Blu-ray Review: The Lodger – The Criterion Collection

Spine #885

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: June 27, 2017

Region: Region A

Length:

The Lodger – 01:30:24

Downhill – 01:50:59

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

The Lodger – 2.0 Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 2304 kbps, 24-bit)

Downhill – 2.0 Dolby Digital Audio (48 kHz, 192 kbps)

Ratio:

The Lodger – 1.33:1

Downhill – 1.33:1

Bitrate:

The Lodger – 29.36 Mbps

Downhill – 15.09 Mbps

Notes: This is the North American Blu-ray debut of “The Lodger,” but the film was given a DVD release by MGM. Unfortunately, the MGM edition is now out of print. The release also marks the Blu-ray debut of “Downhill.”

Title

The Master Finds His Voice

PART ONE: THE LODGER

The Lodger is the first picture possibly influence by my period in Germany. The whole approach to this film was instinctive with me. It was the first time I exercised my style. In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture… I took a pure narrative and for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

It is rather easy to understand why Alfred Hitchcock considers The Lodger his true film debut, and the most obvious reason for this was his choice of subject matter.

“I had seen a play called ‘Who Is He?’ based on Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’s novel ‘The Lodger.’ The action was set in a house that took in roomers and the landlady wondered whether her new boarder was Jack the Ripper or not…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Obviously, the property was ideal for a Hitchcock project and the director tackled every aspect of the production with unprecedented relish. He had already worked with Eliot Stannard on the scripts for both The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle and brought the writer on board to help with The Lodger as well.

 “With the director whispering in his ear, Eliot Stannard wrote the script over the first two months of 1926; then Hitchcock went back over it one last time, breaking it down into several hundred master scenes, making notes and little sketches to guide each camera setup, ‘each one specifying the exact grouping and action of the characters and the placing of the camera,’ in his words. The script was always written with the flow of pictures in mind, but storyboarding was the final revision. Stannard was encouraged to suggest visual ideas, but again the more important contributor was the expert in continuity and cutting: Alma.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock’s first film to feature a man wrongly accused of a crime was considered a major compromise by the director.

“Of course, strictly speaking, he should have been the Ripper and gone on his way. That’s how Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes wrote the book. But Ivor Novello was the matinee idol of the period and could not be the murderer. The same thing was true of Cary Grant in Suspicion many years later. So, obviously, putting that kind of actor into this sort of film is a mistake because you just have to compromise.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock claimed that he would have preferred to have the Lodger “go off in the night so that we would never really know for sure” if he is guilty of the murders or simply an eccentric innocent. This particular ending reminds one of Hitchcock’s ending for The Birds. It is impossible to guess how audiences of the time might have welcomed such an ending, but it is easy to imagine it having an extremely powerful effect on the viewer.

“The script satisfied the front office concerns that Novello’s character be proved innocent. But that left the second issue: Novello was a stiff, mannered actor, whose technique leaned heavily on his repertoire of tedious ‘handsome’ poses. That was a challenge to be addressed in the directing, but one Hitchcock had already anticipated, incorporating into the shooting script a brooding visual design to eclipse Novello’s flaws.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Ivor Novello

Ivor Novello was one of Britain’s biggest matinee idols when he starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger.

Vintage newspapers and trade articles suggest that the film entered production in the early months of 1926 (as early as February), although Patrick McGilligan suggests that principal photography didn’t begin until March. Unfortunately, there aren’t many surviving production documents from this period in Hitchcock’s career, so a specific date is impossible to pinpoint. However, one can say with some degree of authority that some of Hitchcock’s already established crew returned to bring The Lodger to the screen—and Alma’s work as his assistant director and editor is no doubt the most significant. Baron Ventimiglia also returned as the film’s primary cameraman and lavish sets were designed by C. Wilfred Arnold.

Of course, certain scenes were shot on location which could sometimes be a significant logistical challenge for a film crew even in the silent era. In fact, one particular scene was such an ordeal that it still haunted the director over a decade later when he related his experience to the News Chronicle.

“…The thing I wanted above all else was to do a night scene in London, preferably on the embankment. I wanted to silhouette the mass of Charing Cross Bridge against the sky. I wanted to get away from the (at the time) inevitable shot of Piccadilly Circus with hand-painted lights.

The story demanded the dragging of a body out of the river. Here, I thought was my chance. But Scotland Yard said, ‘No.’ We pulled strings. We used influence. We went from step to step until we were within shouting distance of the Home Secretary. Scotland Yard says ‘No.’ but we were told that, if we did shoot the scene, we should not be stopped. That’s how we always used to get our permission: told usually in a hint, that authorities would turn a blind eye on us.

So we went down to the Embankment. We took two sets of light vans—that does not mean vans for light work. It means vans to carry lights. We had ‘sun arcs’—huge, powerful lights to give a real background. Otherwise, the brilliantly lit close-up shots would seem to have been photographed against black velvet. We parked the vans in the middle of the roadway on Westminster Bridge. We massed the arcs on the parapet of the bridge. We went to the Embankment and started shooting.

We took our short shots. They were fine. But I was concentrating on the long shot. Every time a tram passed we had to disconnect the cables that lay across the lines. Work below had to be held up until the lights came on again. But finally, we shot the big scene. The sun arcs turned night to day. The artists did their stuff. The bridge stood out clear and sharp. The camera turned.

