Tracing Time Without a Clock

Rope (1948)

illustration by Brianna Ashby
Alfred Hitchcock didn’t much like Rope. Actually, neither did James Stewart, its biggest star. Hitchcock made it to challenge himself, as a stunt, but realized afterwards that filmmaking’s greatest charm is editing—to eliminate that aspect is to lose the most essential cinematic qualities of cutting and montage, he said. Regardless, Rope is a stunning picture, and not only because of its uniqueness. The concept of the 80-minute-long-take isn’t always satisfying, as the masked cuts are sometimes stagey (and there are four unmasked cuts to break them up, made almost invisible by a history of continuity editing), but the film has other things going for it.

It was Hitchcock’s first color picture, and also the first from his production company Transatlantic Pictures, which he founded with Sidney Bernstein. It’s not a murder mystery in the traditional sense, but it’s an incredibly suspenseful experience. And without traditional editing, Rope’s camera movement becomes a source of mystery. In a single long take, where will the camera go next, what will it focus on, what will it choose to show or withhold from the viewer?

The film opens with an establishing shot of Sutton Place, on the Upper East Side of New York City. The credits roll and pedestrians stroll freely along the sidewalk. It’s the last fresh air we get for almost the entire film, the remainder confined to the interior of a single apartment. The camera tracks in slowly to a building, pulls in closer to a window ledge, and suddenly, there’s a piercing scream. At this point there is a direct cut through to the apartment behind the curtains; the only cut in the film that Hitchcock intends the audience to notice. The body of a young blonde man collapses, his neck strangled with a piece of rope. We’ve witnessed a murder.

It’s here that Hitchcock gets a joke in, perhaps at the expense of the industry’s censors (which were “famously hardass,” according to D. A. Miller). After committing murder, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) enclose the body inside a wooden chest, and collapse, almost breathless, against each other. Brandon turns on the light, but Phillip flinches and doesn’t want to move. Brandon lights a cigarette. It’s all observable post-coital screen behavior, Hitchcock associating sex and murder as desires of the flesh. Desires to possess, to conquer. Brandon, the more indulgent and more dangerous of the two murderers, begins to describe how he felt when committing the murder, when exerting his superiority over his race. “I don’t remember feeling much of anything, until his body went limp and I knew it was over,” he says, tightly clutching his champagne glass with one hand, and stroking its base with the other. “And then I felt…tremendously exhilarated!” He could just as easily be talking about a sexual encounter, and here their murderous impulses are clearly coded as simply a rush, an act to bring on satisfaction, a temporary feeling of elation. The two men, by all perceivable evidence, are lovers, living together as a couple in their apartment, and this has been offered before as evidence of their homosexuality. There are other things that point conclusively to their being a couple; for instance, shared holidays, a shared car, and a maid seeming to suggest they share a bed.

Following this, Brandon and Phillip begin preparations for a party they will be hosting that afternoon. The party is for David, the man they’ve murdered, and his family and friends. They arrange a buffet in their living area, where they will serve food from the chest in which they’ve hidden David’s body. It’s part of a plan to privately boast of their achievement, and Brandon is delighted, but Phillip is a bit more uncomfortable. The guests, including David’s father, aunt, girlfriend Janet (Joan Chandler), friend Kenneth (Douglas Dick), and old schoolmaster Rupert (Stewart) are led to believe that David might arrive at any moment, but he never does, and the audience knows he never will. The party takes place over the remaining duration, and the film is thus defined by the intermingled sensations of waiting and anticipation. Will they be discovered, or will someone give them away?

Watching it over and over again for research, I realized that Rope is the most remarkable film about time—both in narrative and production—that actually has no denoted time in it. If you are interested in film time, or horology, you may have noticed that there are almost no clocks in Rope. There’s a small one on the kitchen wall, I think, too small to read. Another small, ornate clock surfaces on a desk, but it’s impossible to decipher the time. On several occasions, someone’s wristwatch becomes visible—like Brandon’s, which emerges briefly from his sleeve after the guests have left. The time is always hard to read, the glimpse is too quick, or blurred, or may not fit in with the assumed time frame. Hitchcock told François Truffaut that Rope was supposed to take place some time between 7:30pm and 9:15pm, and to affirm that, it has an appearance in Christian Marclay’s 24-hour opus The Clock (2010), somewhere around nine o’clock. Other references in Rope are to abstract time: Janet says that she’s “a new woman, punctual as a clock.” (David’s aunt replies that punctuality is very unfeminine.) But the clock referred to remains elusive. No one mentions the time, or concrete time, only how much they are waiting. And there is so much waiting; nearly the entire runtime of the film is a waiting game: waiting for David to arrive and for the rope to run out. Rope achieves such anxiety, because it’s so involving. The suspense is in David’s absence, in being constantly made to feel as though we are waiting for someone who we know perfectly well is already dead.

