Blu-ray Review: Rope

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: 04/Jun/2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:20:48

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 24-bit)

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.35:1

Bitrate: 32 Mbps

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

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“…I abandoned pure cinema in an effort to make the stage play mobile. With a flowing camera, the film played in its own time. There were no dissolves [and] no time-lapses in it. It was continuous action and I thought it also ought to have a continuous flow of camera narrative as well. I think it was an error technically, because one abandoned pure cinema for it. But when you take a stage play in one room, it is very hard to cut it up.” –Alfred Hitchcock

One cannot blame Alfred Hitchcock for feeling experimental after being under contract to David O. Selznick. The director had already established a production company with Sidney Bernstein called Transatlantic Pictures in anticipation of his emancipation from Selznick. Rope ended up being the first of two films made for Transatlantic before the company was dissolved.

In a Popular Photography article that was published in November of 1948, the director explains his reasoning behind shooting the film in long uninterrupted takes:

“A long time ago I said that I would like to film in two hours a fictional story that actually happens in two hours. I wanted to do a picture with no time lapses — a picture in which the camera never stops.

In Rope I got my wish. It was a picture unlike any other I’ve ever directed. True, I had experimented with a roving camera in isolated sequences in such films as Spellbound, Notorious, and The Paradine Case. But until Rope came along, I had been unable to give full rein to my notion that a camera could photograph one complete reel at a time, gobbling up 11 pages of dialogue on each shot, devouring action like a giant steam shovel.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

These uninterrupted takes are the focus of a lot of debate and is the primary focus of nearly everything that is written about the film (and for good reason). It was a first in cinema. An accomplished director was essentially risking his future success in order to advance his art and his understanding of cinema (even if he did not realize it). The production wouldn’t be an easy one. Even the subject matter was risky! The script needed special handling in order to get the unusual content past the censors.

To help him adapt Patrick Hamilton’s play into a usable screenplay (where the action is moved from London to New York City), the director chose his friend Hume Cronym. Changes were made from the original play. For example, the theatrical tickets that provided an essential clue in the play were omitted in favor of initials in a hat that does not fit Rupert’s head. Characters from the play were also omitted (or traded in for new characters) and names were changed. Once a treatment was written, Hitchcock was ready to work on the screenplay:

“Broadway playwright Arthur Laurents wrote the screenplay, the first time a scenario was written without time lapses. Laurents’ scenes were unnumbered and there was almost no camera direction, merely indications of the changing camera position at major points throughout the story.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Laurents would combine dialogue from the play with his own dialogue. His script handled the subtext of homosexuality extremely carefully in order to appease the censors. However, the censors would not be Hitchcock’s largest obstacle. His new method of shooting would require a set that would accommodate his huge Technicolor camera.

Set Drawing

Surprisingly, the apartment itself was the least of his worries. The New York skyline that can be seen from the apartment window also created challenges, and these challenges only stimulated the director’s excitement for the project.

…The most magical of all the devices was the cyclorama — an exact miniature reproduction of nearly 35 miles of New York skyline lighted by 8,000 incandescent bulbs and 200 neon signs requiring 150 transformers.

On film the miniature looks exactly like Manhattan at night as it would appear from the window of an apartment at 54th Street and First Avenue, the locale of the play. And since all the major action of Rope takes place in the living room of this apartment, with the spectators constantly viewing the background, it was impossible to use process shots or a backdrop. Both would have been too flat. We had to remember the core of the arc of view. So we had to employ the scale cyclorama and devise a “light organ” that not only would light the miniature and its panorama of buildings, but also could give us changing sky and cloud effects varying from sunset to dark — all seen from the apartment — to denote the passing of time…

…That electrician who sat high on a parallel behind the camera manipulating the light organ controlled the lighting of the miniature like an artist at a console. He could illuminate an entire building or just one window at a time. He could, at the exact and rehearsed line of dialogue which gave him his cue, flood the Manhattan skyline with light from 200 miniature neon signs. By the time the picture went from the setting of the sun in the first reel to the hour of total darkness in the final denouement, the man at the light organ had played a nocturnal Manhattan symphony in light…”  -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Some of the director’s lighting issues were solved by a surprising source:

“There was one rather knotty problem that Jimmy Stewart, recalling his experiences in the Air Force, helped us solve. In the final moments of the story when the body is discovered and the killers are trapped, the apartment living room is flooded at intervals by great pulsations of light from a huge neon “Storage” sign just outside the window. I wanted the effect to add dramatic tension, much like the increasing crescendos of an orchestra at the climax of a symphony.

