A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)

Montage, the assembling of discrete segments of film for dramatic effect, is what makes movies an art form distinct from just filmed theater. Which is why it's odd that so many filmmakers have been tempted to experiment with abandoning montage and simply filming the action and dialogue in continuity. Long takes and tracking shots do have their place in a movie: Think of the suspense built in the opening scene in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958), an extended tracking shot that follows a car with a bomb in it for almost three and a half minutes until the bomb explodes. Or the way Michael Haneke introduces his principal characters with a nine-minute traveling shot in Code Unknown (2000). Or, to consider the ultimate extreme of anti-montage filmmaking, the scenes in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), in which the camera not only doesn't move for minutes on end, but characters also walk out of frame, leaving the viewer to contemplate only the banality of the rooms in which the title character lives her daily life. But these shots are only part of the films in question: Eventually, Welles and Haneke and even Akerman are forced to cut from one scene to another to tell a story. Alfred Hitchcock was intrigued with the possibility of making an entire movie without cuts. He couldn't bring it off because of technological limitations: Film magazines of the day held only ten minutes' worth of footage, and movie projectors could show only 20 minutes at a time before reels needed to be changed. In Rope, Hitchcock often works around these limitations by artificial blackouts in which a character's back fills the frame to mask the cut, but he sometimes makes an unmasked quick cut to a character entering the room -- a kind of blink-and-you-miss-it cut.* But for most of the film, we are watching the action in real time, as we would on a stage. Rope began as a play, of course, in 1929, when Patrick Hamilton's thinly disguised version of the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder case was staged in London. Hitchcock, who had almost certainly seen it on stage, asked Hume Cronyn to adapt it for the screen and then brought in Arthur Laurents to write the screenplay. To accomplish his idea of filming it as a continuous action, he worked with two cinematographers, William V. Skall and Joseph A. Valentine, and a crew of camera operators whose names are listed -- uniquely for the time -- in the opening credits, developing a kind of choreography through the rooms, designed by Perry Ferguson, that appear on the screen. The film opens with the murder of David Kentley (Dick Hogan) by Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger), who then hide his body in a large antique chest and proceed to hold a dinner party in the same room, serving dinner from the lid of the chest, which they cover with a cloth and on which they place two candelabra. The dinner guests are David's father (Cedric Hardwicke), his aunt (Constance Collier), his fiancée, Janet (Joan Chandler), his old friend and rival for Janet's hand (Douglas Dick), and the former headmaster of their prep school, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart). Everyone spends a lot of time wondering why David hasn't shown up for the party, too, while Brandon carries on some intellectual jousting with Rupert and the others about whether murder is really a crime if a superior person kills an inferior one, and Philip, jittery from the beginning, drinks heavily and starts to fall to pieces. Murder will out, eventually, but not after much talk and everyone except Rupert, who returns to find a cigarette case he pretends to have lost, has gone home. There is one beautifully Hitchcockian scene in the film, in which the chest is positioned in the foreground, and while the talk about murder goes on off-camera, we watch the housekeeper (Edith Evanson) clear away the serving dishes, remove the cloth and candelabra, and almost put back the books that had been stored in the chest. It's a rare moment of genuine suspense in a film whose archness of dialogue and sometimes distractingly busy camerawork saps a lot of the necessary tension, especially since we know whodunit and assume that they'll get caught somehow. Some questionable casting also undermines the film: Stewart does what he can as always, but is never quite convincing as a Nietzschean intellectual, and Granger's disintegrating Philip is more a collection of gestures than a characterization. The gay subtext of the film emerges strongly despite the Production Code, but today portrayals of gay men as thrill-killers only adds something of a sour note, even though Dall and Granger were both gay, and Granger was for a time Laurents's lover.

*Technology has since made something like what Hitchcock was aiming for in Rope possible. Alexander Sokurov's 2002 Russian Ark consists of a single 96-minute tracking shot through the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg as a well-rehearsed crowd of actors, dancers, and extras re-create 300 years of Russian history. Projectors today are also capable of handling continuous action without the necessity of reel-changes, making possible Alejandro Iñárruitu's Oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), with its appearance of unedited continuity, though Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki resorted to masked cuts very much like Hitchcock's.

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