be present in the time of the film but after. Something which we will not see but will understand and experience through the nature and behaviour of these people. Also implicit in the film’s structure and in the way the director uses objects and space is this foreshadowing of the grief that is apparent to us but which the characters are ignorant of; in the process giving this evocation a greater sense of the tragic.

While watching Rope I sometimes wonder how the film would appear if we enter it from Janet’s point of view. While what I’m suggesting ties up with the grief I mentioned above, I want to incorporate the trailer of the film into the text, even though this reading could be a case of an over-active imagination. But if the little dog could tell his Master Baiter, “IT’S EASY TO SEE: THE CRUX OF THE BISCUIT IS THE APOSTROPHE” (to which the giant Monk after a pregnant pause muttered “EPISTROPHY”), there is no reason why one cannot proceed.

The character of Janet is quite intriguing. On the surface she is self-possessed and probably modern; she carries herself with assurance. It is also important to know that she has had relationships with Brandon and Kenneth (in that order) before her relationship with David, with whom she confesses to be most comfortable and in whose presence she doesn’t have to pretend to be someone else. If for a moment we look at the characters of Brandon, Kenneth and David, one has to confess the fiancé does appear the most conventional. Kenneth too as a person really does not hold your interest but somehow, by implication, David feels more conventional than even Kenneth. Kenneth’s purpose as a character in the film and Janet’s movement from Brandon towards David, among other things, seems to reveal the character of the dead man, and also suggests that Janet’s posturing as a wit is a camouflage of her more mundane aspirations. Hitchcock’s use of every character gives us greater insight into the work and has a bearing on other characters;  there is not one character who is superfluous—even minor characters like Mrs. Wilson, Anita Atwater (David Kently’s aunt) and the absent mother. The first part of the trailer of Rope seems more like a prologue to the film before it moves into a more conventional marketing device. Rather than using the word ‘prologue’ I should I think say ‘prelude’. This opening expresses the characters of David Kently and Janet Walker in a most economical way. David probably has more screen time here than in the film. Our knowledge about these two characters in the trailer is further completed in the film by suggestion rather than direct narrative. The tragedy that will descend on Janet Walker is announced in this prelude and will fully make its force felt in a time that exists after the film ends. The trailer gives pride of place to Janet and her expectations, though David’s parents and even Kenneth will feel the pain of this loss. I feel that by approaching the film through Janet’s persona, the tragedy has far greater implications. While maintaining the uniqueness of the characters who will be affected and at the same time using situations to evoke their regular and conventional expectations and making them the average everyday person in relation to the criminals—Hitchcock magnifies the magnitude of the impending tragedy and pain.

John Dall and Farley Granger are perfectly cast as Brandon and Phillip. Granger, who in real life, never hid his bisexual orientation, had affairs with various people including the screen writer of Rope Arthur Laurentis, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Leonard Bernstein and Shelly Winters, before settling down with Phillip Calhoun till death did them part. He also claimed to have lost his virginity twice on the same day, once to a prostitute and once to a sailor. All this would over the years give his role greater resonance. The supporting cast too works well. Unfortunately the most serious problem is with James Stewart, who is otherwise always credible and has worked well in other films by the master. In Rope he is fine as a wit and the person who solves the crime. By implication one feels that while he intellectually influenced the protagonists, he also has a similar sexual side which may be more closeted but exists nevertheless. This is where the problem surfaces. Stewart plays it absolutely straight, without subtext or concealed demons. Cadell as a character doesn’t realize his Nietzschean ambitions as achievement—he is purely intellectual. But as an actor, Stewart needed to evoke an undercurrent. By not managing to do this, his performance seriously damages the whole context of Brandon’s act (through which Brandon confronts him, inherits his guilt and, in a sense, exonerates him).

Stewart normally played men with integrity, which made audiences trust him; the studios probably used him and his history as an actor to diffuse the homosexual subtext and also the issue of the superior being which would have been problematic in the post-war years. Stewart would subsequently (and more successfully) explore darker realms in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as well as in the set of westerns he would do with Anthony Mann. Joan Chandler as Janet Walker is marvellous. I’ve never seen her elsewhere. Supposedly a product of the first batch of the Actor’s Studio, she appropriates the role in which there exists an inbuilt contradiction.

