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Popular Photography (1948) - My Most Exciting Picture




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My Most Exciting Picture

Shooting Rope was a little like unpuzzling a Rube Goldberg drawing.

A long time ago I said that I would like to film in two hours a fictional story that actually happens in two hours. I wanted to do a picture with no time lapses — a picture in which the camera never stops.

In Rope I got my wish. It was a picture unlike any other I've ever directed. True, I had experimented with a roving camera in isolated sequences in such films as Spellbound, Notorious, and The Paradine Case. But until Rope came along, I had been unable to give full rein to my notion that a camera could photograph one complete reel at a time, gobbling up 11 pages of dialogue on each shot, devouring action like a giant steam shovel.

As I see it, there's nothing like continuous action to sustain the mood of actors, particularly in a suspense story. In Rope the entire action takes place between the setting of the sun and the hour of darkness. There are a murder, a party, mounting tension, detailed psychological characterizations, the gradual discovery of the crime and the solution. Yet all this consumes less than two hours of real life as well as "reel" life. (Actually, it took us 35 days to wrap up the picture.)

The sight of a "take" under these conditions is something new under the Hollywood sun. It's like being backstage at one of those madhouses that comedian Joe Cook used to devise when he was explaining why he couldn't imitate the four Hawaiians.

Here, for instance, is a brief glimpse of the action in Reel 2 of Rope.

For a full nine minutes the roving Technicolor camera poked its nose into every corner of the "collapsible" Sutton Place apartment. Prop men crouched on their knees beneath the camera boom moving furniture and putting it back. Lights dimmed down in one corner of the apartment, went up in another. "Wild" walls slid silently on vaseline-greased rollers. Script supervisors, prop men, electricians, and camera crew waggled their fingers and made faces at each other in a series of soundless, prearranged signals. And the camera, which had started facing south, was now facing north.

One complete reel, 950 feet of film, was in the can. There was a sudden silence. Then came a loud whisper from one of the harried, exhausted prop men.

"This," he announced, "is the damnedest picture I ever worked!"

All of us, including myself, agreed with him.

Yet Rope was probably the most exciting picture I've ever directed. Observers called it "the most revolutionary technique Hollywood had ever seen." Some of our problems seemed, at first, totally insurmountable. James Stewart, our star, couldn't sleep nights because of his role in the picture. It wasn't so much the suspense-fill drama as it was the bewildering technique that made him worry. Head grip Morris Rosen still was operating the camera boom in his dreams at four o'clock in the morning and wound up at the finish of the picture 12 pounds thinner. Once, Joe Valentine, our cinematographer, had the 6,000-pound camera dolly roll on his foot when he didn't move fast enough. Still another time, the roving camera rolled too far and smashed one wall of the apartment.

To shoot Rope with stage technique under sound stage conditions but with continuous action called for months of preparation and days of exacting rehearsals. Every movement of the camera and the actors was worked out first in sessions with a blackboardlike football skull practice. Even the door was marked and plotted with numbered circles for the 25 to 30 camera moves in each reel. Whole walls of the apartment had to slide away to allow the camera to follow the actors through narrow doors, then swing back noiselessly to show a solid room. Even the furniture was "wild." Tables and chairs had to be pulled away by prop men, then set in place again by the time the camera returned to its original position, since the camera was on a special crane, not on tracks, and designed to roll through everything like a juggernaut.

All this technique, of course, was merely a means to an end. The audience must never be conscious of it. If an audience becomes aware that the camera is performing miracles, the end itself will be defeated.

Yet in Rope the camera did perform miracles, all because of the superb teamwork of the technical crew and their collaborative genius.

Broadway playwright Arthur Laurents (Home of the Brave and Heart Song) wrote the screenplay, the first time a scenario was written without time lapses. Laurents' scenes were unnumbered and there was almost no camera direction, merely indications of the changing camera position at major points throughout the story. Joe Valentine and I decided that one lens — a 35 mm — would give us all the coverage we needed, since it would be impossible to change lenses because of the continuous camera movement. Paul Hill, our Technicolor consultant, solved the problem of parallax, successfully modifying the camera for close-ups so that we could move in close enough to shoot the inside of a man's hat and the label on a hatband. And instead of following the camera with a mike boom, which would have created an insurmountable problem, we decided that the simplest solution was not to follow it. Instead, we set up four separate booms and two additional microphones up high. Operated by six sound men, these mikes picked up dialogue anywhere the camera wandered within the three-room apartment.