But for a while our electrical experts were stumped. They knew that in order to get enough light into the room during the sign’s pulsations, huge arc lights would have to be hooked up on a special parallel with the actual sign – then synchronized. Then Stewart thought of the bomb release switch used in heavy bombers during the war. This switch controlled electrically the split second intervals during which bombs were dropped over the target. So we bought a bomb release at a war surplus store, adjusted it to synchronize the alternate flashing of the neon “Storage” sign with the opening and closing of these shutters on the three huge floodlights, and got exactly the effect we wanted.

Those 200 miniature neon signs in the New York skyline cyclorama helped me solve a little problem of my own. It’s traditional, with me at least, that I appear fleetingly in every one of my pictures. But Rope, with a cast of only nine people who never leave the apartment, looked like the end of the Hitchcock tradition. There was just no way that I could get into the act.

Then someone came up with a solution. The result? The Hitchcock countenance will appear in a neon ‘Reduco’ sign on the side of a miniature building!” –Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Hitchcock Posing with Rope's Clouds

Even the clouds that were seen through the window managed to create problems:

“Searching for what I demanded in a natural-seeming sky, I rejected the two routine methods of getting clouds. We could have painted them on the cyclorama, or we could have projected the clouds on the backdrop by means of painted lantern slides. But we did neither. I wanted the clouds to look like clouds even from ten feet away.

It was Fred Ahern, our production manager, who found the solution to the puzzle. Ahern came up with the perfect light-reflecting substance — spun glass. (Cotton wouldn’t do because it soaks up and deadens light.) Five hundred pounds of spun glass were woven by scenic artists into chicken wire molds. Then actual clouds were photographed in all kinds of weather. We discovered that clouds are never the same even when the weather is constant, and it makes no difference what shape they are. Finally we decided on the cumulus or storm cloud, because it is white and fleecy before it turns gray and formidable. Every possible shaped cloud was created out of spun glass: wispy and full; fragile and menacing, circular and long.

Rope shows eight complete cloud changes during its nine reels. (The spun glass clouds were hung on standards and on overhead wires behind the buildings in the cyclorama – then slightly varied after each reel.) As a final check on our meteorology, we asked Dr. Dinsmore Alter of the famed Griffith Observatory for his opinion…” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Set Drawing full article

The set for the apartment itself was so unusual that Look’s review of the film included a diagram of the apartment set:

“Naturally, in rolling a camera back and forth in a three-room apartment for 10 minutes without a halt (from living room to kitchen and back) we had to have a collapsible apartment. Actually, the basic element was the series of wild walls. (“Wild” is a term used to designate moveable or detachable flats.) In Rope the walls were quite literally wild. They rolled on overhead tracks heavily greased with Vaseline to soundproof the skids. A separate crew stood by to roll each wall at a given cue, admitting the camera when the actors had gone through the door. When the players returned in the same shot, the wall closed and the Technicolor camera dollied back to pick up a new angle during the split second needed to make the room solid again.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Obviously, the shooting required an unbelievable amount of planning. There were many technical considerations to consider before production could commence. Hitchcock usually preferred the 50mm lens, but Rope required a different approach:

“Joe Valentine and I decided that one lens — a 35 mm — would give us all the coverage we needed, since it would be impossible to change lenses because of the continuous camera movement. Paul Hill, our Technicolor consultant, solved the problem of parallax, successfully modifying the camera for close-ups so that we could move in close enough to shoot the inside of a man’s hat and the label on a hatband. And instead of following the camera with a mike boom, which would have created an insurmountable problem, we decided that the simplest solution was not to follow it. Instead, we set up four separate booms and two additional microphones up high. Operated by six sound men, these mikes picked up dialogue anywhere the camera wandered within the three-room apartment.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Despite this new method of recording the dialogue, getting usable sound was one of the more difficult aspects of the production. James Stewart elaborated about the sound issues in an interview with Donald Spoto:

“We had a lot of rehearsal, but the noise of the moving walls was a problem, and so we had to do the whole thing over again for sound, with just the microphones, like a radio play. The dialogue track was then added later.” –James Stewart (The Dark Side of Genius: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock)