The number of the scene was 45. It should have been 13. For when we went to the projection room, to see the rushes—the first prints of the day’s takings—there was no scene 45. We looked through all the reels. We looked through all the prints. We looked through positive and negative. There was no scene 45. The cameraman forgot to put his lens in the camera. That has happened more than once: call it tragedy or farce.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Arrival

The influence of German Expressionism can be seen in nearly every frame of The Lodger and would be a large part of Alfred Hitchcock’s aesthetic throughout his entire career.

Of course, the studio work went much more smoothly, and the director was very much in his element. Hitchcock’s time in Germany had a profound impact on the director’s artistic sensibilities, and The Lodger perhaps the first time expressionism becomes a major part of his aesthetic.

 “You have to remember that a year before, I was working on the UFA lot. I worked there for many months—at the same time [that] Jannings was making The Last Laugh with Murnau—and I was able to absorb a lot of the methods and style.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Hitchcock’s actors took notice of his unusually meticulous attention to framing, sets, and lighting design as they met the challenges that this attention to detail sometimes created for them.

“‘Fresh from Berlin,’ recalled June [Tripp], ‘Hitch was so imbued with the value of unusual camera angles and lighting effects with which to create and sustain dramatic suspense that often a scene which would not run for more than three minutes on the screen would take an entire morning to shoot.’ ‘Once,’ she said, she was forced to carry ‘an iron tray of breakfast dishes up a long flight of stairs’ some twenty times before Hitchcock was ‘satisfied with the expression of fear on my face and the atmosphere established by light and shadows.’” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Spending an entire morning on a scene is certainly not uncommon nowadays, but this was apparently less common in Britain during the mid-1920s. Alfred Hitchcock was a unique entity in the British film industry and went the extra mile to achieve his visual goals. This is more than obvious in the very first frames of The Lodger wherein what seems to be a simple shot of a woman screaming actually took quite a bit of creative ingenuity to achieve.

“We opened with the head of a blonde girl who is screaming. I remember the way I photographed it. I took a sheet of glass, placed the girl’s head on the glass and spread her hair around until it filled the frame. Then we lit the glass from behind so that one would be struck by her light hair. Then we cut to show an electric sign advertising a musical play, ‘Tonight, Golden Curls,’ with the reflection flickering in the water. The girl has drowned…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Of course, the director was always quick to point out that many of the film’s lauded visual flourishes were the product of the silent era. The limitations of the medium made it necessary for director’s to pictorialize sound in a clear and concise manner. A perfect example of this technique would be the celebrated invisible ceiling scene.

“In his room the man paces up and down. You must remember that we had no sound in those days, so I had a plate-glass floor made through which you could see the lodger moving back and forth, causing the chandelier in the room below to move with him. Naturally, many of these visual devices would be absolutely superfluous today because we would use sound effects instead. The sound of steps and so on… Today, I would simply use the swaying chandelier.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Hitchcock’s one inch thick plate glass ceiling was only six square feet, but this was large enough to sell the sound of the footsteps in a visual manner. This makes it clear to viewers that the chandelier is swinging because the lodger is pacing back and forth in his room. There were other examples of visualizing sound throughout the film, but the best (and certainly the most famous) of these is probably the staircase shot showing the lodger’s hand going down a handrail. Shots of the lodger leaving his room and eventually the house is alternated with shots of Mrs. Bunting listening to his movements. It is quite clear that she hears him leaving and is becoming suspicious of her new tenant.

“Just as much as the set I had built for when the lodger went out late at night—almost to the ceiling of the studio, showing four flights of stairs and a handrail. And all you see is a hand going down. That was, of course, from the point of view of the mother listening. Today, we would substitute sound for that. Although, I think that the handrail shot would be worthy of today in addition to sound.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

The Lodger Leaving

After six weeks of shooting, principal photography wrapped on The Lodger—but all of Hitchcock’s hard work was very nearly in vain. Unfortunately, the director had a few enemies at the studio. One of his biggest foes was his old friend and mentor, Graham Cutts (who was once considered one of the greatest directors in Britain). Hitchcock had served as his screenwriter, art director, and assistant director on a number of his films.

In fact, Hitchcock began building sets so that they could only be shot in a certain way—Hitchcock’s way. People started to notice that the success of these films owed as much to Hitchcock’s work as to his mentor’s directorial abilities—and Cutts made his dissatisfaction about these things known by firing his protégé. Some scholars suggest that Cutts also resented that Michael Balcon assigned Ivor Novello to Hitchcock’s film after having directed the actor in his star-making turn in The Rat (1925) and The Triumph of the Rat (1926). Whatever the case may be, it is enough to understand that Graham Cutts was under the influence of the green-eyed-monster and this resulted in a bitter enemy for the future master of suspense.

“After seeing an early screening of The Lodger, [Cutts] told ‘anybody who would listen that we had a disaster on our hands,’ said Michael Balcon.

Another diehard was C.M. Woolf, who still held Hitchcock partially responsible for the fiasco of The White Shadow. He had opposed Hitchcock’s promotion to director; now, paranoid that an ‘artistic’ picture could not be easily launched into the maximum number of English theaters, Woolf convened a high-level screening…” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

This screening was very nearly the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s career and the director would retell the terrible story in interviews for the rest of his life:

“It was first shown to the staff of the distribution company and the head of their publicity department. They saw the film and then made their report to the boss: ‘Impossible to show it. Too bad. The film is terrible.’ Two days later the big boss [C.M. Woolf] came down to the studio to look at it. He arrived at two-thirty. Mrs. Hitchcock and I couldn’t bear to wait in the studio to know the results and we walked the streets of London for an hour and a half. Finally, we took a cab and went back. We were hoping out promenade would have a happy ending and that everyone in the studio would be beaming. What they said was: ‘The boss says it’s terrible.’ And they put the film on the shelf, canceled the bookings that had been made on the basis of Novello’s reputation.

