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Hollywood Quarterly (1948) - A Long Rope




A Long Rope

Irving Pichel, one of the editors of the Hollywood Quarterly, has most recently directed The Miracle of the Bells and Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. He is currently writing a book on film direction in Hollywood.

One great problem that occurs at once, and keeps on occurring, is to get the players to adapt themselves to film technique. Many of them, of course, come from the stage; they are not cinema-minded at all. So, quite naturally, they like to play long scenes straight ahead. I am willing to work with the long uninterrupted shot: you can't avoid it altogether, and you can get some variety by having two cameras running, one close up and one farther away, and cutting from one to the other when the film is edited. But if I have to shoot a long scene continuously I always feel I am losing grip on it, from a cinematic point of view. The camera, I feel, is simply standing there, hoping to catch something with a visual point to it. What I like to do always is to photograph just the little bits of a scene that I really need for building up a visual sequence. I want to put my film together on the screen, not simply photograph something that has been put together already in the form of a long piece of stage acting. This is what gives an effect of life to a picture — the feeling that when you see it on the screen you are watching something that has been conceived and brought to birth directly in visual terms. The screen ought to speak its own language, freshly coined, and it can't do that unless it treats an acted scene as a piece of raw material which must be broken up, taken to bits, before it can be woven into an expressive visual pattern.

Alfred Hitchcock
From "Direction," a chapter in Footnotes to the Film, edited by Charles Davy (New York, Oxford University Press, 1937), p. 6.

The foundation of film art is montage.

W.I. Pudovkin, Film Technique

Two assumptions are basic in theories of film assemblage: first, that consecutive shots need not be related temporally or spatially; second, that their ideological relationship need not be inherent in their content. By the first assumption, film creates its own space and time; by the second, the sequence of shots creates its own logic and establishes its sense just as the sequence of words in a sentence establishes its meaning.

American films have adopted the first set of assumptions fully. We are accustomed to direct cuts from place to place for the purpose of establishing simultaneity of action, as in troops coming to the rescue of beleaguered immigrants attacked by Indians. We are accustomed to the dropping out of chunks of time through the use of dissolves. We accept immediate shifts of viewpoint from full shot to close-up, from the right to the left, from below to above. Whatever logic is employed to bind the shots together, they play fast and loose with time and with actual geography.

The second assumption plays little part in American films, save in isolated sections or "paragraphs," introduced in the film to convey rapidly a passage of time, a statement of atmosphere, or, rarely enough, a correlative emotional statement, commenting on or elaborating the state of mind of one or a group of characters. This is the essence of "montage," in the sense in which Pudovkin uses the word.

In a lecture at the University of California at Los Angeles, in the early 'thirties, Sergei Eisenstein gave an illustration in the simplest terms of how film sense is built out of the sequence of shots without being inherent in the shot content. We see on the screen, he said, a shot of a man smiling pleasantly. We cut directly to children playing on the floor. We conclude that the man loves children. But if we use the same shot of the man and follow it with a shot of a man being throttled by another, we draw a very different conclusion.

In the quotation from Mr. Hitchcock's paper on direction, it is plain that he subscribes to the first set of assumptions; and by his work we know how skillfully he manipulates both space and time, selecting within each continuum the exact moments and the exact visually significant actions out of which he can build his visual pattern. This procedure is described by Mortimer Adler in Art and Prudence (p. 531): "In the course of shooting, the analysis of the story into its filmic parts continues; and in the course of cutting, the synthesis of the parts into a filmic continuity is completed. The relation between the shooting and the cutting is thus clear. The former is the analytical side of the work. During this stage, the film maker is progressively reducing the whole to its elementary constituents. The latter is the synthetic or constructive side of the work. During this stage, the film maker is organizing the whole out of its constituents. Since the shooting precedes the cutting in time, the former must anticipate the latter."

In his most recently released film, Rope, Mr. Hitchcock appears at first glance to have abandoned his earlier convictions and to have refuted the theorists who find in montage and the recomposition of time and space the fundamental characteristics of film technique. In an earlier film, Lifeboat, he experimented with the space factor and devised a motion picture with unity of place, the entire action taking place in a lifeboat. In Rope he experiments with both unity of place and unity of time. Not only is the action confined to a single apartment; it covers, moreover, exactly the period of time required to unreel the film.

It may be admitted that Mr. Hitchcock could still have utilized the customary analytical process in shooting and synthesis in cutting the film without sacrificing the strictly linear time structure of the picture. That he did not, but shot the picture in what appears to be one long, unbroken shot, has led to the critical charge that the picture is simply a photographed stage play, embellished by an incredible mechanical ingenuity in moving the camera about through the set. Yet, in spite of its avoidance of cutting, its limited range in space, and its strictly linear time composition, Rope is characteristically a film and not a filmed stage play. The respect in which it differs from a screened play reveals the true fundamental of film technique, differentiating the film from any other art form. This can, it is true, be achieved by cutting; but, as Mr. Hitchcock has demonstrated in Rope, it need not be. Rather, his method in this particular film appears to be the one best adapted, filmically, to his exploitation of the content of the story in hand.

The story, let us grant, is one that Mr. Hitchcock would like regardless of its form, its limited field of action, or its strict time continuity. It is a murder story involving oblique motivations with a great degree of suspense generated in its detection — hallmarks of the typical Hitchcock product. Its structure may have presented a challenge to Mr. Hitchcock's ingenuity as a technician. I am more inclined to the view that it afforded him a challenge as an artist seeking the best way to tell the story with the camera, still retaining filmic form. That the problem presented mechanical difficulties to be overcome is immaterial from the spectator's viewpoint. So far as Mr. Hitchcock was successful in solving his central problem, the artistic one, his ingenuity would go unnoticed save by the initiated, who have some experience of screen technique, and the partially initiated, the critics, who have noticed that films are usually cut. The average spectator is unaware that films are not photographed in continuous action. Seeing a picture which has been shot continuously would excite his notice only if it failed to satisfy him in the ways in which films usually satisfy him. He would become aware of its technical deviation only if it violated basic characteristics of film and denied him the visual satisfactions he has learned, from hundreds of other pictures, to expect.

As a literary form, it is true that Rope differs little enough from a stage play. The setting is a little less confined than that of the stage play, and from time to time the spectator can follow a character from room to room. In this, however, it differs little from the setting of The Voice of the Turtle, which shows three rooms of an apartment.

But in Rope no limitation is imposed upon the telling of the story by being so confined. It required no ingenuity on the director's part to hold the action within its limited space. On the contrary, only a forced invention could have carried the action afield, as often occurs when stage plays are adapted to the screen. Here, on stage always, we have the scene of the crime, the corpus delicti, and the morbid perversity of a criminal who does not revisit the scene of his crime, but remains there and invites there all who have an interest in its detection. Stage center is the focus of the crime and of whatever suspense may be generated in its detection, the chest in which the victim's body lies hidden. To move far away from this spot would be to attenuate interest and suspense. Limitation of movement is inherent in both structure and theme of the story and is not a matter of directorial ingenuity or poverty of invention.

The sum of the settings in any motion picture constitutes the arena of the action. Normally, this is not true of a stage play, the settings of which are much less than the arena of physical action. In classic dramas which observe the unities, the setting is usually a spot removed from the scene or scenes of action, to which reports of the action are brought. To illustrate, the single setting of Medea is not the arena of the actions performed by the heroine or of those set in motion by her. It is hard to imagine that if Medea were filmed the camera would not follow the gifts the woman from Colchis sends to Jason's new wife, and that the terrible scene in Creon's palace would not be shown but merely described as in the play. And quite probably the scenarist would begin his story earlier and show Jason's turning from his barbarian wife to the young daughter of Creon, rather than leave these events to be described by the nurse. Time and place would be expanded to comprise the total arena of the visual play, whereas Euripides contracted them to the arena of the turmoil in the soul of Medea.

In a recent play with a single setting, The Winslow Boy, important parts of the action are played elsewhere than in the one room seen on the stage. If the writer of a screenplay were to show the action of the story, he would be obliged to go to the school from which the young boy has been expelled, to the various government and navy officials to whom the father appeals, and to the courtroom where Sir Robert finally achieves a victory.

