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🎬 #60 Hitchcock's Experiments.
Hitchcock is known for his sprawling psychological dramas - his ‘big’ pictures. But some of his most interesting work is found in his ‘smaller’ films - experiments with one location, or with the idea that this all took place in real time with one long unbroken take.
These films take the themes he’s interested in and condense and squeeze them into works that almost feel like side projects. You can almost sense of him knocking them out in-between the bigger projects - the idea that this is a filmmaker always trying, always wanting to pursue the boundaries of the art form. Soderbergh is a bit like him in that sense - prolific and always trying, always experimenting and that for me is so exiting to see. Someone who’s at the top of their game taking chances and trying new things.
This week is dedicated to two of Hitchcock’s experiments.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: ROPE
1948 Dir Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock’s film revolves around the execution of the perfect murder as ‘a work of art.’ Two old classmates strangle their former friend only to hide the body in a chest in their apartment while they await guests. This literally is like Chekov’s body - see the murder happen at the beginning, then a nail biting wait, in anticipation, for anyone to discover it and foil the ‘perfect’ murder. In this way the film is a perfect distillation of Hitchcock’s theory of suspense. His famous example being roughly paraphrased to - show two people having dinner together then a bomb goes off, surprising but not very engaging or suspenseful. Do the exact same scene, but reveal the bomb under the table at the start and then you have something totally different. As an audience you’re awaiting the inevitable, and you’re wondering will they discover it, will they be saved just in time. An entirely different emotional story for the viewer and infinitely more gripping.
This is exactly the case with Rope. You’re waiting for the cracks to be revealed, for people to probe and question. And of course all of this is heightened by the effect of it being one continuous take, as if all the action is happening in real time. All masterfully choreographed by Hitchcock and his crew, because remember, cameras back then were huge devices - every move meant a delicate ballet of moving set walls and furniture out of the way and then replacing them perfectly. Almost like how stage hands move props in between curtain drops, only they have to do it perfectly without being seen.
To emphasise the sense of time passing, and to create visual interest Hitchcock masterfully set it in a penthouse with huge windows overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Over the course of the film - the cyclorama [the scene we can see out the window] changes multiple times, giving the effect of a setting sun and moving clouds. Lights in the buildings change, go on and off - all of this had to be manipulated in real time as a practical effect. The result is an intricately woven exercise in cinematic tension, a ballet of all departments working together to create the overwhelming sensation of suspense.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hrs 20 mins of my precious life watching this? James Stewart who plays the suspicious Rupert in the film didn’t think the experiment worked but I feel it’s a compelling, exciting, condensed piece of suspense.
*Available for a small rental fee on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play and YouTube in the US, as well as the UK.
Fact: To get his trademark cameo into the film - the director decided to render his iconic silhouette in red neon - so that it’s visible out the window about an hour into the film.
FILM TWO: LIFEBOAT
1944 Dir Alfred Hitchcock
Lifeboat is Lord of the Flies meets 12 Angry Men, 10 years before Lumet’s fantastic film. All set in a lifeboat, as the title suggests, the film sees a group of diverse people, including a German U Boat captain, having to put their differences aside and work together to survive. Again like Rope it’s a single location drama - confinement, the concealment of truth are all front of mind in the picture. The themes remain primal, suspenseful even if this film feels like a sociological thought experiment. What do you do when a bunch of allied nation citizens come across a U Boat sailor? The question is set up in the beginning of the film and the answer comes near the conclusion. Suspicion, intrigue, hidden identities and all that goes into group dynamics are explored in the interim.
Hitchcock, working with writer John Steinbeck shows us in a brutal way how delicate we are, how when all the constructs we surround ourselves with are taken away, we fall to pieces - we become animals again, without a plan. As the German sailor says, in order to survive, we must have a plan - even if it’s just a construct of who we are and what we must do.
TL;DR why should I spend 1hrs 47 minutes of my precious life watching this? This is a compelling piece of cinema that pushes storytelling to the limits with an excellent set of characters in a pressure cooker situation.
*Available for for a small rental fee on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play and YouTube in the US, as well as the UK.
Fact: Hitchcock approached Hemingway to write the screenplay but eventually went with Steinbeck who ended up not liking the film - considering it inferior to his original script.
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