A few months later, they decided to take another look at the picture and to make some changes. I agreed to make about two. As soon as the picture was shown, it was acclaimed as the greatest British film made up to that date.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Actually, there is a bit more to the film’s resurrection than Hitchcock’s retelling would suggest. The truth is that Michael Balcon believed in both Hitchcock and the film. What’s more, the studio had quite a bit of money invested. It seemed worthwhile to give the film another chance, so the producer held another private screening—this time for an impartial party.

“Hitchcock—a shadowy figure at that time, whom I vaguely knew by name—had just finished a picture and [Michael Balcon] could not get the distributor to show it. He had taken a risk in promoting Hitch from floor assistant actually to direct. (Mick, all his life, loved recruiting fresh talent to direction, and this was not the least of his blessings to British film production.) But this was now not Hitch’s first picture for the company but his third, and the distributor would have none of any of them. The mounting unused investment was becoming impossible for Balcon to defend…

…They ran the film, with which at once I fell enthusiastically in love. Now, the hackneyed treatment of the plot and a weakness in characterization makes it look primitive. Then, by contrast with the work of his seniors and contemporaries, all Hitch’s special qualities stood out raw: the narrative skill, the ability to tell the story and create the tension in graphic combination, and the feeling for London scenes and characters.” —Ivor Montagu (Working with Hitchcock, Sight and Sound, 1980)

Graham Cutts
Graham Cutts was once Hitchcock’s friend and mentor, but he soon became one of his strongest adversaries: “I suspect that the director who had me fired as his assistant was still being political against me. I know he told someone, ‘I don’t know what he’s shooting. I can’t make head nor tail of it.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

The result of this showing should be obvious considering that Hitchcock is now considered one of the cinema’s greatest auteurs—but first there was quite a bit of work to do on The Lodger before it could be granted a release.

“[Montagu] was in something of a quandary, since he could hardly say that he didn’t think the film needed anything done to it. Finally, his solution was to get together with Hitch and suggest a couple of points in the film where something might be clarified by re-editing, plus some re-shooting of the final chase sequence where it was originally too dark to see details (Hitch willingly complied with this, since apart from anything else it meant an effective addition to his budget and shooting time for the film). The only radical modification Montagu suggested was to make the film more extreme in one area where Hitch had experimented cautiously. British films at this time were very heavy on titles, and British filmmakers knew little or nothing of the movement abroad in favor of telling the story as completely as possible in visual terms. Hitch had seen this done in Germany, but he knew how conservative his employers were, and so had left little to chance in verbal explanations of what was happening. Montagu told them that they should go all the way, reduce the titles to an absolute minimum and make those that were left as punchy and to the point as possible. Since he qualified as an outside expert whom they were paying good money (if not very much of it) to advise them, they took his word for it. He went ahead eliminating and tightening the titles, and brought in E. McKnight Kauffer, the painter and poster designer who was at the time considered very advanced, to design the credits and the title backgrounds.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

All of this additional work seems to have paid off because the film was a commercial and critical success. Nearly every critic focused largely on Hitchcock’s adept direction. An excellent example of such praise can be found in a review published in the Daily Mail.

“Here is a British film which grips the imagination… The very angles at which these scenes are photographed create terror, and the exquisite homeliness of the settings piles up apprehension. Mr. Novello has never appeared to such advantage, Miss June is natural and pretty as the heroine, and Miss Marie Ault [is] magnificent as the motherly but frightened landlady. The Lodger [is] the second fine British film this week and can more than hold its own against any foreign production. It is arresting without being in any way gruesome.” –Daily Mail (September 15, 1926)

Meanwhile, a similar review was published in the Nottingham Evening Post that very same day.

“There is further satisfactory proof of the fact that British films are on the upgrade in The Lodger… The story is adapted from the novel by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, and is a first-class attraction of the mystery order, with a series of sensational murders of fair-haired girls, committed by some individual who apparently does not prefer blondes

The direction of this theme by Alfred Hitchcock, a young Englishman who has little to learn from Hollywood in the technique of his craft, judging from some very original and clever devices in this picture, ensures its effectiveness. Ivor Novello gives a striking and arresting performance as the Lodger, against whom suspicion is pointed, and there is a charming heroine in the pretty musical-comedy actress popular with playgoers as ‘June.’” –Nottingham Evening Post (September 15, 1926)

The Sydney Morning Herald was especially enthusiastic about the film.

The Lodger is a film of a distinctly unusual type. When one looks back on its plot, to be sure, there seems to be nothing remarkable about it as a whole: but in the working out of the details there is much to absorb the spectator’s interest. Such originality can be easily explained, for the picture was made in England, and on this account escaped that contagion of methods and ideas which tends to standardize the output of Hollywood. The whole of the actors are English; also the director (Alfred Hitchcock). As a matter of fact, the acting throughout is very fine. Ivor Novello, who heads the cast, is every whit as handsome as the best-looking of the American leading men; and he is fortunate in having a face that photographs well from every angle. But In addition to being handsome, he has dramatic depth and fire. Some may object to his first entrance, and his actions in general during the earlier part of the play as being too theatrical, too artificial, slowed down as they are to a portentous languor; yet they form part of a deeply considered conception of the character, and fit exactly into their place in the light of subsequent revelations. For The Lodger is a mystery play. Not a thing of shrieks, and haunted houses, and grisly corpses, however. No. It is much more subtle than that. In fact, at the end the real motive for the series of murders, and the real perpetrator of them, are never revealed at all. They do not matter — they have served their purpose in the plot, and can be left freely to the imagination of the spectators to fill in at will. To presume the murderer merely a homicidal lunatic will provide an explanation as good as any. Surely this policy of vagueness is better than the plan usually followed by playwrights, of pitching on one of the characters at random and crying, ‘Behold the man!’ By methods too detailed to be explained here at length, the director has made some of the episodes remarkably gripping in their suggestion of the sinister. Indeed, for those interested in the technical side of motion picture production the whole film will repay close study. Besides Mr. Novello the cast includes Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, Malcolm Keen, and ‘June.’” -Sydney Morning Herald (February 20, 1928)

The First Hitchcock Cameo

The first Hitchcock cameo: “It was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and eventually a gag. But now it’s a rather troublesome gag, and I’m very careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

It is interesting to note that special mention is always made as to the film’s British origins and that the actors re discussed in a manner that betrays a public familiarity with their names. It might be easy for modern viewers to forget that these performers were both popular and well regarded at the time of the film’s release. In other words, the film was presented as a prestige project. Unfortunately, even prestige productions aren’t immune to critical condescension as this review in The Times adequately illustrates.

 “‘To-night… Golden Curls… To-night… Golden Curls.

Mr. Hitchcock has used the electric sky-sign, advertising a revue, as a symbol that appears again and again throughout his narrative. After its first appearance we see a murdered girl lying on the ground; she is the Avenger’s sixth victim and, in common with all the others, she has light hair. The news spreads. The tape-machine ticks it out; the printers print it; the newspaper vans distribute it; the chorus of Golden Curls read it in their dressing-room and the mannequins at a dressmaking establishment read it in theirs. There is, it seems, not a fair-haired woman in London that does not tremble in her decorative underclothes and go in terror of her life. Yet, though we see them tremble, we do not participate in their fear. The dark atmosphere of terror and the steady regard for character which were the making of Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’s book are dissipated by the sky-signs, the tape-machine, the frocks, and the absence of frocks. It is Jack-the-Ripper or the Avenger who should be brooding over London; instead it is ‘Golden Curls… To-night… Golden Curls.

And when a stranger knocks at the door of Daisy Bunting’s parents and asks for a lodging in their house; when we should all be wondering whether this dark young man, with a mysterious handbag and his face muffled in accordance with the police reports, is indeed the Avenger; when, observing that Daisy has fair hair, we should be in exquisite anxiety for her fate, there is no escaping the fact that Daisy is June Tripp and the lodger Mr. Ivor Novello, to whom, and through whom, no harm, in the films, can come. It takes the sting out of excitement. It might, indeed, have been possible to forget that June was June and Mr. Novello Mr. Novello, if Mr. Hitchcock had concentrated on any other aspect of Daisy and the lodger than their insipid charm. But that on the screen would never have done; the spirit of a good tale must perish so that the camera be not denied its close-up kisses, its soft yearnings over breakfast trays, and its whisperings through bathroom doors. The Lodger becomes, in consequence, a story, not primarily of mystery, but of the landlady’s daughter (who, of course, being a mannequin, is becomingly dressed) and the young man upstairs. Mr. Malcolm Keen, the detective, is appropriately jealous, and Mr. Arthur Chesney and Miss Marie Ault come much nearer than anyone else to preserving the novel’s genuine atmosphere. One or two of Miss Ault’s scenes, when she hears her lodger go out at night and is terrified by her suspicions, are an indication of the manner which, if the book was to be justly interpreted, should have pervaded the film. They are quiet and unforced; they have that shrewd insistence upon the truth of ordinary life and character by which Mrs. Lowndes obtained a great part of her effect. But the film has nothing else that is their equivalent. It has frittered away terror in garish irrelevance.” The Times (January 18, 1927)

Apparently, “the book was better” is an extremely old complaint about film adaptations. Frankly, this argument is nearly always short-sighted (especially when it comes to Hitchcock’s filmography). Alfred Hitchcock usually took the basic concept from a novel or short story and constructed a new screen story based upon that concept. The Lodger is an extremely accomplished calling card from one of cinema’s greatest auteurs and to concentrate on the diversions from the original novel is to miss out on a rich and rewarding cinematic achievement.

Title

PART TWO: DOWNHILL

After The Lodger found success, Alfred Hitchcock would take a short break in order to marry Alma Reville on December 02, 1926, but it wasn’t long before the director found himself tackling another project.

“When the boy wonder returned from his honeymoon in January, it wasn’t hard to convince him that, rather than stagnating, it made sense to follow The Lodger with another picture capitalizing on the rage for Ivor Novello—who, along with Constance Collier (under their pen name, David L’Estrange)—had written the hit play from which Downhill would be adapted.” Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville on their wedding day. Alfred's older brother William is stood behind him.

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville on their wedding day (December 02, 1926). William John Hitchcock (Alfred’s older brother) can be seen standing behind him.

Unfortunately, the original play didn’t particularly interest Hitchcock and had less to do with the adaptation than was his usual practice. His particular contribution was the visualization of the scenes that were discussed in the script meetings with Angus MacPhail and Eliot Stannard (who remained relatively faithful to the original play). Luckily, the director tackled the direction of the film with the same creative fervency that distinguished his work on The Lodger. In fact, the director betrayed a genuine affection for a few of the ideas in the film during his interview with François Truffaut (even as he insisted that they werenaïve touches”).

“I experimented a bit. I showed a woman seducing a younger man, She is a lady of a certain age, but quite elegant, and he finds her very attractive until daybreak. Then he opens the window and the sun comes in, lighting up the woman’s face. In that moment she looks dreadful. And through the open window, we show people passing by carrying a coffin.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Le Cinéma Selon Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Descending

Shots of Roddy descending became a motif in the film. The above three screen captures illustrate three examples as the protagonist descends the stairs, the escalator, and the elevator.

Another touch that Hitchcock insisted wouldn’t work today is a motif throughout the film where Novello’s character is shown descending. The most famous of these shots involves an escalator heading into the Underground. “That’s when the boy is thrown out of the house by his father,” the director remembered later. “To show the beginning of his downhill journey, I put him on an escalator going down.” Apparently, this scene was shot on location after midnight so as not to disrupt the commuters.

“For more than three hours a British film company took possession of the Maida Vale tube station [in] London recently for a special scene in the Piccadilly Picture, Ltd.’s production of Downhill, directed by that most promising of the new school of English producers, Mr. Alfred J. Hitchcock. Late travelers arriving at the station were puzzled by the huge sunlight arc lamps installed along the escalator and vestibule until the familiar face of Mr. Ivor Novello—in yellow grease paint and a camera on trestles—explained the situation. In the street were loudly purring generators on lorries… Scenes were made by Mr. Novello entering the station and booking a ticket, but the real interest lay in a wonderful ‘shot’ on the moving escalator—the first of its kind made in England. The bore of the escalator gave some surprising lighting effects, and Mr. Hitchcock is making the ‘slow’ descent of the character something half symbolic…” –The Canberra Times (Film Making in a Tube, May 06, 1927)

Interestingly, Hitchcock directed the scene in an eloquent formal suit complete with white tie and top hat because he had gone to the theatre earlier that night! By most accounts, principal photography was otherwise uneventful, but there was one particularly unfortunate disagreement that led to the temporary loss of one of his most important colleagues.

 “Hitch had a quarrel over a rather strange matter of principal with Ivor Montagu, who had helped him change the apparent disaster of The Lodger into a triumph and was now working on the scripting and editing of Downhill. Montagu, as befitted a young intellectual invader of the cinema, had all sorts of principles about what could and couldn’t, or should and shouldn’t be done in films. He objected particularly to shots which seemed to contain a built-in impossibility or to be cheating in some way. He himself admits to a measure of inconsistency… but a shot Hitch was determined to include in Downhill stuck in Montagu’s gullet. It was a scene in a taxi with the knees of the hero, his new love, and her old protector all touching in a rather equivocal manner, photographed from directly above. Montagu complained that the shot was an impossible viewpoint—not even a fly on the ceiling of the taxi could see things that way unless the taxi was ten feet tall. Hitch, characteristically, didn’t care: the shot showed what he wanted it to show, and that was that. Montagu was irritated at his inability to put over his point, and though he remained quite friendly with Hitch he departed after preliminary work on Easy Virtue, and he and Hitch did not work together again until seven years later when fate and Michael Balcon reunited them on the first Man Who Knew Too Much.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Taylor’s mention of Montagu’s preliminary work on Easy Virtue brings up an interesting point. Alfred Hitchcock was actually working on that film throughout a good portion of Downhill’s production and the shooting of these two films overlapped a bit.

 “When the rest of Downhill was completed they still had a couple of necessary close-up shots left to do of [Ivor] Novello staggering through the east End of London on his return to England. Hitch had already begun work on his next film, Easy Virtue, and was on location on the Riviera. Novello came down very grandly, checked into the Hotel de Paris in Nice for one night, gave a lot of interviews there in his suite, and then, having got that out of the way, vanished to a very humble pension for the rest of his time on location. The shots were done on the flat roof of the pension, with a couple of men holding a painted backdrop of the London docks while Novello walked on the spot in front of it in the bright Mediterranean sunlight and the natives looked on incredulously, speculating as to what on earth these crazy Englishmen could be doing.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Once the film was finished and then released (in relatively rapid succession), it seems to have received some modest critical and commercial success with the overall critical opinion being extremely mixed. As a matter of fact, Iris Barry captured the overall critical response to the film in a single sentence when she wrote that Hitchcock “made a clever picture out of poor and indeed unsuitable and undramatic material.” Nearly every review reiterated these same sentiments. Alfred Hitchcock’s direction was always met with praise even as the scenario was torn to shreds as in this review published by the Yorkshire Post:

Downhill is the latest Ivor Novello picture, directed by Alfred Hitchcock… Mr. Novello has already had success in the stage play of the same name from which the film is taken, and I have no doubt that he will succeed in the film, for Mr. Hitchcock is remarkably skillful at combining clever photography with sound ‘entertainment value.’ But this story of an innocent school boy’s road to ruin is childish nonsense. We are asked to believe that the head master of a public school accepts without question the unsupported word of an obvious little minx from a tea shop, accusing his head prefect of having seduced her. Without inquiry the head master insinuates to Roddie that he must instantly pack his bags. Roddie arrives in London, where his father, not to be outdone by the head master, violently disowns him. The door slams mid we see Roddie starting down a tube escalator—symbolism—on the downward career that is to take him through chorus work to sudden wealth, to marriage with an expensive actress, poverty, cabaret dancing, and so at last happily home again.

Mr. Novello acts very competently throughout the picture, and Miss Annette Benson, as the minx who gets him expelled, displays the greatest promise. She will soon be well known. The direction and photography are consistently vivid, ingenious, and effective, but it is pretty plain that Mr. Hitchcock does not take this sort of stuff seriously. I am glad to see that he is now to direct a story of his own, called The Ring, for British International…” –Yorkshire Post (May 31, 1927)

A review published in The Guardian was just as critical and perhaps even more pointed than similar reviews that were being written at the time.

The Lodger was the best film made in England up to the end of last year. It had power, point, imagination, and an entirely new angle—new, that is to say, in an English studio of visual expression. Downhill carries out every promise of its predecessor without being at all a good film. It is interesting. It is shrewd. It is brilliant to the point of the camera. But the danger of a man possessing an individual and startling style is that he is apt not to be particular about the occasions on which he uses it. The material of The Lodger was slight and sensational, but the material of Downhill is down-right bad… I have never seen such an interesting production of rubbish nor [such] a clever film which deserved quite so little praise…

When Hitchcock sets to work on real film material… there will not be more than half a dozen producers in the world who will be able to beat him. There are none in England now.” -C.A.L. (The Guardian, June 11, 1927)

Critics rightly chastised the British Film Industry for their backwards attempts at improving their productions by focusing on the technical qualities rather than seeking out mature dramatic material and claimed that “no policy could be worse for the British film industry than an attempt to out-do Hollywood in mechanism to the neglect of human dramatic quality. To out-do Hollywood in technique is extremely difficult and not necessarily worth doing. To out-do Hollywood in dramatic value is immensely worth doing, and should be singularly easy.

A review published in The Times followed suit, but the most interesting aspect of their review is the mention of a short interlude that allowed Ivor Novello to perform a scene in person!

Downhill… shows more than anything else, the extraordinary way in which British film technique has advanced during the last few years. Many people will remember the play on which the film is based… This threadbare story has been taken over by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock… and by sheer technique, he has managed to breathe some life into it. He has not made it credible—that would be expecting too much—but he has at least made it seem far less ridiculous than one could possibly have expected.

The thesis is such an inverted one that it is difficult to know how he could have done better… That Mr. Hitchcock, with the improbable material to his hand, has succeeded so well is an achievement… Mr. Ivor Novello is excellent as himself, but he is never so much like a schoolboy as when he appears in person in an interpolated scene. This scene, on Monday night, seemed to interest the audience, but the advisability of mingling the two forms of entertainment seems very doubtful…” -The Times (October 12, 1927)

Not everyone disliked the film’s premise. A review in the Dundee Evening Telegraph betrays a genuine affection for Hitchcock’s direction and the scenario alike (even if they do describe it as being an “old theme”).

 “In the list of British films released last year which really can be classified as good the name of Alfred Hitchcock appears as producer opposite two…

…Hitchcock has taken a very old theme and dished it up anew, like cold mutton which is much more appetizing in rissoles form. He has given us the prodigal son in a new garb, and the hero shines more gloriously than the original, because his fall was due to his kindness of heart when he screened a fellow-student.

Thus the climax, when he returns broken and weary to his father’s house and all the things that can be summed up as ‘fatted calf,’ is just what is expected, but in various ways the picture has been cleverly thought out along fresh lines.

Several well-known British stars of the legitimate stage — Ivor Novello, Isabel Jeans, Norman McKinnell, Lilian Braithwaite, and Violet Fairbrother — are the featured players, the whole cast combining to give an impression of careful and clever direction.” -Dundee Evening Telegraph (January 10, 1928)

Modern scholars tend to agree with the majority of these old reviews and praise the director’s experimentation even as they condemn the plot—which is extremely dated and not particularly interesting. However, the film itself is a genuinely enjoyable experience and later scholarly assessments have been nothing if not grudgingly commendatory. An excellent example would be a mostly flattering paragraph published in Donald Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.

“Technically, the picture is superior to just about anything that was made in England that year: there are perfectly matched dissolves to relate characters and themes; a fine dream sequence; and astonishingly stable follow shots with a hand-held camera along the docks of Marseilles. The sets, to be frank, are more convincing than some of the acting.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

John Russell Taylor was even more admiring in his 1978 biography about the director.

“It is not, one would gather, among the films Hitch feels particularly proud of nowadays… But seen today, Downhill comes over as one of his liveliest and most joyously inventive silent films—possibly a lack of any great sympathy with the material (‘a poor play,’ Hitch says) made it easier to regard the film as an exercise in technique… And at the time Downhill was made, absolutely no one else in the British cinema was working with this kind of cinematic imagination, telling a story with this mind-grabbing command of the medium’s possibilities—which, one senses, Hitch was incapable of not doing, even with a subject not at all to his taste.” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Taylor captures the thoughts and feelings of this reviewer quite admirably. Downhill isn’t one of his better films, but it does give the Hitchcock fan an opportunity to watch a raw cinematic talent as he is discovering his voice.

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The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. Criterion is known for their brilliant tailor-made cover designs and Geoff Grandfield has designed a cover for The Lodger that mirrors the style of poster art used the silent era.

As is their habit, Criterion also includes an attractive fold-out pamphlet that features two interesting essays by Philip Kemp. The first of these is titled “The First True Hitchcock Movie” and focuses its attention on The Lodger. The second essay focuses on Downhill and is titled, “Playing for the Old Boys.” Both essays are worth reading as they should add to the viewer’s appreciation of both films despite the unfortunate fact that Kemp seems to be a blind devotee from the Spoto school of Hitchcock scholarship (if you can call it “scholarship”).

Menu

The disc’s menu utilizes a still image of the film’s title art, which actually works quite beautifully. This artwork is coupled with Neil Brand’s new score for the film, and the result is elegant in its simplicity.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

As is Criterion’s usual practice, they provide information about their restoration work in the included pamphlet:

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. The digital transfer was made from the 2012 restoration undertaken by the BFI National Archive in association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and Park Circus Films. A 35mm duplicate negative was scanned in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner at Deluxe 142 in London, where restoration also took place. The tint and tones of the original nitrate print have been reproduced in the digital intermediate grade. Principal restoration funding was provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation, along with Simon W. Hessel…” –Liner Notes

The restoration was originally released by Network in the United Kingdom, but Criterion’s release is its North American debut. This is a very different restoration than the one included on MGM’s 2009 DVD release of the film as is indicated by the shorter duration and the fact that this particular transfer showcases less (and very different) tinting. This makes one wonder about the reason (or reasons) behind these differences. Was the film tinted differently in different territories? Was the MGM release artificially tinted by the restoration team? So many questions come to mind.

Luckily, this transfer is the superior of the two and North American Hitchcock fans now have reason to celebrate! When one considers the film’s age, this transfer seems almost like a minor miracle. The image exhibits a surprising level of detail, and the grain pattern appears natural and well resolved throughout the duration of the film. Depth is strong for such an old feature, and contrast is about as good as anyone should expect considering the film’s origins. The restoration team has eliminated most signs of aging, although a few small and insignificant blemishes such as scratches, debris, damage marks, and lines do occasionally appear. Compression never becomes problematic either.

Our only small criticism concerns Criterion’s choice of putting both The Lodger and Downhill on the same disc. This particular release probably warrants a 2-disc treatment. Each film could have probably benefited from the maximized bitrate that this would have allowed—although The Lodger is reasonably well represented at 29.36 Mbps.

Criterion also includes information about their transfer for Downhill:

 “Downhill is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. The digital transfer was made from 2012 restoration undertaken by the BFI National Archive in association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and Park Circus Films. 35mm nitrate print reels were scanned in 2K resolution on an Oxberry wetgate film scanner at Haghefilm Digital in Amsterdam. Digital restoration of the picture and intertitles took place at Deluxe142 in London. The tints and tones of the original nitrate prints have been reproduced in the digital intermediate grade. Principal restoration funding was provided by Simon W. Hessel” –Liner Notes

The result is an extremely solid image transfer (even at the relatively low bitrate of 15.09 Mbps) of the film. It seems every bit as strong as The Lodger and some aspects of the image might very well be marginally superior. Depth, for example, is extremely solid and detail often impresses the realistic viewer. Density can occasionally be less than perfect, but one suspects that this is due to the irreversible ravages of time. Like their restoration of The Lodger, the team has cleaned the image of distracting anomalies and only the occasional scratch and speck of dust remains here. This is an extremely satisfying image transfer.

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Sound Quality:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Since original sound elements for silent films are usually nonexistent (as is the case with both The Lodger and Downhill), it has become the common practice to have new music written especially for these films. Whatever opinions one might have about this practice, it is admittedly the better of the two options available under the circumstances (the other being to simply release it without any sound track). This option at least allows the viewer a choice in the matter as one can simply mute their television sets if they don’t want outside sources to influence their viewing experience.

Criterion includes information about the included score for both films in their liner notes:

“Neil Brand’s score for The Lodger is presented in stereo sound. It was performed by Brand and the Orchestra of Saint Paul’s and conducted by Ben Palmer, with score preparation by Thomas Hewitt Jones. The performance was recorded at Eastcote Studios in London by producer Brand and engineer George Murphy…

…[His] piano score for Downhill is presented in stereo sound. It was performed by Brand and recorded at Eastcote Studios in London by engineer George Murphy.” –Liner Notes

The score for The Lodger is presented in a 2.0 Linear PCM audio transfer and is the more robust of the two tracks (and the only one presented in an uncompressed format. Since it is an orchestral score, the lossless environment gives the music more room to breathe and sounds fantastic.

Downhill is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital and is therefore compressed, but it still sounds great. It is a simple piano score and requires less room to breathe than his orchestral score for The Lodger. This is another area that might have benefited from a two-disc Blu-ray release, but one shouldn’t be as critical about the standard definition soundtrack for this film as they might be if this were a talking picture with original sound design. After all, these scores are in all actuality third-party supplemental features that have nothing to do with the original film.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

Downhill (1927)

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A 2K digital restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 follow-up to The Lodger is included on the disc as one of the film’s “special features,” and it adds an inordinate amount of value to the disk.

In addition to this bonus feature, Criterion includes over 2 hours and 51 minutes of additional video and audio based material that should fascinate fans of Alfred Hitchcock.

William Rothman: Hitchcock’s Visual Signatures – (32:54)

William Rothman discusses the visual signatures in The Lodger and how they can be found in many of the director’s later films. Scenes are dissected and analyzed in a scholarly manner, and even those who disagree with some of Rothman’s rhetoric will find something here to enhance their appreciation of the master’s work.

Interestingly, it seems that Rothman subscribes to the opinion that it is indeed Alfred Hitchcock who is seen in the angry mob at the film’s climax. This is certainly questionable and this fact calls some of his interpretations of this particular scene into question (which is unfortunate).

The Bunting House: Space and Structure in ‘The Lodger’(17:42)

Steven Jacobs (author of The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock) offers a rather comprehensive examination of Alfred Hitchcock’s use of architecture in The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog and offers comparisons to some of the master’s later work. The German influence is discussed and a diagram of the bunting home is even offered as Jacobs discusses the dream-like inconsistencies some of the film’s geography. It probably won’t appeal to all viewers as Steven Jacobs speaks with a rather unusual and distracting accent that only exacerbates what might be seen as an overly dry and academic tone. However, those who enjoy theoretical analysis will no doubt find their appreciation of the film enhanced.

François Truffaut Interviews Alfred Hitchcock – (26:23)

Interview1

Those who have been collecting Hitchcock films on Blu-ray will know exactly what to expect from this excellent excerpt from François Truffaut’s legendary book length interview with the master of suspense. This portion of the interview predictably concentrates on The Lodger, and it is an extremely interesting discussion that betrays Hitchcock’s genuine affection for the film.

Criterion presents the interview over a sepia-tinted silent film styled title card that says “François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock.” This allows Criterion to utilize less disc space, but these interviews often play better when they are illustrated with photos and film footage. However, this is merely a small complaint. The important thing is that they have included what has become an essential part of any Hitchcock release.

Peter Bogdanovich Interviews Alfred Hitchcock

Interview2

Criterion includes excerpts from two separate interviews and presents them over blue-tinted silent film styled title cards that say “Peter Bogdanovich and Alfred Hitchcock.” This is essentially the same style of presentation given to the Truffaut interview. Each interview is presented over a blue-tinted title card that says “François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock.”

It is surprising to discover that these two interviews are more comprehensive discussions about Alfred Hitchcock’s early life and career. In fact, there is very little overlap with Truffaut’s interview. Frankly, the information discussed in these interviews is richer and more revealing than the excerpt from Truffaut’s interview with the director (and the opposite is usually true).

1963 Interview(19:42)

1972 Interview(20:58)

Radio Adaptation of The Lodger (1940) – (30:48)

Alfred Hitchcock directs this radio adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger for the July 22, 1940 pilot episode of Suspense—which would become a CBS Radio series. Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent was set for release and the radio program would serve as a promotion for the film (which explains the presence of Herbert Marshall as Mr. Sleuth and Edmund Gwenn as Robert Bunting). Interestingly, Gwen was cast in the same role given to his brother, Arthur Chesney, in Hitchcock’s original film version.

It is an interesting radio drama and has the added interest of being directed by Hitchcock himself (who rarely worked in radio). It adds an enormous amount of value to the disc.

Neil Brand: Scoring Hitchcock’s The Lodger(22:37)

The least interesting addition to the disc is this rather comprehensive interview with Neil Brand about the new score that he provided for The Lodger. Since this discussion is less about the film itself and more about Brand’s thought process while composing a new score for silent films, it is bound to disappoint those who are essentially looking for information or analysis about Hitchcock’s breakthrough film. However, anyone interested in a detailed account of the work that went into Brand’s score will no doubt be impressed.

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Final Words:

The Lodger is Alfred Hitchcock’s best and most important silent film and Criterion’s release contains a strong transfer, instructive supplemental material, and Downhill (the director’s follow-up feature). This is an incredible release that has been a long time coming! We hope that cinephiles can expect Criterion releases of some of the master’s other British thrillers in the near future.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

Staff Writer (Another Fine British Film: A Murder Novel Screened, Daily Mail, September 15, 1926)

Staff Writer (New British Film: Ivor Novello in ‘The Lodger,’ Nottingham Evening Post, September 15, 1926)

Staff Writer (The Times, January 18, 1927)

Iris Barry (Downhill: A Clever British Film, Daily Mail, May 25, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World: New German and British Pictures, Yorkshire Post, May 31, 1927)

C.A.L. (The Guardian, June 11, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World, Yorkshire Post, June 14, 1927)

Staff Writer (The Times, October 12, 1927)

Staff Writer (Downhill at the Elite Theatre, Hastings and St. Leonards Observer, October 22, 1927)

Staff Writer (Around Dundee Cinemas, Dundee Evening Telegraph, January 10, 1928)

Staff Writer (Sydney Morning Herald, February 20, 1928)

Staff Writer (Ivor Novello Superb, Australian River Record, August 17, 1928)

Staff Writer (Empire Theatre: Downhill, Queensland Morning Bulletin, October 23, 1928)

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 1977)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 1995)

Thomas Leitch (Hitchcock from Stage to Page, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Blu-ray Review: Rope

Cover

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