None of this is true of Rope. There is no visual action that takes place elsewhere between the murder with which the film begins and its detection with which the film ends, and there is nothing that precedes the murder which is not fully embodied in the attitudes of the characters after the murder has been committed.

The director, therefore, could not expand the arena and had no need either to expand or to contract the time of the action. Continuous unfoldment, inherent in the entire structure, suggested continuous and unbroken visual presentation. Inherent in the content and externalized in the presentation, this means artistic harmony between means and end, between technique and effect. Now, if Mr. Hitchcock had been working in the theater, he would have had no problem at all, or no problem greater than that of any other stage director. But film is a different medium from the stage, and Mr. Hitchcock's problem was to tell his story in continuous action and yet lose none of the attributes peculiar to his medium.

In the theater, we see the entire stage at all times, or rather, we can see the entire stage. To be sure, our attention moves from character to character as our interest in one outweighs our interest in another. The skilled stage director has a good bit to do with this. He directs our attention now to one character, now to another. He utilizes movement to draw the eye, and he composes the stage to focus our interest. He uses some players to turn attention to others. Actors, too, are versed in a score of tricks to draw attention arbitrarily to themselves. Nevertheless, in the theater, wherever our attention falls, we are still aware of the rest of the stage and the other characters on the periphery of the area upon which we have for the moment focused. And always, our eye sees whatever we give attention to, wittingly or unwittingly, in the same scale, determined for us by our distance from the stage and the angle at which we face it.

In the motion picture, the act of attention which in the theater must be induced is objectified for us by the camera. The center of our attention is predetermined by the director. He shows us what we are to see at a given moment. He shows it to us at a scale that measures the importance and emphasis of what we are seeing at that moment. Above all, he excludes at that moment everything we are not to see. He precludes roving attention, or even the individual's chance idiosyncratic curiosity about other characters than the ones we are seeing. He prevents the actors who are playing those other characters from utilizing their attention-drawing tricks. There can be no upstaging, no fluttering handkerchief, no sudden small movement to draw the attention away from the character or group or object upon which the director has at that moment fixed it. Hugo Munsterberg described this property of films as long ago as 1916. It remains today the basic characteristic of film technique. It is the sole purpose of cutting, with constant change of angle, shot content, and scale. Indeed, ordinarily it can be achieved only by cutting. And, to avoid confusion, it must be noted that cutting accomplishes many other things which cannot be achieved otherwise. It makes possible the depiction of parallel actions, the instantaneous change of locale, the dramatic shift of viewpoint, the rearrangement of time and space — all of which are factors that Mr. Hitchcock did not require in the making of this particular film.

What he did require, as he did in every picture he has made, was the ability to direct the spectator's attention, moment by moment, and fix it upon whatever or whomever could, at the given moment, advance the story most in terms of the emotions he wanted to arouse. This he succeeded in doing. The film has its close-ups, its normal groups, its angle shots, its compositions of people in space and of people related to significant objects. Incredible skill was required to obtain all these film attributes with intermediate movement instead of cutting. There is sheer directorial skill in staging the action; there is enormous technical inventiveness in devising the camera movement necessary to see the groupings, angles, close-ups, and compositions. There is skill in the motivation of the camera movement so that it is never arbitrary. By seeming inadvertence the camera is always just where Mr. Hitchcock wants it to be. If the chest and its gruesome contents should be in the shot, the camera sees it, watches it intently, though the characters are busy elsewhere in the room and are saying things to which we wish to listen. If he wishes the camera to be close on a character, the camera finds its way at the right moment to the character, or the character finds a reason to move close to the camera. In short, though he has abandoned cutting, Mr. Hitchcock has retained the principal end results of the technique required by this particular story.

In spite of his technical resourcefulness and flexibility, I cannot believe that Mr. Hitchcock was primarily interested in exploring a method of shooting applicable to all pictures, or even to his own next picture, or to any other picture he may make in the future. It seemed to him a good way to shoot this particular story, and he had the ingenuity to solve the problems the method involved. Or, if he were seeking a story fitted to a technical experiment, he found perhaps the only one lying about which embodied the elements one has learned to expect in a Hitchcock film. For this is what Rope proves, by any analysis, to be.