And yet, there’s at least one occasion in which Hitchcock seems to forget the inherent power of his camera. It comes in a scene you already mentioned: the moment when Hitchcock delivers a tight closeup of the bundle of books, wrapped in the titular murder weapon, as they emerge with Brandon and Mr. Kentley from the kitchen. It’s a powerful shot that disrupts a relatively tranquil mood, stunning the audience with the audacity of the prank as much as it stuns Phillip, who is standing talking to Rupert. Phillip flinches, and when he does we flinch, too, because we know that the more sympathetic of the two murderers has just given himself away. Rupert picks up on Phillip’s discomfort immediately, and in this moment all of us—Phillip, Rupert and the audience—are focused on the same menacing object: that bundle of books. Of course, Rupert doesn’t know why the bundle of books is so disturbing for Phillip.
To this point, it’s a great moment. But, noticing Phillip’s discomfort, Rupert then lightly interrogates Phillip, who draws attention to the rope itself by admitting that he doesn’t like the “clumsy” way the books are tied. And at that moment the scene’s tension begins to deflate. On stage, such prop-specific dialogue might be necessary, a way to ensure that the person sitting in the back row of the theater can tell that it’s the murder weapon, not some random string off a bakery box, that’s binding those books together. On the big screen, however, this dialogue is entirely unnecessary. The previous image, a closeup, speaks for itself. And so, once Phillip gives away that it’s the rope that bothers him, there’s no satisfactory way to explain why Rupert doesn’t press further and ask more questions. It’s as if Rupert, who is less an investigator than a courtroom lawyer, has the defendant on the verge of cracking and inconceivably lets him off the witness stand. And in that moment the previous closeup is robbed of its power.
EH: I think that’s a fair criticism. As good as Rope mostly is, its dialogue is often a weak link, betraying its stagey origins with unnecessary exposition and some pretty contrived moments like that one. It’s frustrating, on a narrative level, that Rupert isn’t so much a good detective as he is blessed with criminals who at times seem almost eager to say or do whatever would be most incriminating. It strains credulity that Phillip, no matter how rattled he was, would simply blurt out that it’s specifically the rope that’s troubling him. And it strains credulity even further that Rupert, who’s otherwise so sharp, would let it drop like that, merely because the plot prevents him from figuring things out completely quite yet. It’s always a sign of lazy scripting when you get the sense that something is happening, or not happening, only because the script says it has to. Hitchcock generally got around those kinds of writing deficiencies by downplaying the importance of plot altogether; for all his renown as a master of suspense and twisty mysteries, many of his best films work more as a succession of clever set pieces and character moments, and quite a few of them don’t really hold up to closer scrutiny on a narrative level. That’s the point of the famed MacGuffins, plot devices that merely served to set the wheels of the plot into motion without really meaning anything in themselves. Because Rope takes place in such a confined place, with such a tightly constrained narrative, Hitchcock can’t resort to those kinds of dodges. He’s more bound than usual to his script’s strengths and weaknesses.
It’s perhaps telling, then, that one of Rope’s best sequences is one in which the dialogue is intentionally relegated to the background, reduced to inconsequential chatter that is merely a counterpoint to the images. As you say, Hitchcock is at his best when the camera has primacy, and that’s certainly the case during the lengthy shot in which Brandon’s housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) cleans off the trunk, putting away the food, the candles, the tablecloth and finally bringing the books back over in order to put them inside the trunk. During this process, Hitchcock pans away from the partygoers and their idle chit-chat, settling into a familiar composition that he’s returned to several times throughout the film: looking across the trunk towards the dining room. In this case, the composition is mostly empty, as Mrs. Wilson appears, cleans a few things off the trunk’s top, and disappears for a few moments. It’s a very tense shot despite its static and minimal composition, since with each item Mrs. Wilson removes from the top of the trunk, she comes closer and closer to opening it and seeing what’s inside. The suspense is enhanced, too, because on the soundtrack we hear—but don’t see—the party guests continuing their inane conversation just outside the frame. The words don’t matter here, only the murmur of their voices juxtaposed against the steadily ratcheting tension as Mrs. Wilson cleans up around the trunk. It’s a great demonstration of Hitchcock’s ability to generate suspense from a deceptively simple set-up, conveying as much with what’s not shown—the nearby guests, the ever-present body within the trunk—as with what’s actually within the frame.