Like Rear Window, which came later, time is told by the transient color of the sky: the darkening of the afternoon sun through the gray of the late afternoon, oranges of dusk, and the heavy black of nightfall. It was shot on set, the metropolitan backdrop constructed in a studio, and Hitchcock wanted to take advantage of the Technicolor process as an atmospheric and narrative device. He wasn’t satisfied by the first attempt at the color development, so he hired a weather guru to advise on the tone and cloud formations of the sky. The skyline begins as a monotonous gray, and its gradual change is complemented by the setting sun glistening orange on the sides of buildings and bouncing off clouds. It’s almost barely noticeable, just like reality, and suddenly the sky is dark. We have been lulled along. We still don’t know what time it is.

In the absence of a clock, though, Brandon and Phillip are both tightly wound. (Dall so uncharacteristically so that I watched this and Gun Crazy about five times each in as many months before I realized they starred the same actor.) The camera creeps, moving from reaction shots to the object in view slowly. Conversations occur off-screen, and onscreen dialogue is traded in whispers. It’s like the camera is wound too, perpetually circling the action.

Even in the absence of a clock, the tension in Rope rises at a slow, almost unbearable pace. I showed this film to some friends and we were all pretty much prostrate on the couch, unable to find reprieve. Its palpable, throbbing sense of time expiring is what makes it a film like nothing else. Once the opening credits come to a close, there is no more score music, only interior sounds—Manhattan noises, and a little music wafting from the radio. Phillips plays the piano, too: Francis Poulenc’s “Mouvement Perpétuel No. 1” (a movement of perpetual motion, like the camera), made to sound slightly avant-garde by Granger’s inexpert piano fingering skills. He plays it repeatedly. There’s even a metronome, which acts as a substitute timepiece in the film, keeping nonspecific, sped-up time.

Rope’s temporal anxiety also stems from its spatiality. Objects become hyper-situated, tending to move slowly or not at all. A piece of rope, a pile of books, a loaded gun, enter into the frame unassumingly, but eventually take center stage. The wooden chest almost threatens to expose David’s body. Smoke slowly wafts from chimney and plants in the distant city, polluting the skyline. Just as gently, sounds occasionally waft into the apartment every so often from the street below, immersing us in Manhattan. It’s a single-set film, like Rear Window, only this time, the exterior is much more subtle in its intrusion. What’s outside is barely noticed or commented upon, but as part of the sensory make up, it matters. Off-screen dialogue overlaps the visuals onscreen, revealing unspoken truths about the narrative. When the guests are leaving, David’s father says, “I’m very sorry we had to spoil it,” at the exact moment that Rupert discovers David’s hat in the hall closet. The maid gives it to him accidentally, and he notices the initials “D. K.” printed in its lining. It’s a discovery that gives the game away, intensifying Rupert’s suspicions of sinister action, and well and truly spoiling the party.

Boxed in the apartment for so long, with so many guests, Rope is intensely restricting. It imprisons. It’s the most claustrophobic of Hitchcock’s films, even more so than Dial M For Murder (1954), which barely leaves an apartment and its outer hallway, or Lifeboat (1944), confined mostly to a small dinghy on the Atlantic Ocean. With no cross-cutting, and no point-of-view, the camera makes Rope an exhausting film, constricting the chest. The proverbial microphone, which starves the ears for comforting sound or music, adds to the exhaustion. Brandon and Phillip hold their breaths, alternately nervous, drunk, and terrified. When all the guests have left, Brandon lets out a deep, long-held breath. Unintentionally, he offers this vital sign of life, exhaling the life he stole from another. The audience exhales with him. After being drawn along in this experiment with time, with a screen that hasn’t breathed for nearly eighty minutes, we are finally offered relief.

In the final act, neon lights from the nocturnal landscape brighten the apartment, a motif that would return in Vertigo. In both films, these stark neon lights flood interiors, destabilizing spaces by tinting them with warm and cool shades. It’s perhaps this eerie glow that reveals the sinister truth about Brandon and Phillip. When Rupert’s suspicion leads him to David’s body, the couple realizes they’re done for; there’s no way out. Brandon calmly pours himself a large glass of brandy (wouldn’t you?), and Phillip sits down to the piano. He begins to play a melody, a more melancholy one this time, leaving “Mouvement Perpétuel” aside. The perpetual movement of the camera, and their life as we know it, finally comes to an end.