“Rope” Challenge to the long takes

- Hitchcock's Pure Cinema 07 -



I’ve been talking on this website about how HITCHCOCK loved to have something new in each of his films. He used that novelty to promote his latest releases. Unfortunately in Hollywood, artistic success in a film is not enough. Without commercial success, a film and a filmmaker are not highly regarded. HITCHCOCK knew this well and actively participated in his film’s promotions. A Hollywood film is said to spend an equal amount of dollars on its promotion as it does the production cost. For example, a film with the production budget of 70 million dollars spends the same amount on promotion and advertisement. That means in order to break even, a film has to earn twice the amount of money in ticket sales than spent during production. During the 1940’s and 50’s, the cost to promote wasn’t that high. However, the promotional tactics of HITCHCOCK’s films seems to be expansive and they were definitely the pioneers of today’s films. Techniques included unique film trailers on TV and in movie theatres, producing eye-catching billboards and newspaper advertisements, and holding production announcements in front of a large crowd of media. The film “Rope” (released in 1948) caught the filmgoer’s attention with two novelties: the entire film takes place in real time and it consists of only long takes.

10 minutes x 10 cuts

Two rich and intelligent young men, Brandon and Phillip, are both Harvard graduates. They are ardent followers of Übermensch, the superhuman concept, by Nietzsche. They believe that certain people exist above the ordinary human beings and the law. In order to prove that they are one of these superhumans, they plan a perfect murder. After killing a friend named David, from the college, Brandon and Phillip hide the body inside a chest in the living room of Brandon’s penthouse. In further efforts to prove how this murder doesn’t affect them, they plan a party right after the murder in the same room and invite guests including David’s parents and fiancé. Among the guest there is a professor, Rupert CADELL, who taught them the superhuman theory. Soon after Rupert arrives to the party, he starts to notice the odd behaviors of Brandon and Phillip.

This film is based on a theatrical play, which also is based on a real murder in 1924. Aside from the Manhattan sceneries in the opening, everything in the film takes place inside a penthouse, which was created in a movie studio. HITCHCOCK challenged himself to make this film with the fewest amount of cuts possible. A film camera in those days could hold only 1000 feet of film, which is equivalent to about 11 minutes. HITCHCOCK shot 10 long takes, each of which are less than 10 minutes long. All the cuts were done with ingenious tricks so that the impact of the cut was minimal and the entire movie seems to be one long take. For example: the camera would move into a close up of someone’s back and, after the cut, the camera then moved back to continue the story.
Within a long take, there are panning shots where the camera moves its head in the different directions to catch different actions: dolly shots where the camera’s entire body moves on a dolly, and zoom shots where the camera captures a closer or wider image by using zooming function. Using these techniques one after another, HITCHCOCK skillfully created different compositions of images such as wide, medium, close-ups, and extreme close-ups. Now, takes with different compositions are shot separately and edited later to complete a film. In order to shoot all these in one long take, HITCHCOCK needed detailed plans and countless rehearsing. We also cannot ignore the fact that this film was released in 1948. In those years, the camera was twice as large, if not larger, in size than today’s camera. The camera was not designed to move or zoom, and the camera dolly was even large and heavy with limited mobility.

It’s just a trick

During the shooting of “Rope”, the wall, furniture, and the props on the set constantly had to be moved so that the large camera dolly could move around. When the camera moved back to reveal a wider shot, everything had to be returned to the original position. Depending on where the camera rested, the size of props and furniture had to be altered. Most notably amongst these alterations were two different sizes for the chest, which contained the corpse. In addition, HITCHCOCK used only the recorded sound on the set. For this, the actors’ standing positions, their movements and the volume of their voice had to be planned in great detail. The siren of a police car, which appears at the end of the film, was recorded as an ambulance drove outside toward the studio, where “Rope” was being filmed. At one point during the filming, the camera dolly ran over and broke a cameraman’s foot. Because it took extremely long time to complete one take, the cameraman was gagged and dragged off the set as the filming continued.

HITCHCOCK himself once said that “Rope” was just a trick. Yet, the film had been an inspiration to many filmmakers of the time to create interesting and long takes. Famous long takes appear in many films, such as Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” and Robert Altman’s “The Player.” In the recent years, there were effective long takes in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” and Joe Wright’s “Atonement.”

When it was originally released, “Rope” received criticism, which said that the film’s tricks didn’t offer much effect on the audience. It’s true that using long takes doesn’t necessarily enhance the story in this film. On the other hand, it is not true that it meant this film is not good. On the contrary, “Rope” is indeed very effective with audiences and a superbly entertaining film. When I watched this film again after so many years, I tried to spot the ever-famous minimum numbers of cuts, which appears only nine times during the film. I had become so invested with the story that it was not successful in that endeavor. A good film doesn’t make you feel the passing of time. After all, it doesn’t matter how long or short the film is when it comes to greatness. What matter is the storytelling skill of the filmmaker and this is what HITCHCOCK did best.