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At last he was free. For almost a decade, Alfred Hitchcock had worked for producer David O. Selznick, the greatest micro-manager in the history of movies. Now Hitchcock's contract was finally up, he had joined forces with producer Sidney Bernstein, and together they had formed their own producing company, Transatlantic Pictures. So why, for his first film, did Hitchcock tangle himself up in Rope (1948)?
Rope had not been the partners' first choice. An adaptation of Helen Simpson's period novel Under Capricorn was slated as their first production, but prior commitments by star Ingrid Bergman forced them to wait. Next was a plan for a modern dress version of Hamlet starring Cary Grant but the duo finally decided it was not to be. The third choice was a play Hitchcock had seen back in 1929. Its story was based on the infamous murder of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks by college students Richard Loeb and his lover Nathan Leopold in 1924. Loeb fancied himself an intellectual and sought to prove it by committing the perfect crime.
The play, Rope's End by Patrick Hamilton featuring not only grisly murders but also references to the murderers' homosexual relationship, was certain to make trouble in 1948 Hollywood. This was not enough, however, for Hitchcock. In addition to tweaking the censor's nose by seeing how far he could push the homosexual angle, he also decided to make it his first Technicolor production and film it in a radical style.
For years, Hitchcock had played with the idea of creating a film in one uninterrupted take. He had always loved technical challenges from elaborate crane shots in Young and Innocent (1937) and Notorious (1946) to oversized props in Easy Virtue (1928) and Spellbound (1945) to making an entire movie within the confines of a small boat on the open sea in Lifeboat (1944). However, there were also financial reasons as well. Hitchcock thought that by shooting the full length of the ten minutes of film contained in a Technicolor camera in one go, he could speed through the shooting in record time. Hitchcock would then give the illusion of a continuous take by placing the reel changes when the camera's vision was obscured by a person's back or a raised trunk lid.
Unfortunately, the process was neither easy nor cost-effective. Any small detail that went wrong would ruin a full ten-minutes of filming such as when Hitchcock discovered after several days of shooting that the developed Technicolor film was distorting the sunset he had so elaborately designed for the backdrop. Almost half the movie had to be re-shot as a result. Meanwhile the actors, even though they were stage trained professionals, were terrified to flub a line of dialogue as the mistake would require a ten-minute re-shoot. While they were trying to remember their lines and hit their marks, stagehands were whisking away furniture and walls to make way for the gigantic Technicolor camera. Finally, even the mild-mannered Jimmy Stewart had had enough, asking Hitchcock why, if he was so intent on capturing the feel of live theatre, he didn't just set up seats at the studio and sell tickets?
The ten-minute take garnered publicity for Rope but it did not bring in the audiences. Hitchcock, still unconvinced, went on to try the ten-minute take to a more limited extent in his next film, the even more unsuccessful Under Capricorn (1949) whose box-office failure brought Transatlantic Pictures to an end. Rope might have been written off as a failed experiment at the time but it was responsible for introducing Hitchcock to a valued asset, the actor Jimmy Stewart. Stewart was brave enough to work again with Hitchcock and together they created some of their greatest movies with Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958).
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producers: Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Bernstein
Screenplay: Hume Cronyn, Arthur Laurents based on the play Rope's End by Patrick Hamilton
Cinematography: William V. Skall, Joseph Valentine
Art Direction: Perry Ferguson
Music: David Buttolph
Editing: William H. Ziegler
Cast: James Stewart (Rupert Cadell), John Dall (Brandon Shaw), Farley Granger (Phillip Morgan), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Mr. Kentley), Constance Collier (Mrs. Atwater), Douglas Dick (Kenneth Lawrence)
C-81m. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady