Alfred Hitchcock may seem like an odd choice for this column, which purports to recommend entry points for movie genres you don’t get or directors who seem difficult. Hitchcock, by contrast, could easily be considered the most famous director who ever lived. His run from 1958 to 1963 alone — “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho,” “The Birds” — consists exclusively of films that almost everyone knows.
Yet Hitchcock made more than 50 features, and watching and returning to them is a lifelong pursuit. Most of his films are available to stream in some form or other.
One of Hitchcock’s most daring experiments, “Rope” (1948), is a great gateway movie because, by breaking certain rules, it teaches you a lot about how films are made.
Movies aren’t “supposed” to be shot on single sets (although Hitchcock made five that mostly were). Movies are supposed to have cuts, and this one — to a large extent — preserves the illusion of being shot in a single take (although the cuts that are visible are crucial to the film’s impact). And aside from the opening credits, “Rope” is set entirely within a New York apartment, which makes it, along with Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (1954), a movie of the moment.
“Rope” inevitably comes up whenever directors, like Sam Mendes in “1917,” shoot movies designed to look as if they were filmed in uninterrupted takes. That was part of Hitchcock’s experiment, but far from the whole of it. The plot of “Rope” has obvious similarities to the Leopold and Loeb case from 1924, when two Chicago graduate students kidnapped and killed a teenage boy.
In the movie, two men, the domineering Brandon (John Dall) and the meek Phillip (Farley Granger), strangle an old school chum, David, simply for the sensation of getting away with murder. They then put the body in a book chest and cover the chest with a tablecloth, to use it as a serving table at a party. The dead man’s father (Cedric Hardwicke), aunt (Constance Collier) and girlfriend (Joan Chandler) attend, along with the three men’s former prep-school housemaster, Rupert (James Stewart).
This was the third of five films that Hitchcock shot predominantly on a single set. His early talkie “Juno and the Paycock” (1930), derived from a stage play, adhered to the intuitive wisdom that it was necessary to “open up” a theater adaptation by occasionally, arbitrarily bringing characters outdoors. But Hitchcock told François Truffaut that he felt like he had stolen a success. “The film got very good notices,” he said, “but I was actually ashamed, because it had nothing to do with cinema.”
Each of the other four films takes a different approach to the single-set problem, and none feels remotely theatrical. “Lifeboat” (1944) effectively treats one space as multiple spaces, allowing private conversations to occur despite the fact that the characters are in tight quarters on a vessel in the Atlantic. “Dial M for Murder” (1954) uses 3-D to play tricks with perspective. “Rear Window” (1954), despite being set in one stagelike apartment, directly addresses the act of looking through a camera. Stewart plays a housebound photographer who gazes through a lens at a set of still frames (the windows across the courtyard) and figuratively sets them into motion, seeing a murder story. The movie has long been recognized as a metaphor for filmmaking.
“Rope,” Hitchcock’s first film with Stewart, is also about voyeurism. It is easy to get caught up in the suspense of the story, and to make the mistake of thinking you are watching filmed theater. But repeat viewings reveal that it is one of the best places to get a sense of Hitchcock as a master of film technique. Although Hitchcock told Truffaut he wanted to see whether it was possible to shoot a movie as continuous action, the way the play unfolded, he didn’t abandon the special shifts in emphasis that he could only make with a camera — or with cuts, which “Rope” assuredly includes.
First, there are the famous cuts that came from technical limitations. Hitchcock couldn’t shoot an 80-minute movie in one take (cameras couldn’t hold that much film), so he occasionally had to dolly the camera into the backs of the men’s suit jackets, briefly obscuring the frame in darkness to hide a cut. But there are also plain-vanilla cuts in “Rope.” Hitchcock uses them to punctuate important moments in the dramatic action, giving a subliminal jolt to viewers, when, for instance, Rupert catches Phillip in a lie.
Watch when the camera pushes in for close-ups or makes unexpected movements, as when the aunt arrives and momentarily mistakes another guest for the dead David, startling Phillip. At another point, while the guests, off camera, discuss where David could possibly be, Hitchcock’s gaze remains ruthlessly fixed on the housekeeper (Edith Evanson) removing the candles and tablecloth from the book chest in which David’s body is hidden.
Students of film will be familiar with the 180-degree rule. Set a camera in one position relative to the actors; once you’ve picked a side, cutting to a shot from the opposite side will momentarily disorient viewers. There are only a few occasions when the camera skirts or crosses that line in “Rope,” and it does so subtly, always when Rupert is on the verge of a discovery. And because those are the angles from which a theater audience would be seen from a stage — the angles from which most of the film is shot — Hitchcock implicates viewers in Rupert’s j’accuse.
“Rope” was Hitchcock’s first color film, but he approached the palette not for potential scenic beauty but as a tool. In 1948, Hitchcock crowed in the magazine Popular Photography about the panorama of the New York skyline that he had made for the “Rope” soundstage, with the setting sun conveying the passage of time. (The article, an excellent guide to the film’s making, can be found in the essential book “Hitchcock on Hitchcock.”) When Rupert confronts Brandon with the monstrosity of his crime, neon lights from outside flood the room — a device that Hitchcock would resurface in “Vertigo.”
What initially looks like a filmed play turns out to be highly cinematic. And “Rope” is prime evidence that Hitchcock, as popular as he was, could execute a radical experiment within a mainstream art form without ever losing his accessibility.