Mise-en-scène analysis of Hitchcock’s Rope and Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most influential suspense directors in the history of cinema. There are many reasons he continues to influence filmmakers as well as appeal to film lovers. Witty dialogue is not lacking from the majority of his scripts. The visual appeal in his films is so precise that most people do not even think that they never see the knife penetrating Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, in Psycho (1960) this many years later. Yet, most people do not explore many of his films unless they explore his catalog. Rope (1948) is one of those films. 

Part of Rope‘s excitement is detecting the beginnings of a renowned Hitchcock classic, Rear Window (1954). Both films explore the use of the camera but in two very different extremes. The two films explore a sense of voyeurism for their audiences and how ethical it is to peep into someone else’s life. Mise-en-scène is a powerful tool when used correctly, and it is evident to any viewer. While Hitchcock attempted to establish a powerful sense of surroundings in Rope, it happens much later on in the film than Rear Window

With the invaluable learning experience from one film to another, these two films’ opening scenes reveal to audiences two very different ideas from a notorious director.

When Rope begins, the film presents the audience with an establishing shot of various apartment buildings and a street below with a diagonal angle from what one can assume is a rooftop or a window. With the angle presented to viewers being diagonal, audiences could believe that there is some anxiety they should be aware of even within the opening sequence of events that will unfold. The credits slowly fade in, letting viewers know of the production company and the lead actors in the film before the credits begin to slowly stroll along with the screen without a blink of an eye. 

While these credits roll, Viewers will detect the hustle and bustle of the streets below. The day is quite ordinary. We see various business people walking along the sidewalk. A woman is pushing a stroller. A policeman is making sure two children cross the street safely. And then, the camera slowly tracks upward over what appears to be a sectioned-off rooftop area of an apartment building before providing a medium shot on a window ledge with the curtains drawn.

With the curtain drawn, this goes back to the diagonal angle Hitchcock presents audiences with at the beginning of the film. Suddenly a howl is let out, and the first cut occurs to show two men who have just strangled another man. Audiences know of this murder that has taken place but are unsure why the murder has taken place. Viewers assume that this is the same apartment of the window with its shades drawn introduced to them moments before. 

Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), who have strangled David Kentley (Dick Hogan), realize that they have to find a place to hide his body. The two of them know that the relatively large trunk, later to be passed off a table, in front of them is the “perfect” hiding place for David’s body and proceed to open the trunk and place his body inside of the chest.

The camera then slowly zooms back into a tighter medium shot and begins to dictate which of the two killers feel guilty of their crime as the dialogue between the two begins to take place. Not once do they mention the victim’s name nor each other, until toward the end when Brandon turns on the light and Phillip protests by saying, “Let’s stay this way for a minute,” even though he knows that they need to check and make sure there are no trails of what has occurred. Brandon shows no genuine remorse for killing David because he feels the celebratory drag of their accomplishment together. 

Brandon tends to glance down at his cigarette; however, he glances down at the trunk David is now lying inside as well. He even has a few smirks and laughs in between smoking it and chalks Phillip’s remorse as to being the darkness that’s got him down and that “nobody ever really feels safe in the dark, nobody that’s a child that is.” By making such a statement, he reveals that Phillip is the weaker of the two of them and establishes that he could be the one toward the end to blow their cover. 

After making a mockery of Phillip, Brandon walks over, revealing the first proper long shot and extreme long shots of the film. Brandon is placed by the window, and Phillip still in shock while sitting upon the trunk as Brandon covers it all up with it merely being a “lovely evening.”

Rope‘s opening five minutes does not reveal half of the information that the four-minute Rear Window opening reveals. In Rear Window, the establishing shot occurs inside of what is later known as our lead character’s apartment. As the film continues to open, the credits begin to fade in, revealing the information that every movie shows initially while the three blinds slowly raise, starting from left to right. 

When the last credit reveals the director’s name, a tracking shot takes us out of Jefferies window to show another establishing shot of where all the film’s action will indeed take place. The apartment across the street from Jefferies. As we journey out the window, a cut reveals a cat walking up the steps, which some might not consider a pivotal moment of the film. Still, one could insinuate that curiosity killed the cat, which could eventually play a more prominent role in the ending.

Instead of cutting back, the camera begins to pan upward and shows us a woman getting ready for the day. The camera then tracks downward and to the left to see the milkman walking away and into the street behind the building before tracking back around to Jefferies apartment. Miss Lonely Heart can be seen on the bottom right-hand side. A close-up on Jefferies forehead follows this shot to reveal the sweat dripping from his brow, which cuts over to a wall thermometer to demonstrate how hot and humid but shows how the film takes place in the summertime, possibly during a heatwave. Panning over, viewers get a closer look at the various people from the apartment across the street. 

