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Review: Rope (1948)

Colour, as Alfred Hitchcock told François Truffaut in a 1962 interview, is nonexistent. Every image or vision can be reduced to the stark elements of light and shade. Lines and colours are the spectral creations that materialise momentarily when exposed to lights. In film there are more instances of metaphorical darkness (known in literature as "lacunae") than those of actual, plunging darkness- the fact that every story is in a sense only a fraction of reality conditions the extent of the reader’s knowledge: like peeping into the lives of others one does more divining than actual registering of information. Nonetheless we are intrigued, of what could possibly happen in the intervals of the course of events, the parts that the author decides to omit, or to deliberately keep in secret so the reader is unprepared for the surprise to come.

Every time I saw Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt I found myself wondering incessantly how Uncle Charlie and Young Charlie manage to conceal from others their growing aversion to each other and carry on their lives in the same house after the latter confronts her uncle his heinous crime. The film reasonably refrains from chronicling every detail of the characters’ domestic lives, and yet, oddly, those absent shots are what to me hold the greatest fascination. In this the metaphorical darkness somehow augments our awareness of what is present: the ambivalent reaction that Young Charlie takes to her uncle finally leaving the town- that of relief and forlornness- implies that hitherto she is painstakingly but willingly enduring the presence of a serial killer in the house. Charlie’s love for her uncle triumphs even the personal trials of her moral conscience.

Hitchcock’s earlier films tend to dwell on the capacity of the metaphorical darkness in regards to generating excitement for a story.Rope (1948), his first colour film, operates from the reverse- something horrible is already happening as the curtain unfurls. A pair of Ivy League elitists strangle their classmate to death purely as an intellectual experiment on the practicability of a perfect murder. The dead body is placed in a wooden chest, which is then used as a buffet table for a house party the two arrange on a whim, inviting the victim’s family and friends. Amongst the guests is publisher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), whose lectures on Nietzsche’s Superman sparked the murderers’ intent on embodying just such a character: in their misapprehension, a superior being endowing with the incontrovertible right of treating all lower ones as animals and slaves.

Today Rope is perhaps most known for its continuous shot, an ingenious technique that Hitchcock had flirted with years ago inLifeboat (1944). The mood is claustrophobic and discomfiting: neither of the guests really comes close to opening the chest but the morbid knowledge of a dead body lying in the midst of an ostensibly lively party makes the viewing of the film increasingly unsettling. The deft interplay of contrasts- principally, the treating of a serious matter with an intentionally frisky manner- amounts to a benumbing alarmism that would reach its pinnacle in Psycho (1960).

Rope is one of Hitchcock’s most somber in tone but graphic in appearance. There are moments when the colours seem too gaudy and grisly that you fear the picture would suddenly combust into a chromatic mess. The director utilises colour to the same unnerving effect in his later colour films, but none seems to trump the emotional imbalance that Rope so effortlessly conveys.


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