In addition to the dialogue, Hitchcock was able to achieve an incredibly realistic ambience that featured the life of New York’s street life in the distance. This also posed a challenge for the director:

“I made them put a microphone six stories high and I gathered a group of people below on the sidewalk and had them talk about the shots. As for the police siren, they told me they had one in the sound library. I asked them, ‘How are you going to give the impression of distance?’ and they answered, ‘We’ll make it soft at first, and then we’ll bring it up loud.” But, I didn’t want it done that way. I made them get an ambulance with a siren. We placed the microphone at the studio gate and sent the ambulance two miles away and that’s the way we made the soundtrack.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Music was also handled in an unusual manner. David Buttolph was the unaccredited composer of music heard in the film’s opening and closing credits, but only diegetic music is heard throughout the rest of the film. Therefore, we only hear music when Philip (Farley Granger) is seen playing Poulenc’s Perpetual Motion on the piano. One might notice that the title of the piece of music is rather revealing. The camera and the characters are almost always in motion, as are the minds of the two murderers and their guests.

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None of these challenges seem to compare to the obvious challenge of actually shooting the film. In order for all of these elements to come together, actors and crew members would have to do their jobs perfectly for ten minute stretches. This required an extended rehearsal period:

“Instead of reading the script through once or twice, the cast spent two weeks walking through the action from the beginning to the end, much like a stage play. Remember we weren’t shooting just a line at a time, nor shifting our camera setup after a one-minute take. There were ten to eleven pages of dialogue on each shot. Actually, for the camera rehearsals we used no stand-ins as such. The stars themselves acted as puppets for the camera. After the camera movement rehearsals there were intensive dress rehearsals, when everyone’s job, from script supervisor to prop man, was coordinated… The maximum number of takes on any single reel was six and the minimum was three.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

The rehearsals were apparently not a cure all for human imperfection because Hitchcock was given a glimpse of what he was up against in the very first take:

“…I was so scared that something would go wrong that I couldn’t even look during the first take. For eight minutes of consecutive shooting everything went smoothly. Then the camera panned around as the two killers walked back toward the chest, and there, right in camera focus, was an electrician standing by the window! So the first take was ruined.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This isn’t surprising. The obstacles that the cast and crew faced seemed almost infinite. There were so many little things that could go wrong at any moment:

“…In the studio, the stage (actually a stage within a stage, made noiseless by constructing a special floor one and one-half inch above the regular one, soundproofed with layers of Celotex and carpet) was marked with numbered circles. These indicated where each specific camera stop had to be made, and when. Each camera movement — and there were as many as 30 separate ones — had its predetermined focus. Because of this the crew men operating the camera had to hit the floor markings exactly on cue and without deviations. The entire floor plan was laid out in foot squares so that in the event of retakes we could go back to the exact spot.

For the actual take the door markings were removed and plotted on a board. Holding the cue board the script supervisor signaled the camera crew on every movement during the 10-minute take. It was like one of those fabulous “Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance” triple plays. To cue each separate camera movement (and everything had to be done in utter silence) the script supervisor would check his cue board – then nod to a crew man on his left who held a long bamboo pointer. This crew man placed the end of the pointer on a predetermined spot on the floor. His action triggered Morris Rosen, the head grip, who dollied the camera to the new position, while the focus puller on the camera crane, watching his own cue sheet, simultaneously changed the focus on the camera lens…” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

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The camera wasn’t the only inanimate object that had to be in nearly constant motion in order to accommodate Hitchcock’s revolutionary new shooting method:

“Every piece of furniture on the stage — every table, chair, plate, dish, and drinking glass — had to be moved on cue just like the wooden chest. Once, while the characters in the play were eating a buffet supper, Joan Chandler, who played the feminine lead, had to put her wine glass down on a table. But the table was gone. Joan merely put the glass down where the table should have been, one of the crouching prop men (unseen by the camera, of course) raised his hand and Joan’s glass found a resting place in it. Another time an actor had to reach for a plate off the unseen table. Again a prop man moved in, handed the actor a plate, and the action went on. It really was uncanny.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

This particular challenge was especially difficult for Dick Hogan (the actor who played David):

“…This chest with the body inside of it was always in the center of the living room — so far as the audience is aware.

Yet, actually every time the camera crossed the room the chest had to be rolled off stage just in advance of the camera crane. (We couldn’t stop to make new camera setups.) Moving the chest was the assignment of the four prop men crouched on their hands and knees beneath the camera. Not only did they have to move the chest aside on cue but they also had to get it back into the scene again as the camera returned.