But the most magical of all the devices was the cyclorama — an exact miniature reproduction of nearly 35 miles of New York skyline lighted by 8,000 incandescent bulbs and 200 neon signs requiring 150 transformers.

On film the miniature looks exactly like Manhattan at night as it would appear from the window of an apartment at 54th Street and First Avenue, the locale of the play. And since all the major action of Rope takes place in the living room of this apartment, with the spectators constantly viewing the background, it was impossible to use process shots or a backdrop. Both would have been too flat. We had to remember the core of the arc of view. So we had to employ the scale cyclorama and devise a "light organ" that not only would light the miniature and its panorama of buildings, but also could give us changing sky and cloud effects varying from sunset to dark — all seen from the apartment — to denote the passing of time.

In the 12,000 square feet of the cyclorama, the largest backing ever used on a sound stage, the spectator sees the Empire State, the Chrysler, and the Woolworth buildings; St. Patrick's, Radio City, and hundreds of other landmarks of the fabulous New York skyline. Each miniature building was wired separately for globes ranging from 25 to 150 watts in the tiny windows. (The electrician's eye level was at the 22nd story.) Twenty-six thousand feet of wire carried 126,000 watts of power for the building and window illumination — all controlled by a twist of the electrician's wrist, via a bank of 47 switches, as he sat at the light organ high up and far behind the camera.

Because the roofs of the buildings closest to the apartment were three-dimensional and built to scale, there was still another problem to solve. For verisimilitude, smoke and steam trailed toward the sky from the tiny chimneys. Pipes under the rooftops supplied this steam, but we discovered that the vapor left the chimneys too fast and rose too high for accurate perspective. The normal speed of the jetting steam was completely out of synchronization with the miniature.

One of the prop men rose to the occasion, placing dry ice over the pipes to retard the steam's speed and volume. After that the smoke trailed lazily into the sky at a rate of speed that was wholly in proportion to the size of the buildings in the miniature.

That electrician who sat high on a parallel behind the camera manipulating the light organ controlled the lighting of the miniature like an artist at a console. He could illuminate an entire building or just one window at a time. He could, at the exact and rehearsed line of dialogue which gave him his cue, flood the Manhattan skyline with light from 200 miniature neon signs. By the time the picture went from the setting of the sun in the first reel to the hour of total darkness in the final denouement, the man at the light organ had played a nocturnal Manhattan symphony in light.

And then there were the cloud effects. Searching for what I demanded in a natural-seeming sky, I rejected the two routine methods of getting clouds. We could have painted them on the cyclorama, or we could have projected the clouds on the backdrop by means of painted lantern slides. But we did neither. I wanted the clouds to look like clouds even from ten feet away.

It was Fred Ahern, our production manager, who found the solution to the puzzle. Ahern came up with the perfect light-reflecting substance — spun glass. (Cotton wouldn't do because it soaks up and deadens light.) Five hundred pounds of spun glass were woven by scenic artists into chicken wire molds. Then actual clouds were photographed in all kinds of weather. We discovered that clouds are never the same even when the weather is constant, and it makes no difference what shape they are. Finally we decided on the cumulus or storm cloud, because it is white and fleecy before it turns gray and formidable. Every possible shaped cloud was created out of spun glass: wispy and full; fragile and menacing, circular and long.

Rope shows eight complete cloud changes during its nine reels. (The spun glass clouds were hung on standards and on overhead wires behind the buildings in the cyclorama, then slightly varied after each reel.) As a final check on our meteorology, we asked Dr. Dinsmore Alter of the famed Griffith Observatory for his opinion.

The cumulus clouds were fine, Alter told us, because there are more cumulus in the New York sky than anywhere else in the country, except high in the mountains. "And of course," said Alter, "you won't want any cirrus or high ice clouds."

"Cirrusly, I think not," I said, waiting for a laugh which was a lot weaker than a director has a right to expect on his own set.

To get authentic reproductions of changing sun and cloud effects and the falling of dusk, we had still photographers shoot the sun in three different locales. Once from the top of a New York skyscraper, once from the roof of an unfinished building on Wiltshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and once by a camera crew from the edge of the Santa Monica pier on the Pacific Ocean.

Famed John Miehle, our head still photographer, took over the cloud reproduction assignment, using an 8 x 10 and shooting straight into the sun. Miehle recorded the setting sun at five-minute intervals for an hour and 45 minutes to get a continuous effect. All these progressive variations in sun and clouds were charted on a detailed time schedule, then later cued to dialogue and action reel by reel. Miehle's developed films were studied by Technicolor experts who were able to match nature without a flaw.

Oddly enough, we discovered that there were virtually no major differences in cloud and sunset effects between the photographs shot in New York and those obtained on the West Coast.

Miehle knew that in photographing the sun head-on he might get double images, and he did. But he also obtained magnificent effects. These were the effects that were used in Rope to denote the passing of time — the yellow glare of the late afternoon sun fading to a soft gray, the light reflections on the fleecy white clouds dying softly — and finally dusk and darkness coming on as the lights of the city appeared.

Rope was a miracle of cueing. Everybody; actors, cameramen, the prop crew, the electricians, the script supervisors, spent two solid weeks of rehearsals before a camera turned. Even before the set was built I worked out each movement on a blackboard in my home. Then in the studio, the stage (actually a stage within a stage, made noiseless by constructing a special floor one and one-half inch above the regular one, soundproofed with layers of Celotex and carpet) was marked with numbered circles. These indicated where each specific camera stop had to be made, and when. Each camera movement — and there were as many as 30 separate ones — had its predetermined focus. Because of this the crew men operating the camera had to hit the floor markings exactly on cue and without deviations. The entire floor plan was laid out in foot squares so that in the event of retakes we could go back to the exact spot.

For the actual take the door markings were removed and plotted on a board. Holding the cue board the script supervisor signalled the camera crew on every movement during the 10-minute take. It was like one of those fabulous "Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance" triple plays. To cue each separate camera movement (and everything had to be done in utter silence) the script supervisor would check his cue board, then nod to a crew man on his left who held a long bamboo pointer. This crew man placed the end of the pointer on a predetermined spot on the floor. His action triggered Morris Rosen, the head grip, who dollied the camera to the new position, while the focus puller on the camera crane, watching his own cue sheet, simultaneously changed the focus on the camera lens.

But that wasn't all. Remember I told you that shooting Rope was very much like a Rube Goldberg drawing.

That wooden chest in which John Dall and Farley Granger, as the two young intellectual murderers, placed the body, practically played second lead in the picture. This chest with the body inside of it was always in the center of the living room — so far as the audience is aware.

Yet, actually every time the camera crossed the room the chest had to be rolled off stage just in advance of the camera crane. (We couldn't stop to make new camera setups.) Moving the chest was the assignment of the four prop men crouched on their hands and knees beneath the camera. Not only did they have to move the chest aside on cue but they also had to get it back into the scene again as the camera returned.

And all the time the young actor who played the strangled youth had to remain inside the chest! Since there were no time lapses or camera cuts in the usual scene, he was inside the chest for a full ten minutes, the shooting of 950 feet of film. After the third take, this actor began to get, well, a little tired. "I hope to God they get it on this take," he said fervently. "Those ten minutes seem like ten hours."

Every piece of furniture on the stage — every table, chair, plate, dish, and drinking glass — had to be moved on cue just like the wooden chest. Once, while the characters in the play were eating a buffet supper, Joan Chandler, who played the feminine lead, had to put her wine glass down on a table. But the table was gone. Joan merely put the glass down where the table should have been, one of the crouching prop men (unseen by the camera, of course) raised his hand and Joan's glass found a resting place in it. Another time an actor had to reach for a plate off the unseen table. Again a prop man moved in, handed the actor a plate, and the action went on.

It really was uncanny.

Naturally, in rolling a camera back and forth in a three-room apartment for 10 minutes without a halt (from living room to kitchen and back) we had to have a collapsible apartment. Actually, the basic element was the series of wild walls. ("Wild" is a term used to designate moveable or detachable flats.) In Rope the walls were quite literally wild. They rolled on overhead tracks heavily greased with vaseline to soundproof the skids. A separate crew stood by to roll each wall at a given cue, admitting the camera when the actors had gone through the door. When the players returned in the same shot, the wall closed and the Technicolor camera dollied back to pick up a new angle during the split second needed to make the room solid again.

That camera was gliding back and forth following actors all over the place. You'd see James Stewart coming suspiciously close to the chest in the living room that hid the body of the strangled youth. And in the next minute Stewart would be drinking champagne in the kitchen — all in the same 950 feet of film and without a halt in the movement of the camera.

There was one rather knotty problem that Jimmy Stewart, recalling his experiences in the Air Force, helped us solve. In the final moments of the story when the body is discovered and the killers are trapped, the apartment living room is flooded at intervals by great pulsations of light from a huge neon "Storage" sign just outside the window. I wanted the effect to add dramatic tension, much like the increasing crescendos of an orchestra at the climax of a symphony.

