Rope, released in 1948, is widely recognized as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest technical achievements. The plot of Rope was inspired by the real life case involving Leopold and Loeb, two affluent students who murdered a child to validate their intellect. But the real significance of the film is Hitchcock’s technical innovative cinematic achievements.
Rope was shot in real time – a cinematic first. While most early films were composed of hundreds of shots, each lasting only 5 to 15 seconds (Hitchcock’s The Birds was edited from 1,360 shots), but Rope required only 10! Each scene was shot continuously for 10 minutes, without any interruption – the full length of a film reel at the time. Whenever the film reel needed changing, the camera operator would focus on a blank surface. They would then start the next reel with the same shot, making it appear continuous.
Rope was also Hitchcock’s first color film and aside from the street scene under the opening credits, the film was shot on a single set with almost no editing. The set had walls on rollers so the walls could be moved out of the way for camera shots and then replaced when the walls were to come back into the scene. The large technicolor cameras were placed on dollies so the fully mobile set, all using lubricated surfaces, would keep noise to a minimum. Again, Hitchcock recorded the soundtrack directly – at the time recording live dialogue for a motion picture was previously unthinkable.
Like a military operation, actors had carefully choreographed cues and a team of sound technicians and camera operators kept everything in constant motion. Even the cyclorama used for the background shots was groundbreaking – the largest backing ever used on a sound stage. A cyclorama is a panoramic image inside a cylindrical platform, intended to make viewers feel as if they are in the midst of the scene. The cyclorama used for Rope had models of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, chimneys with smoke, lights going on and off in buildings, neon signs blinking. Clouds made of glass changed position and shape 8 times and the sun slowly dips below the horizon as the movie unfolds.
Bottom line: By experimenting with innovative cinematic and recording techniques Hitchcock challenged many of the basic principles of editing and film-making and encouraged others to begin challenging how films were being made!
For you Hitchcock fans, another bit of trivia. As you know, one of trademarks of a Hitchcock film is the fact that he makes a cameo appearance in most of his films – and this one is no different. At 55 minutes and 19 seconds into the movie, Hitchcock’s trademark profile can be seen when a red neon sign in the background starts blinking. In the scene, as some guests are escorted to the door, the actors stop momentarily and the neon sign flashes in the background.