And all the time the young actor who played the strangled youth had to remain inside the chest! Since there were no time lapses or camera cuts in the usual scene, he was inside the chest for a full ten minutes, the shooting of 950 feet of film. After the third take, this actor began to get, well, a little tired. ‘I hope to God they get it on this take,’ he said fervently. ‘Those ten minutes seem like ten hours.’” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Hogan had it much easier than the rest of the cast. He only had to be in that trunk for one reel. The rest of the cast had to flawlessly say their lines and hit their marks for ten minutes with walls and furniture moving at random all around them. James Stewart was extremely uncomfortable with this new shooting. As a matter of fact, the process was so stressful that the actor was unable to sleep at night:

“Stewart, of course, claimed that Rope was the toughest job an actor ever had. And I agreed with him. He told me that he wasn’t sleeping nights. ‘What this means,’ Jimmy said, ‘is that if the rest of the cast is perfect and I fluff a line at, say 895 feet, it becomes the colossal fluff in screen history. The only way it can be reshot is to do the whole scene over again.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s exactly why I picked you for the lead.’

As it was, Stewart had to hang around the set 18 days before making a bona fide entrance for the rolling camera. It was the final dress rehearsal for Reel 3 in which Jimmy makes an entrance while Farley Granger is playing the piano. The piano stopped and silence ensued, as all eyes went to Stewart. He just made it into the room and was ready to open his mouth. ‘Just a minute,’ I said. ‘I’d like you to make your entrance differently.’

Jimmy punched the air in a defeated gesture. ‘Hey, look,’ he complained, ‘I’ve waited three weeks for this!’” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

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Of course, the films huge Technicolor cameras didn’t make the process any easier:

“Technicolor helped but it wasn’t the star of the picture. Rope, incidentally, is the first time I’ve ever directed a Technicolor picture. I never wanted to make a Technicolor picture merely for the sake of using color. I waited until I could find a story in which color could play a dramatic role, and still be muted to a low key. In Rope, sets and costumes are neutralized so that there are no glaring contrasts. The key role played by color in this film is in the background. I insisted that color be used purely as the eye received it.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

If Hitchcock decided to make the film in color in order to give himself another new challenge to overcome, he succeeded admirably:

“Towards the last four or five reels, in other words, by sunset, I realized that the orange in the sun was far too strong, and on account of that we did the last five reels all over again…The cameraman on Rope [Joseph Valentine] simply said to himself, ‘Well, it’s just another sunset.’ Obviously, he hadn’t looked at one in a long time, if ever at all, and what he did was completely unacceptable; it was like a lurid postcard… After four or five days the cameraman went off ‘sick.’ So I wound up with a Technicolor consultant, and he completed the job with the help of the chief electrician.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

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Obviously, there was little editing to be done on the film once the re-shoots were complete. The completed film is made up of eleven shots (if one includes the opening credits).

The following is a list of shot lengths:

Shot #1 (Opening Credits) – 02:30

Shot #2 – 09:34

Shot #3 – 07:51

Shot #4 – 07:18

Shot #5 – 07:08

Shot #6 – 09:57

Shot #7 – 07:33

Shot #8 – 07:46

Shot #9 – 10:06

Shot #10 – 04:37

Shot #11 – 05:38

One can see that the common belief that all of the shots were ten minutes long is quite untrue. It is also untrue that the director masked every cut by having someone or something pass in front of the camera. The projectors of the era only held two magazines of film at a time. It was necessary to include a traditional cut on every other reel. This reviewer feels that these traditional cuts are less noticeable than those that are masked. For better or worse, the film was finished and all the director could do at this point was hope for success. A lot was riding on the film. Transatlantic Pictures and the director’s ego were in jeopardy.

Alfred Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that the film was well received, but a look at the major reviews written at the time of release tells a slightly different story. To say that reviews were mixed is being charitable.

Bosley Crowther’s review encapsulates the film’s critical reception nicely:

“The fondness of Alfred Hitchcock for cinematic tours de force is admirable evidence of the agility and aggressiveness of his mind. But it is also a disposition which sometimes leads him to stick out his neck and place it, professionally speaking, in positions of evident peril. It is in such a delicate position that his neck now appears to be lodged as the consequence of his having stretched it in his new film, an item called ‘Rope…’

…The novelty of the picture is not in the drama itself, it being a plainly deliberate and rather thin exercise in suspense, but merely in the method which Mr. Hitchcock has used to stretch the intended tension for the length of the little stunt. And, with due regard for his daring (and for that of Transatlantic Films), one must bluntly observe that the method is neither effective nor does it appear that it could be.

