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In Rope (1948), Hitchcock demonstrates that he’s an experimental, as well as a successful, filmmaker. Shot in a series of reel-long takes almost invisibly joined together, the picture confirms that there’s more than one way to tell a story with film.

Patrick Hamilton’s play Rope’s End (1929 American title) is the source for this picture, and Rope itself does feel theatrical: the one-set setting is made more explicit by Hitchcock’s method of filming. The experiment, which the director believes “didn’t work out”, is an attempt to create an, on the whole, unedited appearance. The camera is not static: it follows characters around the flat and moves in for close ups when desired. While he occassionally uses unmasked cuts, Hitchcock joins most of his reels together by tracking into objects (for example, the back of a man’s jacket), which he then allows to fill the frame.

Despite aiming at an appearance of organic continuity, with the camera seemingly following the impromptu actions of the characters, Rope was a highly orchestrated affair. The actors were choreographed, taking movement cues from other characters’ lines; the crew had to move props and roll the walls of the set (which were on wheels) silently out of the path of the large Technicolor camera. The camera’s movements were also carefully planned to achieve thrilling shots: for example, the opening close up of David (Dick Hogan) being strangled is later counterpointed by a similar close up of the same rope holding together a bundle of books.

In the film’s balance between the level of in camera editing and apparent lack of post production, Rope‘s experimental nature is reminiscent of early filmmaking techniques. While pictures such as Augustine and Louis Lumière’s Baby’s Breakfast and The Card Players (both 1895) seem to be cases of starting the camera and letting it run on until the 50 ft reel ran out, both exhibit a level of narrative shape which is achieved through in camera editing, through decisions, for example, about when to begin filming, whether to film only part of an event and when to stop.

Such craft is evident in their 1895 picture Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. Here’s a video of the film from youtube:

The single wide shot is positioned to allow a full view of the factory gates and to catch workers leaving both camera left and camera right. There is a clear start, when the gates open, and an apparently clear finish, when the last worker leaves. A young man and a dog run back into frame in the last few seconds, against the general movement of people. I wonder if this shock is a purposeful comic touch or an accident achieved by leaving the camera running a shade too long?

Hitchcock’s later film is far more complex both in terms of narrative shape and its in camera editing. Nonetheless it is telling that, in the classical Hollywood age which, generally speaking, championed a fairly secure set of editing rules, perfecting the invisible cut, Hithcock experimented by turning (consciously or not) back towards the more formative early years of cinema, in which directors had to explore different ways of telling stories, creating rules and trends as they progressed.

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In an earlier post, I touched on, without mentioning explicitly, the concept of cinematic language. I suggested that Woody Allen creates a tension between his dialogue and his shots in Manhattan, between his literary and cinematic methods of storytelling. He reveals that words often hover on the surface while the actions of the characters, the movements of the camera and the composition of the frame all reveal a different story. 

For a pair of very shaky definitions: literary storytelling is what is said; cinematic storytelling is what is shown. The components of the former are dialogue, voice-over and (especially pre-1926, pre-sound) title cards; camera placement and movement, editing, lighting and composition within the frame are some of the factors that help to tell the story cinematically. 

Alfred Hitchcock believed that, “with the arrival of sound, the motion picture, overnight, assumed a theatrical form.” He continues: “In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema”. Films may seem “theatrical” when there is a lack of cinematic storytelling, when the director develops the narrative through words alone. These devices – words – are borrowed from literature: they are not internal and essential to the cinematic image or the cinematic process. Cinema, for Hitchcock, seems to be equated with an emphasis on cinematic storytelling.

Cinematic language – the various visual codes used in cinematic storytelling – is an extremely potent and subtle way of conveying meaning because the origins of its power often lie in broader conventions of society and of life. The layout of the image within the frame serves as example enough to illustrate this point. Consider various movements from the centre of the screen towards the edge of the picture. To move from left to right is easy for Western eyes because this is how we read. The reverse seems uncomfortable. Equally, to move downwards is inevitable because we all suffer from gravity. The ascent towards the top of the screen is more arduous. Diagonals are composites of these rules: descending from left to right is easiest; ascending from right to left is hardest. This language, of which these movements are just one part, affects the viewer almost always subconsciously. 

In Hitchcock’s 1951 film Strangers on a Train, for example, the viewer understands who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist before a word is uttered. The opening scene is a shot, from the knees down, of a man exiting a taxi cab outside a train station. The film cuts to another taxi cab from which a second man exits. One pair of shoes are two-tone and flamboyant; the other pair are plain dark coloured brogues. The two-tone shoes walk from right to left, the more difficult direction, while the plain shoes move from left to right. Implicit in the choice of shoes – the wardrobe – and their respective movements is the suggestion that the man wearing the two-tones is the bad guy and the man in the dark coloured brogues is the good one. 

Putting aside the question of the role of sound in cinema for now, even Hitchcock accepts that words are here to stay. An admission that literary storytelling is needed in some form is implicit when he admits that: “When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialog only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” Sometimes, it says between the lines, it is impossible not to use words.

But, when converting a film from one language to another, is translating these words enough to carry out the process fully? Imagine, for a hypothetical example, Strangers on a Train being shown to an audience that only spoke Hebrew. The language is written from right to left. Hitchcock’s cinematic storytelling could convey the opposite message to such an audience, then, as the man in the two-tones moves from right to left, the more comfortable horizontal movement for such a group. How much is left unsaid, we can ask ourselves, when watching foreign films, before the first words begin?