JB: Most definitely. The scene with the maid is another example of how Hitchcock aligns us with the killers. Earlier you mentioned the scene in which the rope hangs out of the trunk, causing us to cringe at the thought that the murderers will overlook it. Likewise, when the maid begins clearing the books off the table, I presume I’m not alone in the fact that I don’t root her on. I’m not yearning for her to throw open the trunk and find the body to expose the crime. Instead, I’m on the edge of my seat wondering how Brandon (because we know Phillip is useless) is going to dissuade the maid from opening the trunk, not to mention wondering how close he’ll let her get to that point before intervening. This is essentially an instinctual reaction. At that point of the film, it’s not so much that I’m rooting for the murderers to “get away with it,” but, at the risk of sounding like Brandon, I am hoping that they will be exposed in a way befitting their crime. I don’t want the maid to stumble into it. I don’t want them found guilty accidentally. I want someone to spot the evidence of wrongdoing and put it together and crack the case. And so while I agree with you to a point that some of the thrill is removed by the way that Brandon intentionally drops clues in front of Rupert as if they were breadcrumbs, on the other hand the gamesmanship that Brandon displays also has a way of heightening the tension. He’s daring the others to catch him. He has to. It was, after all, the “perfect” murder, and so without tempting fate there would be no tension at all, because then Brandon would get away with it all too easily. It’s a credit to the film that Brandon’s outlandish fate-tempting actions seem entirely plausible: from serving dinner on the trunk, to binding the books with rope, to letting the maid come this close to flipping open the lid of the trunk. It’s Phillip’s actions that are hard to believe.
Speaking of believability, I want to loop back to the artificiality of the setting, which you brought up earlier: According to an interview he gave at the American Film Institute in 1970, Hitchcock often used techniques like matte paintings and rear projections because he didn’t want his actors to be distracted by shooting on location. But Rope reveals how the intentional artificiality of a set can positively shape a film’s mood—much as a similarly intentional unreality shaped Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Rope, by never really cutting away from the action, even in the few instances it cuts to different angles, is supposed to unfold in “real time,” but, of course, it doesn’t. In the background, beyond the “cardboard diorama” of a cityscape you mentioned, the sun sets a little too quickly; all of a sudden, day becomes night. One could use this rapidly descending darkness as an argument against the film, I suppose, as evidence that it’s “unconvincing” or some such thing. But I love the effect, unrealistic though it is. The fast-arriving darkness perfectly coincides with Rupert’s escalating suspicions, nay growing certainty. It’s as if the night sky is swallowing Brandon’s previous sunny optimism that he can commit a crime and have his genius celebrated and still get away with it. There are instances in Hitchcock’s oeuvre when he certainly tried to fool us with such gimmicks—the bell tower in Vertigo comes to mind. Here, though, he’s not going for reality but is instead using darkness as a way to infuse his mostly sedentary drama with ticking-time-bomb suspense and urgency: We know, without anyone explicitly saying so, that if somehow Brandon and Phillip make it to morning without their crime being detected, they’ll have gotten away with it.
EH: That’s a great analysis of how the artificial setting works in this film. I’ve often heard the complaint that the matte paintings, rear projection and constructed backdrops in Hitchcock’s films are distracting, and the implication is that if Hitchcock could have come up with something more convincing—like CGI, I suppose—then he would have. Maybe, but I’m not so sure. He may have had practical and technical reasons for these flourishes, like avoiding location shooting, but this artificiality is so integral to his vision that I think there has to be more to it than that. The use of these devices is of a piece with Hitchcock’s holistic aesthetic, which is dedicated to a heightened sense of reality in which gestures and objects are magnified to emphasize their importance. As you say, there are times when Hitchcock uses artifice to create a more convincing illusion, but even then it’s not so simple: the bell tower added to the monastery in Vertigo is a realistic artifice, but it’s also the site of those dizzying zoom shots that make the stairway to the top seem so much steeper and higher than it is. More often, Hitchcock’s artifice is nakedly apparent, as in the matte paintings and rear projection of Marnie, which makes little attempt at verisimilitude. The titular character of that film often wanders through a flat, eerily beautiful world rather than a true 3D landscape, and in the famous horse-jumping scene she seems to be hovering ethereally against a motion-blurred nothingness. Of course, that impression is compatible with the themes Hitchcock is exploring in that film, of a woman disconnected from her own mind and from her surroundings. In The Birds, the obvious matte paintings, with their gorgeous evocations of impossible landscapes overshadowed by constant storm clouds, add to the film’s creeping sense of dread.