For apart from the tedium of waiting or someone to open that chest and discover the hidden body which the hosts have tucked away for the sake of a thrill, the unpunctuated flow of image becomes quite monotonous. And the effort of application to a story of meager range becomes intense. The physical limitation of the camera to one approach compels it to stay as an eavesdropper on lots of dialogue and lots of business that are dull. And the yarn, by the nature of its writing, is largely action-less…

…Also — and this may be simply a matter of personal taste – the emphasis on the macabre in this small story is frightfully intense. And it seems to this public observer that time could be better spent than by watching a waspish cocktail party in a room with a closely present corpse, placed there by a couple of young men who have killed for a thrill and nothing more…

… The use of Technicolor makes for realism in contrasting hues, but maybe the mood of this story would have come over better in black-and-white.

At all events, the picture takes on a dull tone as it goes and finally ends in a fizzle which is forecast almost from the start.” –New York Times (August 17, 1948)

The only point that this reviewer tends to agree with is that the film might have been better served by black and white photography. One assumes that the film was shot in color in order to enhance the effect of the lighting (such as the sunset outside of the window that caused so many problems during the production). Many of the major publications wrote similar reviews, but the film was able to make a minor profit. Unfortunately, the profit was not so great that it altered the opinions of John Q. Public and the film was perceived by many to be a failure. This is likely the reason that Hitchcock was so critical of the film and his methods during his 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut:

“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…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 for the visual narration of a story.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Truffaut recognized Hitchcock’s tendency to dismiss the projects that he perceived as failures and disagreed with the director’s dismissal of his experiment:

I don’t agree that Rope should be dismissed as a foolish experiment, particularly when you look at it in the context of your whole career: a director is tempted by the dream of linking all of a film’s components into a single, continuous action.  In this sense, it’s a positive step in your evolution.” -Francois Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

I agree with Truffaut. Scholarly opinion seems to be split today, but one feels that Rope cannot be discounted as ‘nonsensical.’ A look at the director’s work will show that the two films made for Transatlantic served the director well. Hitchcock’s style evolved because of his approach to these films. Rope is perhaps just as essential to the development of Hitchcock’s style as his move from Britain to America.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

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The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork.

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The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

While Universal’s 1080p transfer is certainly disappointing, it is a major improvement on previous home video releases of the film. Much of the film plays in medium or full shots, so the film benefits greatly from the added resolution. The 35mm photography is sometimes soft, but detail is often impressive in closer shots. The muted color pallet sometimes looks as if it isn’t properly represented, but this never becomes an obvious issue. There is occasional haloing and film damage is noticeable at times, but these issues are never distracting. One doubts that the film will ever look any better a home video format without a substantial amount of money being thrown into a restoration. The transfer looks much better than it has on any DVD release and fans will likely feel that it is worth upgrading to this disc.

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Sound Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The included two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix isn’t perfect either. Voices sometimes sound quite thin and the music tends to sound a bit muted at times. These issues never become a major problem, and dialogue is always clear and intelligible. There is little to no audible hiss to speak of either. The track will probably suit the requirements of most casual consumers.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Rope Unleashed – (SD) – (32 min)

Any documentary on the making of Rope is certain to be interesting. Hume Cronyn discusses adapting the play into a treatment with Hitchcock, and screenwriter Arthur Laurents discusses his work on the screenplay, as well as the rather risque subtext of homosexuality in the film. This is an extremely informative documentary and its only flaw seems to be that there isn’t more information included about the unusual method that Hitchcock employed to shoot the film.

Production Photographs – (SD)

This gallery offers promotional stills, posters, behind the scenes photographs, and lobby cards.

Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

Rope has an extremely interesting trailer that uses very little footage from the film. Instead, we see a glimpse of David and Janet before the former’s tragic death. James Stewart then addresses the audience as he discusses the case.

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Final Words:

Fans of the master of suspense and students of cinema should not be without this film in their collection. The importance of the film makes up for the slightly disappointing transfer (which is an improvement over previous home video releases).

Review by: Devon Powell