I mentioned earlier that my first two viewings were in 16 mm. I wish I could see it some day in 35mm.  Most 16mm prints suffer from shoddy grading and generally poor projection and aspect ratio issues. While Rope did not suffer much from aspect ratio problems, the print was awful and the change of light evoking passing time was completely non-existent. For me the big loss was not being able to see how the 35mm reel changes affected the viewing process, given the original way in which the film was meant to be presented. Today, with a much better print available on home formats—currently Blu-ray which can be seen on a projector, giving us the ability to view it at least in a preview theatre size, which is important especially for many films in the past and a few contemporary ones—watching this on a small screen is really stupid, as within the Hitchcock frame there exists more than one syntax between objects and characters; something that is explored even further by Godard. This tension created by the syntax is lost on television screens, computers and mobile phones. One should see it in 35mm as during the digital process they have smoothed out the reel splicing and cleaned up the reel change marks. This smoothing process unfortunately obliterates the historicity of the work.

One of the reasons I decided to say something about this flawed work by a great master is because popular cinema seems to have lost the use of any kind of cinematic language. I am not suggesting filmmakers should make films the same way as the masters of the past—language must evolve and change. Unfortunately filmmakers like Christopher Nolan who are taken seriously have no language, just bombast. He does not even manage to express his ideas cinematically and his recent Interstellar is no different. The beauty and genius of the old Hollywood masters was that they could take a commonplace, even mundane, story—often forced on them by studios—and yet transcend those limitations. They were able to express, through the stories, personal ideas that could be complex and poetic. Today, in an environment where the filmmaker, the critic and the audience seem to be a part of one marketing mix, sadly what we see (with very few exceptions) is what we get: SHIT.

– Kiran David

Advertisements

Permalink Leave a Comment

Myopia

November 23, 2014 at 4:34 pm (Dani Clark, Poetry)

You said once my hair

made you realize how you’d never noticed anyone else’s

proximity breeds this appreciation

brush my long brown hair

it won’t be so for long

 

so much is made of the big picture

perspective how you need it so

indispensable to seeing

the forest for the trees

or the universe

and our relative insignificance

 

I place all my faith in myopia though

 

in this one tree

in which the earth turns

next to my balcony

 

you too I see up close

what others never so far in

 

make me a promise

that when you a see a cloud

its shape a poem

you will think of my hair or hip curve

 

this kind of death do us part

a seeing magnified a remembering.

– Dani Clark

Permalink Leave a Comment

It Was A Mellow Scene

November 15, 2014 at 8:35 am (Dominic Alapat, Poetry)

 when afternoon light faded

and evening set in

over the green grass of the gardens

the white and yellow buildings

I would look up

at a second-storey window

bathed in light and shadow

at the blue or cream paint inside

with a picture probably hanging on a wall

the afternoon lovers leaving

the pink benches for others

who would soon arrive

a lone car in the distance

in the last rays of the sun

turning a corner

I would find the empty footpaths

blissfully asleep in the shade of the trees

and peace moved my heart

when the first hawker

arrived rolling his cart.

 

– Dominic Alapat

Permalink Leave a Comment

Always

November 11, 2014 at 7:44 am (Dani Clark, Poetry)

He totters toward me, always,

on his way to the commissary

and me, there I am, always,

rushing out of the building with my son,

on the way to school and I, always,

stop because we both like it, a kiss

on the cheek for him and a compliment for me,

that although still far from his 94 years,

I’m always closer to barrenness

than I was yesterday,

and his words cheer me, always.

 

A routine, this always,

he comes to get some watery coffee

drive back the solitude

by making easy banter,

with the fry cook and the neighbors

who come in and out, always

to get things like milk and eggs

or just candy bars and beer.

 

But each always,

always has a day

it turns into a once.

And for Clint and me, it was when,

instead of one kiss, I gave him two,

one for each cheek

and he held me closer

like a lover would,

a tear falling from one eye

and said and so sweetly too,

Oh! I could hold you all day.

– Dani Clark

Permalink Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: