Sunday, July 10, 2005

"Rope": The Movie Director Who Came to Dinner

This Part Two of a three part series.
Read Part One
Read Part Three

For a few seconds in every movie, Alfred Hitchcock was his own worse victim. He had a bus door slammed in his face, was soiled by a leaky diaper, and was harassed by a small child. Taken as a whole, he was the unluckiest man in all his movies. And he did it in the service of his signature cameo appearance.

But there is one noteworthy exception: his cameo in Rope (1948). In this appearance, the director was as untouchable as an apparition. He simply appeared in a darkened
window in the form of a red neon sign shaped into his famous profile:

As such, he was the very essence of power: a quasar of red, flashing, neon gas.

Hitch's red profile is much more visually arresting when you see this scene in action. But you get the idea.

In the film's much-hyped model of the New York skyline, Hitchcock's image is the piece de resistance.1 And that's kind of odd for a Hitchcock cameo.

The Master of Suspense had one rule about his walk-ons: They should appear early in the film. That's because they tend to take viewers out of the story, undercutting the mood and reminding them that it's "just a movie." For this reason, his walk-ons are usually so brief that the viewer must be sharp or risk missing them entirely.2

The director wasn't above hamming it up a bit. As Hitchcock scholar Susan Smith observes, these walk-ons entail a "certain relinquishing… of his control and authority." For a moment the director must submit to his wardrobe and make-up artists and take direction like a "mere actor." These on-screen mini-characters are often passive observers, helpless -- even the butt of a joke.

And then there's Rope. His cameo in his "most exciting picture" goes against all of that. First, it takes place toward the end of the movie when tensions have been ratcheted up. Second, it completely distracts the audience when it appears. Third, the red neon profile is, as mentioned, an emphatic symbol of potency, not helplessness.

His cameo also appears an unprecedented three times. Each occurrence is weighted with significance. The first appearance occurs just as Brandon has intercepted former lovers Janet and Kenneth on their way out the door to gloat over his success in reuniting them. It nearly steals the scene, upstaging Brandon's moment of triumph.

The second cameo coincides with Mrs. Wilson saying, "I'll need a key for tomorrow."

The third occurrence takes place when Brandon says, "I'll send for the car."

These latter two instances indicate that Hitchcock was exploring another idea with his cameos. As mentioned in Part One of this discussion, the script was subtly constructed so that any expression of self will on the part of the characters would be interrupted and therefore subverted. Hitchcock’s cameo played a part in that. Though Mrs. Wilson assumed she'll need a key, the fact was that she would never again return to that apartment to clean it. Brandon thought he was going out for a drive, but his next ride would actually be in the back of a police car. In each of these moments, Hitchcock's red visage intervenes, as if to say to these characters, "That's what YOU think."

The point is that all of the characters in the movie, with their subjective wills and private aspirations, are still subject to a greater Will. Call it God, Brahman, Destiny or even The Force. Better yet, just call it Hitchcock.

Hitch originally envisioned a gay love triangle between the principal male characters. But Cary Grant turned the role down for that reason. And James Stewart's wholesome, all-American persona scoured his role of any of those kinky overtones. Hitchcock's omnipotence wasn't so omni after all.

Rope was Hitchcock's declaration of independence from overbearing producers like David O. Selznick. In this film, he used dialogue, action cues, and other devices to point to himself as the supreme power figure in this cinematic creation.3 The nature and timing of the cameos underscore Hitchcock's primacy on the set and in the story.

But those cameos also presented a technical challenge. How to hide them so as not to distract viewers during the movie? The final third of the film takes place at night; once the sign is lit, it can't be turned off. The solution was to block the sign once it had served its purpose. This Hitchcock accomplished by strategically placing a statuette of a horse on the window ledge. One can only imagine the additional challenge that this placed on the camera operator, who already had an intricately choreographed role in the movie.

As for Hitchcock himself, he remained very much present in the film, despite his profile being blocked by that statuette. On the soundstage, he hid behind a camera; but in the film he hid behind a prop, a device that neatly references the Trojan horse -- an apt metaphor for a director who relentlessly invaded his audience’s psyche by operating under the guise of the romantic thriller. 4

What sort of invasion did he have in mind? And how does his cameo relate to it?

Hitchcock once said of Rope, "I wanted to do a film with no time lapses – a picture in which the camera never stops."

Had it been technically possible, he would have shot the entire 80 minutes in one take, obviating the need for reel changes and the gimmicky tactic of hiding those transitions behind blackouts created as the camera dollied behind an actor's back. If Brandon had hoped to commit the perfect murder, Hitchcock was attempting to create the perfect movie – one demanding meticulously timed and exceedingly precise movement on the part of his actors and technicians. It was a filming environment in which, as Brandon says, "The only crime is to commit a mistake."

As described in Part I, a carefully constructed hierarchy of power unfolds in the course of Rope. The women occupy the bottom rung, and Brandon and Phillip occupy the top; their male guests fall somewhere in the middle. Then, like an inspecting angel, Rupert Cadell appears and assumes the uppermost role.

This carefully attenuated and shifting balance of power ties in with the movie's main concern: that ideas wield enormous power and can be dangerous. During their school days, Rupert had indoctrinated Phillip and Brandon with the Nietzschean idea that the "privilege of committing [murder] should be reserved for those few who are really superior individuals." It was this very idea that drove Brandon and Phillip to "do what others merely talk about"; yet the arbitrariness of their crime alone excluded them from this group.5 In his climactic monologue, Rupert says, "By what right do you dare say that there's a superior few to which you belong?... Did you think you were God?!"6 In a Hitchcock film, there is only a superior one who can commit murder -- the director. Hitch spoke admiringly of Walt Disney, who had the best casting: "If he doesn 't like an actor he just tears him up."

