I have a soft spot for experimentation, even if the experimentation itself ends up unsuccessful. There’s just something exiting about trying something new without knowing if it will pay off. Also it makes you think about certain conventions that you took for granted before. Case in point: Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).
The movie is based on a play, which in turn was based on the real life case of the Leopold/Loeb murder. Two wealthy and highly intelligent men decided to kill a boy just for the sake of committing the perfect crime. But the film is not famous because of the dark subject matter, but because of the shooting method. The film itself only has ten edits, with one take lasting over ten minutes.
This was extremely taxing on both the actors and crew since nothing could go wrong for minutes at a time. In order to keep an interesting frame the camera moved almost continuously through the apartment set where the entire movie takes place (apart from the outside opening sequence). In order to give the old, bulky camera enough room to maneuver walls of the set had to be wheeled away when they were out of frame and lights had to be adjusted during filming. The main question is, was it all worth the bother?
I feel a definite build up of tension in continuous shots and for a macabre and suspenseful story this is absolutely appropriate. Take for instance the moment in the movie where the maid is cleaning up the large chest where the dinner party attendants have been eating off. We know that the victim is in the chest. And bit by bit the maid is removing the cover. There is just an impending doom when you see her slowly coming towards the chest in the foreground, ready to unknowingly expose the murderers.
Editor Walter Murch has a theory about editing. He feels that a good cut is the natural moment where most people blink. A mental break, if only for a fraction. It could very well be that these missing pauses is what makes a longer shot more tense. Subconsciously you feel you are not allowed to blink just yet.
But at the same time I wonder if that tension is not an artificial one. With every second I think more about the difficulty of the shot and less about the actual content. I become aware of the pressure the cast and crew must have felt. And then it starts feel gimmicky.
Take for instance the spectacular car-scene in Children of Men, the scene is hectic and claustrophobic and I love those four minutes. But I’m not sure if I love it because of the tension it creates on film or the craftsmanship behind it. Perhaps both.
Which leads to the question, wouldn’t it be better it traditional cutting and framing would have been used? When filmmaking began it was little more than the capture of a stage performance with one static camera. Slowly film invented its own visual language.
And when it’s missing this becomes evident. Such as in Rope, which tries to have the continuous flow of the theatre piece where we feel a part of something that unfolds in real-time. But the camera at the same time is moving all over the set to make sure we see what we need to see. But even then a simple reaction shot is impossible without violently throwing the camera in the direction of the onlooker.
Sometimes Hitchcock breaks this rule and simply cuts, maybe for artistic reasons or maybe because the camera has run out of film. Sometimes he tries to hide the cut by merging two close ups together, for instance by letting someone walk past right in front of the camera, but these feel clunky and only emphasize the cut more than they obscure it.
Roger Ebert dismisses the film’s long shots as a gimmick and argues that the sense of real-time could have easily been achieved with regular editing. And that the lack of this makes the film feel limp. I agree. And still, like Ebert, I’m happy that the movie exists in this form. Because I was hooked in spite of all its shortcomings. I’m just not sure if it was because of the story or the experimental way it was filmed.
Other long takes for your amusement:
And here two more articles about the subject: