“I’ve always wished for more artistic talent. Well, murder can be an art, too. The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create.”
I recently watched Birdman for the fourth time, again inspired and perplexed by its themes and cinematic approach, so I figured it was time to dive into what a discussion of what is easily one of the best films of 2014. Before doing so, however, it’s important to examine where this whole one-shot technique really finds its roots. The long shot is an exciting piece of cinematography, and every film guru has their favorites (mine being the restaurant scene from Goodfellas.) There’s a wonderful Every Frame a Painting video about what Tony Zhou calls the “Spielberg oner,” meant to be invisible to the audience. For a film such as Birdman, however, the entire film is meant to appear as one deliberate long shot. This is quite an innovative concept; at least it would be, if Hitchcock hadn’t taken a crack at the concept nearly 70 years ago with the dinner party thriller Rope. Not only is the cinematic concept amusing, but I actually think Rope is one of Hitchcock’s most well-executed thrillers, and I feel that it ranks among the upper end of the Hitchcock canon.
Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) are two bright young university students who take Nietzsche’s superman theory to its extreme: murdering their fellow classmate David. In order to assert their superiority and culminate the evening into a perfect intellectual display, they hide his body in a chest, decorate it with candlesticks, and host a dinner party over his remains. The evening is brimming with close calls and escalating tension as the party guests wonder just what happened to David, who is known to always show up on time to such events. The biggest threat to their little experiment comes in the form of Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the men’s former prep school housemaster and an intellectual himself who catches on that something just isn’t right with this party.
The first time you watch Rope, the long shot is the most apparent element of the film. If you know beforehand that the film could only be shot at about ten minutes at a time, you start to watch for cuts. Just as Iñárritu does with Birdman, Hitchcock will tease the camera to a position of darkness, typically behind an actor’s back, and then pan it back out with a new bit of film to continue shooting. As the technique and cinematic potential was far less adequate in 1948, these shots can be clunky at times. Birdman is able to manage a practically seamless transition of shots from location to location, but the confined setting of Rope makes for some awkward and obvious cuts. Despite these setbacks, the long shot approach works fairly well for the story. Like one long thread of rope, the film makes its way linearly from start to finish. It’s a nice, confined piece of cinema that strongly reflects a stage production. Actors come in and out of the action as they move between rooms, but the meat of the story takes place right in the living room where the murder itself occurred. I’ve always been fascinated with the confined setting approach to a film’s plot, along the lines of 12 Angry Men, and Rope is one of the most successful movies to adopt this style. It keeps the action sharp and dramatic without dragging the pace. Just as in a work of theatre, everything you need to see unfolds in real time before you, and there’s something satisfying about that.
The film’s subject matter is endlessly captivating as well. Rope feels strikingly similar to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with familiar themes of Nietzsche and his extraordinary man theory. Just as Raskolnikov in the novel feels torn between superiority, the desire to be among the greatest of men, and guilt for what he has done, Rope actually embodies this split with its two lead characters. Brandon only feels lust and pride for his heinous deed as the night progresses, and it reaches a point by the film’s conclusion where he seemingly almost wants to be caught. He lives dangerously with the concealed hope that someone will appreciate his genius. Brandon represents the philosophy of Nietzsche, that some extraordinary men should be allowed to overstep the constraints of society as a consequence of their greatness. Philip, meanwhile, shows immediate remorse for the murder. His character seems to be a comment against Nietzsche, that there is an element of humanity that binds us all on an equal playing field. Ultimately, Rupert Cadall (and his enthralling portrayal by Jimmy Stewart) seems to be the voice of reason, siding with Philip’s philosophy over Brandon’s (and Nietzsche’s), condemning the two leads as villains and not heroes.
In the end, the film is another chunk of brilliance from Alfred Hitchcock. Before the 50s and 60s would yield his most acclaimed works, Hitchcock proved himself to be the master of suspense with works such as Rope (among many other early works which I hope to explore soon). The long shot approach to the film seems to plant it into history as a milestone of cinematography, a work of innovation that continues to inspire filmmakers today. Beyond this cinematic importance, however, Rope is a tightly woven thriller with important moral questions driving the action. I’d go as far to say that this is the tightest, most smoothly paced film that Hitchcock has made. Every line of dialogue is oozing with character revelation and dramatic fuel for the story. It’s a film that yearns and deserves to be watched multiple times, and at only 80 minutes, it would be well worthy to do so.
Films Left to Watch: 921