Hence, all of these characters operate under a delusion of self-determination, and the only real power in Rope is the offscreen, yet omnipresent and omnipotent Alfred Hitchcock.

His deftly crafted, well-thought-out and impeccably timed cameo was, literally, the signature piece for this artistic statement. And for a few moments he stole the show, rendering himself in these scenes as pure light, pure energy, fashioning himself into that most powerful type of symbol: an icon. This was Hitchcock's first large-scale rollout of his famous profile sketch. It was his signal to the world the He Had Arrived.

But Hitchcock had bigger things on his mind than neon signs and a perverse urge to put fictitious characters in their place. Rope's message is as current as today's newspaper. Stay tuned for Part III.

1Here's a quick color analysis. The red neon sign points back to the red title credit at the beginning of the film and also forward to a second, much larger red neon sign whose light alternates with green and floods the apartment at the end of the movie during Rupert's climactic monologue. It's almost as if in this latter scene his neon caricature had moved from its location several blocks away to just outside the penthouse window. (The actual source of the flooding red light is a huge neon "STORAGE" sign. The word "STORAGE", of course, acts as an almost supernatural marker, pointing to the ever-present chest and its gruesome contents.) By means of the flooding red light, it is as if Hitchcock's presence is felt more during this scene than at any other point in the story.

"Rope" was Hitchcock's first color movie. It has been maligned at times for being too monochromatic in its use of color. For better or worse, this was a deliberate choice on the director's part. He wanted to avoid the lurid use of color for color's sake that plagued many movies during that period, and went after a more natural look and feel. In addition, he carefully selected colors for their psychological appeal. Couching them in neutral tones enhanced their effectiveness, just as a music conductor will keep an orchestra playing softly so that he can have room for louder, more dynamic passages.

Red and its opposite, green, are the two colors that stand out most in this film. In Hitchcock's world, these colors consistently symbolize the opposing forces of life/power and death/inertia. Many of the twinkling lights in "Rope's" panoramic view of New York are either red or green, suggesting a world in which life and death swirl eternally.

These opposing colors also point to the conflicting emotional tone that pervades almost every frame of the film. For instance, in the opening credits, as an orchestral overture pleasantly swells, the title "ROPE" suddenly flashes up in red, garish, screen-filling capitals. Our eyes register shock, but our ears hear a typical lilting Hollywood overture. Disconcertingly, the two don't quite match. And it's the beginning of an emotional dissonance that never quite subsides. Later, during Cadell's monologue, the room is filled with an alternating red, green and white effulgence from the nearby neon "STORAGE" sign. In an expressionistic turn, they provide an emotional accompaniment to the monologue. Note how the colors track Cadell's lines:

When you choked the life out of him?" (RED)
"When you served food from his grave?" (GREEN)
(Regarding their fate) "It's not what I'm going to do, it's what society's going to do." (RED)
"You're going to die, Brandon." (GREEN)

These glaring colors fit the emotion of this climax and point up the conflicting emotions that have been simmering since the opening credits. Not only is Hitchcock directing this movie, he's directing the audience too, telling us what to feel and when to feel it. He's playing us like the light organ that controls the set's New York cyclorama.

2Even so, audiences applaud, talk, giggle and otherwise "break character" whenever he makes his appearance on-screen. And in a Hitchcock film, the audience is as much a character as the actors, the camera, and the orchestra, the props, etc.

3For an explanation of this position, see Part I of my article.

4 Greek allusions come and go in Hitchcock's movies. In Homer's Odyssey, King Agamemnon was murdered at his dinner table "like an ox felled at the trough." The King lamented that murder at dinner was "worse than death at war." Did Hitchcock have that story in mind when he made Rope? That is anybody's guess. But consider this: In another version of the myth, Agamemnon's wife hacked him to death while he was bathing. Hitchcock was likewise able to reenact that scene in Psycho.

5Although Phillip is the more sympathetic of the two murderers, he is just as culpable as Brandon for their crime. Phillip probably was fulfilling his own sadistic fantasy when he choked the life out of David Kentley. Over their chicken dinner, Brandon relates a story from Phillip's youth that he sadistically slaughtered chickens by breaking their necks. On one occasion, he didn't do a very good job, and the chicken, "like Lazarus," came back to life. Earlier, Rupert had complimented Phillip for his light touch on the piano — good news for a musician, but bad news for an aspiring murderer. Guilt-ridden though he may have been, Phillip never expressed regret at taking a life, only fear of getting caught. Therefore, although he was apparently coerced into his role in Kentley's death ("You made me do it and I hate you!"), he will share the same fate as Brandon — the electric chair.

6Usually, in a murder mystery, the hero solves the mystery in front of all the assembled guests or suspects. But the final scene of "Rope" takes place after the party has ended and all the guests have left. In my opinion, the climax of the film occurs at its beginning with the murder itself. Hence, the rest of the film can be interpreted as an extended denouement. This point is underscored by a sort of post-coital motif that recurs throughout the film. In the opening moments, as Phillip loosens the rope around David's neck, Brandon shakily exhales. (Hitchcock, who ‘filmed his murders like love scenes and his love scenes like murders' infused more than a whiff of sexuality into this scene.) Later, after the guests leave, Brandon shuts the door and leans heavily against it — again exhaling shakily. The last instance occurs in the final moments, when Brandon, defeated, slowly exhales and pours himself a drink as Phillip plinks out a few strains of Poulenc's "Perpetual Movement" on the piano.

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