Scorsese Screens - June 2023
The further we get in time from the Golden Age of Hollywood, the more the generalizations about it, positive and negative, fall away. For me, it’s the individual artists that loom largest—Wyler, Lubitsch, Welles, Stevens, Vidor, Hawks, Ford, Wilder, so many others… and Hitchcock. With every passing year, Alfred Hitchcock’s films seem to become more rewarding and more mysterious. This was an artist in command of every single aspect of his art form, and that includes selling himself as a master showman—which he was—in order to give himself more artistic freedom.
For instance, Rope, which is included in this month’s “Celluloid Closet” program. When the playwright Arthur Laurents was working on the script (based on the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton, which was inspired by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb’s 1924 abduction and murder of Bobby Franks), he said that there was never any ambiguity in anyone’s mind about the sexual relationship between the two murderers played by John Dall and Farley Granger. Looking at the picture today, it doesn’t really seem ambiguous at all. Hitchcock was as deft as Lubitsch or Wilder at transmitting officially forbidden themes and events to audiences on a wavelength that the censors couldn’t quite tune into. In Rope, it’s a matter of casting, of a line here and an aside there, and maybe the fact that the movement of the action is so tight, unfolding in real time, that every element is seen in light of the mounting tension: when is someone going to open that chest and discover the body? And the fact that play unfolds in real time in a single setting gave Hitchcock the idea of shooting almost all of Rope as if it were happening in an unbroken shot.
To do this now with a digital camera is relatively simple. To do it in 1948 in 35mm and Technicolor, with one constantly moving and very heavy camera, is something else again. Hitchcock’s sense of camera distance tied to the emotions experienced by the characters is just as sharp here as it is in his other work: there may not be visible “cuts,” but the film is still carefully “edited” from moment to moment. Absolutely everything and everyone had to work seamlessly. A special floor was built for the equipment to move in silence. The technicians had to rehearse with the actors to get every cue perfectly timed, including the movements of the flyaway walls and the furniture. And the passage from late afternoon to night had to be rendered by careful shifts in light and the movement of spun fiberglass clouds outside the picture window over a scale model of a section of the New York skyline. No wonder the DP ran away after 5 days! Hitchcock accused himself of trying to pull off a stunt, which he did. But if that had been all he did, then Rope wouldn’t be the powerful and almost hallucinatory experience it is. There’s no one else like Alfred Hitchcock.