Audiences see one of the neighbors, the songwriter, with shaving cream all over his face as a radio announcement airs. “Men, are you over 40? When you wake up in the morning, do you feel tired and run down? Do you have that listless feeling?” The film then cuts back to a man on the balcony, the husband above Thorwald, awoken by his alarm clock. In the same frame, the camera shows his wife, or who viewers can assume is his wife there with him waking up. The camera then takes the time to pan down and to the left to show a woman, Miss Torso, getting ready for the day. It also shows her practicing dancing warm-ups. This moment also dictates to viewers that the apartment building is a busy place for everyone who lives there.

After revealing the apartment building’s various neighbors across the street, the camera continues to pan lower so you can see into the dancer’s apartment and Jefferies building. The camera then cuts back upward and into the room to show audiences that Jefferies is asleep. The camera continues to track down his body allowing for a close-up on his cast to reveal the character’s name by the writing on his cast stating, “Here lies the broken bones of J.B. Jefferies.” The camera then zooms out and reveals to viewers he is in a wheelchair and then pans to the left of the room, zooming in slowly to show us the broken camera. 

Viewers are then allowed to peak at a photograph behind the camera and then tracking in to show us a picture that reveals why Jefferies leg is broken, along with his camera. The shot also offers various other photos to let audiences know that he has traveled worldwide for his job. The shot continues to inform viewers he is a photographer with the different camera equipment around the room before showing us the negative of his love interest in the film, Grace Kelly’s character Lisa Fremont.

The differences between these two openings are noticeable merely within the mise-en-scène. By taking viewers through Jefferies apartment in Rear Window and basically around his neighborhood, audiences practically know everything there is to know about Jefferies and his neighbors at the beginning of the film. Viewers can understand what will be taking place because all of the action occurs outside the window and in the various neighbors’ apartments. While onlookers might not know immediately what is going to happen over the next hour and fifty-one minutes, there are remarkable hints as listed above and throughout our journey through the opening sequence that let us not only know about our lead characters.

This moment includes even the characters that might be deemed unimportant, which is entirely different in Rope‘s opening. In Rope, one is unsure about anything in the first five minutes of the film but has a better sense of the movie within the first fifteen minutes. Audiences only know Phillip’s name, and it is because Brandon negatively addresses him at the beginning of the film. This scene also reveals to audiences that Brandon is the one in charge of the whole murder and is the stronger of the two men. Viewers also know that the two men strangle someone but have no idea that the other man was someone they already knew. In truth, though, nothing more is revealed.

Another difference between these two films is the shots in general. In Rope, audiences are constantly in the apartment, but it is continuously one take, which puts an even more theatrical feeling on the film than features would typically have. Throughout the entire movie, even soon after the opening sequence, viewers can see the camera tracking, panning, and zooming in on sequences deemed necessary by the director and the film’s cinematographers. Some of the film’s dialogue does not even include the people who are speaking on the screen. 

While the long take was a good idea with good intentions, it ultimately does not work in parts of this thriller. Some might say that the long take embraces the lack of empathy Brandon carries throughout the film because there was no “real work” to be done by merely using one take. By the time that passed between making Rope and Rear Window, the cinematography is entirely different in Rear Window. Cuts are embraced even in the opening of Rear Window. And even without cuts, the way the camera tracks and zooms about Jefferies room, audiences know everything about him within seconds. Having the objects so carefully placed becomes crucial in telling this tale, while the dialogue is what Rope becomes dependent on throughout its film.

Something the two films have in common is how they both create a unique point of view. In Rope, the point of view is that of the audience because they know everything before most of the party’s characters. Viewers constantly follow someone down the hall or peer in on a conversation two or more of the people are having in the room. In Rear Window, however, the audiences take the point of view once more, but viewers eventually end up following Jefferies and Lisa’s point of view from time to time. 

The key to Rear Window is the framing of the shots. When Jefferies is looking out the window, he forces the audience to follow him, forced into voyeurism. After a while of looking out the window, it is clear that it is not just about figuring out if Thorwald has murdered his wife or not. Looking out the window is a sense of excitement and entertainment to Jefferies, Lisa, and Stella’s day at a certain point in the film. By looking out the window, all of them and the audience are allowed to use their imaginations. What has occurred in the apartment across the way? 

And in Rope, viewers know before any of the guests that the dear boy who hasn’t arrived yet at the party will not make it. The entire film audiences have to anticipate their professor will catch the two killers. The very professor who put the idea of there being superior humans in the world in the first place. Viewers eventually begin to wonder what Rupert’s (James Stewart), the professor, point of view will be at the end with all of the commotions that eventually occur. Ultimately viewers realize that the main point of view focused upon is their own.

Therefore, Rope especially reveals how mise-en-scène is essential and vital in explaining characters and the setting. In many ways, though, with Rope‘s experimentation, one could argue Hitchock could have shot Rear Window the same. If that had happened, Rear Window would have been less successful in the long run. However, Rope being the antithesis of Rear Window provided Hitchcock invaluable knowledge to accomplish his unique visual style. An actual suspense film, and while some present-day audiences could argue it is at a much slower tempo than most of today’s fast-paced cinema, no one can indeed deny the suspense ride that Hitchcock took his audiences on when they took a seat in a dark theater.

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