But for a while our electrical experts were stumped. They knew that in order to get enough light into the room during the sign's pulsations, huge arc lights would have to be hooked up on a special parallel with the actual sign, then synchronized. Then Stewart thought of the bomb release switch used in heavy bombers during the war. This switch controlled electrically the split second intervals during which bombs were dropped over the target. So we bought a bomb release at a war surplus store, adjusted it to synchronize the alternate flashing of the neon "Storage" sign with the opening and closing of these shutters on the three huge floodlights, and got exactly the effect we wanted.

Those 200 miniature neon signs in the New York skyline cyclo-rama helped me solve a little problem of my own. It's traditional, with me at least, that I appear fleetingly in every one of my pictures. But Rope, with a cast of only nine people who never leave the apartment, looked like the end of the Hitchcock tradition. There was just no way that I could get into the act.

Then someone came up with a solution. The result? The Hitchcock countenance will appear in a neon "Reduco" sign on the side of a miniature building!

Because of the way the picture was shot, the actors' performance varied very little from day to day. Actually, they found it a very stimulating experience. Their cooperation during the intensive pre-shooting rehearsals was truly magnificent.

Instead of reading the script through once or twice, the cast spent two weeks walking through the action from the beginning to the end, much like a stage play. Remember we weren't shooting just a line at a time, nor shifting our camera setup after a one-minute take. There were ten to eleven pages of dialogue on each shot. Actually, for the camera rehearsals we used no stand-ins as such. The stars themselves acted as puppets for the camera. After the camera movement rehearsals there were intensive dress rehearsals, when everyone's job, from script supervisor to prop man, was coordinated. Following that we put Reel 1 and Reel 2 on film. The maximum number of takes on any single reel was six and the minimum was three.

Stewart, of course, claimed that Rope was the toughest job an actor ever had. And I agreed with him. He told me that he wasn't sleeping nights. "What this means," Jimmy said, "is that if the rest of the cast is perfect and I fluff a line at, say 895 feet, it becomes the colossal fluff in screen history. The only way it can be reshot is to do the whole scene over again."

"Well," I said, "that's exactly why I picked you for the lead."

As it was, Stewart had to hang around the set 18 days before making a bona fide entrance for the rolling camera. It was the final dress rehearsal for Reel 3 in which Jimmy makes an entrance while Farley Granger is playing the piano. The piano stopped and silence ensued, as all eyes went to Stewart. He just made it into the room and was ready to open his mouth. "Just a minute," I said. "I'd like you to make your entrance differently."

Jimmy punched the air in a defeated gesture. "Hey, look," he complained, "I've waited three weeks for this!"

What amused everyone was that I never once looked at the action after the camera got rolling. There was no point, because I couldn't do anything about it. Once the camera started it had to keep rolling until the completion of the take. My job was done the moment I called "Action!"

One of the vital cogs in our machinery of advance planning was Film Editor Bill Ziegler. For the first time in his or anyone else's career as a cutter, a full-length feature had to be edited before it got on film. There were no close-ups, medium, or long shots in the conventional sense, that Ziegler could insert for a change of pace. Every move, every jump from reel to reel had to be planned so that the action would not drag on the screen. All of Ziegler's work, which usually takes place after a film is shot, had to take place while the action was going on.

All told we had 10,000 feet of film, shot without cuts, and from beginning to end like a stage play. And I think that in editing Rope this way we achieved suspense and an air of mystery without transoms opening, creaky doors, clutching fingers, or a house filled with eerie shadows.

Technicolor helped but it wasn't the star of the picture. Rope, incidentally, is the first time I've ever directed a Technicolor picture. I never wanted to make a Technicolor picture merely for the sake of using color. I waited until I could find a story in which color could play a dramatic role, and still be muted to a low key. In Rope, sets and costumes are neutralized so that there are no glaring contrasts. The key role played by color in this film is in the background. I insisted that color be used purely as the eye received it. After all, technique is merely a means to an end and the audience must never be aware that the camera, the director, or the photographer is performing miracles. Everything must flow smoothly and naturally.

Rope is a picture in which material has been created definitely for camera movements. Scenes were planned for visual strength, which in turn was blended with movement. The continuous flow of action meant that the eye was occupied constantly. And the elimination of the conventional shifting camera excites the audience by making the picture flow smoother and faster.

All of us had a lot of fun with Rope, particularly the publicity people. One press agent suggested that we have a world premiere in the Philippines because hemp comes from there. Another wanted us to hang it on New York's Strand Theatre.

I thought it best to let the boys have their fun. Their work was just beginning; mine was done. You see, I had come to the end of my Rope.