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Documentary News Letter (1948) - Ten Minutes That Shook Me Rigid



Ten Minutes That Shook Me Rigid

"This is regarded by the highest authorities as revolutionary screen treatment ranking with the introduction of the close-up, the camera boom and sound." Thus the publicity blurb. An alternative, I gather, presumably intended for an illiterate arc of the Critics' Circle, was simply a length of cord ; a gag, after all, far more compatible and in scale with the advertised article than the pompous nonsense quoted above. For the story that Rope tells and the idiom of its telling are inseparable, the one as freakish as the other, and furthermore the difference between its idiom and that of any other story-telling film is one merely of degree, not of kind.

"Thou shalt not kill." The fact that the censor felt himself constrained to make this platitudinous statement of faith before the main title, and also to excise the original opening in which murder most foul is committed before our very eyes, illustrates both the strength and the weakness of the original story. Its strength, of course, lies in its strict unity both of time and of place, a unity that is both a technical tour de force and also a very tangible element in the creation of convincing naturalism and suspense. But against this strength we must set an almost equivalent weakness, that of abnormal and occasionally unreal characterization. Can we really care less whether these two effete young homosexuals, priggish and neurotic as they are respectively made to appear, meet their merited doom in Reel 2 or in Reel 20? Despite the unusual urgency given to the story by its two unities, we can only watch the development of situation — plot would be too strong a word — and the clash of character with the same kind of cold and detached excitement with which we would follow an expert game of chess.

In his film treatment, Hitchcock has done all in his power to retain the strength of the original story, but its weakness has been increased rather than lessened by the softening of eccentricities of character, eccentricities without which the interplay of action and reaction seems to have no convincing starting-point. The weakness has merely been shifted from freakish characterization to arbitrary and imposed behaviour.

As the strength of the story, its unity of time and place, is retained by a deliberate abhorrence of visual interruption and consequently by rejection of the infinitely variable rhythms and scansions associated with film-editing, in favour of a uniform flow of visual prose, far more responsibility than usual rests with the actors, especially as their actions must still remain convincing within a framework of character whose corners have been carefully rounded by the scriptwriter. And it is here that Rope, as a film, succeeds brilliantly. The cast, with one exception, bless her, give us acting whose subtleties of emphasis and timing are precious little in evidence on the London stage and whose qualities of speed and urgency must be held up as an example to those who managed to make The Small Voice, despite its advantage of a more normal editing scheme, the monotonous charade it was. IT I had to single out a name to praise above the others, it would be Farley Granger's pathetic study of neurotic and conscience-stricken misery : his tardy and ineffective rebellion against the hypnotic arrogance of his partner is one of the few really moving things in the film.

Without the infinitely variable rhythms of editing, too, the visual tempo relies largely upon camera-movement. Apart from the same kind of premonitory wobble that made us exclaim during Hamlet, "Here comes a crane shot," these movements are well-selected and succeed in assembling an astonishing variety of significant set-ups within the limits of each reel. It's worthy of mention, though, that the most effective moment in the film finds the camera, for once, motionless while we wait in mounting suspense for Mrs Wilson to open the chest. The changing colours of the New York background give the story, with the nominal assistance of Natalie Kalmus, a perspective which Lifeboat totally missed and, towards the end, a melodramatic accompaniment which made music unnecessary. This background only betrayed its artificiality when we tracked towards or away from the window and the supposedly distant skyscrapers became larger or smaller with the objects in the room.

Don't imagine from all this that there was a mere routine job for the editor. Apart from his work on the original script, the sound track was his to make or mar. The brilliance of the sound at the end of the story is obvious enough, but less obvious is the handling of off-screen dialogue and the dramatic use of silence. One small piece of sound will illustrate its integral part in the film: the police-siren which is heard distantly when Rupert is first questioning Phillip and which foreshadows the banshee wail that draws its hideous curtain over the final climax. Something, I feel, more sinister and morbid could have been chosen as the often repeated piano piece than that jolly little Poulenc Mouvement Per petuel.

There remains, in this survey of the film's resources, the purely physical problem of reel-changes, and it must be stated in all fairness that this problem remains unsolved. Three times we are asked to admire, intensely but irrelevantly, the midnight-blue of someone's back and the little green dot that hops on to it and off again just below the right shoulder. There are, besides, four very ordinary cuts, from observer to observed, from speech to reaction, from off-screen speech to speaker and from question to answer. The final reel-change, where Rupert, in opening the chest and discovering the body, blacks out the screen, would have been dramatic indeed but for the fact that the darkness reminded us irresistibly of our previous back-scratching explorations.

This unsolved problem of reel-changes suggests that the ideal medium for a story like Rope is television, where a mobile camera can grind away to its heart's content and where the normal film practice of rhythmic visual interruption and punctuation is impossible in any case. The problems of adequate rehearsal, however, are probably insurmountable. We can only wait and see.

It's sheer madness to insist, as many well-meaning critics have done, that the film represents a serious menace to the future of creative editing. The story it tells has been handled in the only compatible way, but because its idiom would be not only unsuited to, but unneeded by, any story without the same two strict unities, that alone is enough to show how freakish and inimitable Rope must remain. It's new and unusual, yes: but then, so is a well-respected film-technician's concerto for sackbut, virginals and three lavatory-chains. We go on writing music. But even if Rope had been less than the small-scale imperfectly-realized tour de force that it is, we must admit that Hitchcock's instinctive enthusiasm for experiment and his delight in his craft are such that we can forgive him even his total failures. No doubt his genius for shock tactics, for the sudden image and the unexpected word, will soon reassert itself after this brief period of strenuous self-denial.