Which means that, yes, though Hitchcock may have been using the artificial cityscape and accelerated sunset in Rope for simple technical reasons, it’s also true that the artificiality of the set adds to the film’s claustrophobia. And the rapid changeover from day to night, as you contend, neatly signifies the shift that occurs when Rupert begins to suspect what’s going on. The “night” portion of the film culminates in his righteous speech, in which the neon signs outside the apartment provide a flimsy excuse for Hitchcock to bathe Rupert in alternating shades of red and green, suggesting the duality of this character and the stark moral dichotomy he’s talking about. In a recent post on the artificiality of Martin Scorsese, David Bordwell cites a closeup of Robert De Niro from Taxi Driver in which the actor’s face is bathed in red light, “vaguely motivated as reflected from the traffic light, but unrealistically saturated.” Bordwell argues that Scorsese frequently seeks “a realistic motivation for expressionist effects,” and I think to some extent Scorsese gets that tendency from Hitchcock, who often nods to realism while exaggerating his effects to get at emotional and thematic subtexts.
In Rope, that means constructing a set that acknowledges the film’s origins in a stage play, while also contributing to the sense of things closing in on the two murderers, who are as trapped by the confines of the apartment as by their situation. In To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock’s approach is equally stylized, if for different ends, using his aesthetic flourishes to visualize sexual desire and longing, to provide a lush counterpoint to the double entendres encoded in the dialogue. In many ways, we couldn’t have picked two more different films to represent Hitchcock, but they do share that total commitment to a hyper-stylized reality.
JB: I agree. What’s interesting to me about this topic specifically is the way it demonstrates that there are at least two different ways to think about “artificiality.” To illustrate what I mean, let me quote Hitchcock from that previously mentioned 1970 interview, which is anthologized in Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute. Hitchcock says:
We have a very strange system in this industry, that the man called the art director leaves the set the moment it is painted and finished but not dressed, not even the carpet. And the new man, called the set dresser, walks on, and he is the man who reads the script and then proceeds to dress the set. He goes out and picks furniture and carpets; he goes into the prop room, gets ornaments and paintings. This man is in charge of what is the most vital element of the décor: the atmosphere. Instead of being a set dresser he should be almost a writer because he ought to know the character of the person who lives in that room. But he doesn’t, and that is why you see so many films that have an artificial look. It is because they are very badly dressed.
In that above passage, Hitchcock uses the word “artificial” to refer to things that don’t match the specific mood or atmosphere of a film. That’s a totally justifiable definition, but of course when we say that the cityscape in the background of Rope looks artificial, we simply mean that it looks synthetic or fake. What Hitchcock is getting at is the idea that the latter kind of artificiality is perfectly okay if it helps to combat the former kind of artificiality. The mood and the atmosphere are paramount; the factuality of the effects and the means by which a filmmaker achieves them are incidental.
Obviously there are exceptions. If a shot is distractingly fake, the intended ambiance is shattered. When it comes to watching Hitchcock in 2010, I think the obstacle for cinephiles is that we tend to associate rear projections with cheapness and cheapness with hackwork. To some degree, you and I might have fallen victim to this, too. Could it be that we’ve classified these films as “minor” Hitchcock because he seems less concerned with creating a feeling of authenticity in To Catch a Thief and Rope than in some of his “major” films? I’m sure that’s part of it. In the least, I’m sure that’s part of the reason why these films aren’t generally held in the high regard of movies like Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo, among others. (And, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting those films are actually more authentic; just that they have fewer moments of straightforward fakery.)
Of course, that’s not the only factor. To Catch a Thief and Rope are certainly modest pleasures compared to some of Hitchcock’s most celebrated films. And though the point of this conversation wasn’t to demonstrate as much, I think they meet the label of being “minor,” even if we could have easily picked some even lesser works to discuss instead. Despite their relative modesty, however, To Catch a Thief and Rope have moments that rival any film Hitchcock ever made. And so perhaps what we’ve learned, if we didn’t know it already, is that to be “minor” Hitchcock is to still be something very special indeed.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.