Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rope', 1948

Fig. 1 Rope Poster
Alfred Hitchock's Rope was an exquisite example of what can be achieved without any dramatic editing.  This film is famously known for its lack of editing. Though there are many cuts when the reels of film run out they're disguised in such a way that the audience still believes what they're seeing is one shot.

Fig. 2 Phillip and Brandon being questioned by Rupert Cadell.
The choice to have minimal editing caused a stir with many critics as they found it to be too theatrical and dull.  Paul Duncan went as far to say that "the technique used to make Rope helped only to strangle the life out of it.  The film was further hindered by the ill-defined relationships between the characters." (Duncan, 2003:116)   He wasn't alone in this opinion.  The idea that the film greatly suffered from this decision was shared among many critics.  The film was believed to be too slow and uninteresting, forcing the audience to watch a fairly monotonous party with unestablished characters.  Hitchcock himself even thought negatively of this technique: "I undertook Rope as a stunt; that's the only way I can describe it.  I really don't know how I came to indulge in it...I got this crazy idea to do it in a single shot.  When I look back, I realize that it was quite nonsensical because I was breaking with my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage." (Fuss, 1991:120)  For the director to describe a film he has invested time and money into as 'nonsensical' and a 'stunt' is upsetting to those audience members that interpreted the film in a very different way.

Fig. 3 Tense scene that almost reveals the body.
This editing technique feels incredibly modern.  There are many films that are presently released that do not have the ingenuity to try and captivate an audience with one long take.  The most emphatic example of this is the scene in which the maid clears away the mess left from the ongoing party.  The camera is focused on her steadily clearing off the chest that once held the books upon it but now contains the body of Brandon and Phillips victim.  The audience already knows this and are forced to sit and watch as slowly, slowly the maid takes one thing off the chest at at time.  It is this time, in which the audience feels frozen in place, that makes the scene so powerful, not the chaotic editing from one face to another to the chest and back to the maid that is normally seen to portray tension.  Hitchcock was well aware of these stunning elements within his film and explained that: "I think that in editing Rope this way we achieved suspense and an air of mystery without transoms opening, creaky doors, clutching fingers, or a house filled with eerie shadows." (Hitchcock,1997:284)  This is exactly what he achieved.  By showing the audience the murder and then guiding them, literally, everywhere the murderers went, forcing them to watch with twisted guts as Brandon and Phillip accidently reveal themselves, creates more tension and suspense than any other editing technique could have.
Fig. 4 Brandon and Phillip with guests, Janet and Kenneth.
The theme of theatricality and of audience manipulation is continued via the murderers, Brandon and Phillip, constructing their own 'masterpiece'.  Running through the narrative are mentions of those who are culturally superior to others, their murder of David is because they decided he was inferior to them and that he was expendable because of it. Feeling that what they've done is above any law, Brandon confronts Phillip and says that "The only crime we can commit is a mistake. Being weak is a mistake." Phillip slams the books down on the dining room table and angrily replies, "Because it's human?" "Yes," " (Sloan, 1995:220) Brandon believes that to be human is to be weak because humans live within the boundaries of their morality and laws. Phillip is clearly the 'weakest' of the two as he suffers mentally from the murder onwards. Contrasting that is the ever confident and smug Brandon who decided that to hold a party in the room with the body would make their 'work of art into a masterpiece'. David Sterritt divulged that "In giving the party, Brandon and Phillip are staging a theater piece, of which they are the stars and the invited guests are the audience.  Adding to the richness of this conceit is the fact that Brandon and Phillip are themselves an audience observing the behaviour of their guest, who thus become unwitting performers of the piece." (Sterritt, 2002:22-23)  As the audience follows Brandon and Phillip they are made aware of the web of lies and manipulations they're spreading among the guests.  They were all chosen for specific reasons, David's fiancee and parents are both there sitting by his body, unbeknownst to them.  The audience watching the film is also being manipulated by the editing to be a party to this twisted game that they are playing. Hitchcock revealed that "The fact that the audience watches actors go blithely through an atmosphere that is loaded with evil makes for real suspense." (Hitchcock,1997:114), which it truly does. The audience is made to watch the scheme take place and can do nothing to help the guests from being made fools of.  As charming and witty as Brandon appears to be to his guests, the audience sees straight through it to the true condescension he must be feeling towards these inferior beings.

This film was a real triumph.  What started as a controversial experiment with editing became a suspenseful and thrilling murder mystery.  Though the audience already knows who committed the murders, they're completely unaware as to what will come of Brandon and Phillip until the end.  Hitchcock explained that "the entire action takes place between the setting of the sun and the hour of darkness.  There [is] a murder, a party, mounting tension, detailed psychological characterizations, the gradual discovery of the crime and the solution.  Yet all this consumes less than two hours of real life as well as "reel" life." (Hitchcock,1997:275)  A short film, which in one 'unedited' sequence of events portrays the murder, the murderers plans for escape and their discovery. To portray real time allows for tension to grow slowly and makes the audience experience and feel exactly how the characters would.  The theatricality of this technique is more enthralling than distracting thus Rope should be held as a brave and powerful film.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Rope Poster. At: (Accessed on 02.02.2010)

Figure 2. Rope (1948) Phillip and Brandon being questioned by Rupert Cadell. At: (Accessed on 02.02.2010)

Figure 3. Rope (1948) Tense scene that almost reveals the body. At: (Accessed on 02.02.2010)

Figure 4. Rope (1948) Brandon and Phillip with guests, Janet and Kenneth. At: (Accessed on 02.02.2010)


Fuss, Diana (1991) Inside/out: Lesbian theories, Gay theories. New York: Routledge

Duncan, Paul (2003) Alfred Hitchcock: architect of anxiety, 1899-1980. Köln: Taschen

Sterritt, David (2002) The films of Alfred Hitchcock. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Sloan, Jane E. (1995) Alfred Hitchcock: a filmography and bibliography. California: University of California Press

Hitchcock, Alfred (1997) Hitchcock on Hitchcock: selected writings and interviews. California: University of California Press


  1. Agreed! I always find it so 'redeeming' somehow, that an audience of cynical, seen-it-all, bright young things (that's you lot) can be 'got' by this creaky old movie - that somehow, despite the talky, theatrical origins of the script - it can feel so wonderfully modern and brave. If you haven't already seen Psycho, you're in for a bit of a treat!

  2. I loved it! The actors were brilliant! I need to see more films with James Stewart in that's for sure :P Also, No I haven't seen Psycho yet but I can't wait! XD