Unraveling Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope”: Never-Before-Seen Storyboards and Diagrams at Auction

May 3, 2024

This Incredible File of Materials Will Appear at Our Summer 2024 Auction

Britannic Auctions is proud to present a true piece of movie history as we unveil material from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope”. Never before seen at auction, a collection of original documents, storyboard sketches and set diagrams that provide unparalleled insight into the 1948 film’s production.

Our summer auction highlight is Hitchcock’s original “Rope” file – a folder filled with the director’s hand-drawn storyboard sketches, camera movement directions, prop list and complete set of panoramic skyline diagrams used for the special effects on the film’s set.

Provenance and History

This remarkable file was owned by Robert Graham Wahn, a Warner Brothers publicist whose relationship with Alfred Hitchcock began with “Rope”, his first Warner Brothers film. In 1950, Wahn was party to portions of the filming of “Strangers on a Train”, and acted as a point of contact for Hitchcock’s frequent visits to New York in the 1950s.

The file has been in his family’s possession since the 1940s. A note, written by Wahn on his personal stationery, indicates: “These are notes and sketches by Alfred Hitchcock for Warner Bros. ‘Rope’.”

Additional Alfred Hitchcock Memorabilia at Auction

Other lots in this summer’s online auction feature items from Wahn’s private collection, including his signed copy of “Hitchcock/Truffaut”, accompanied by a signed letter from Alfred Hitchcock discussing plans to autograph the book.

Additionally, Wahn’s press pass to the filming of the tennis match for “Strangers on a Train”, and Hitchcock’s 1951 itinerary for publicity throughout the month of June are included in other lots.

Alfred Hitchcock Signed Sketch
A letter signed by Hitch, discussing plans to autograph this copy of “Hitchcock/Truffaut”, along with the inscription and self-portrait he eventually drew.

An Innovative Production Without Cuts

“Rope” is often noted for its unique filmmaking technique, which gives the appearance of being shot in a single continuous take. However, the film is actually made up of ten long takes, with each take corresponding to approximately one reel of film.

Despite technical limitations of the time, Hitchcock’s mastery is evident as the camera seamlessly navigates through the confined space of the apartment, enhancing suspense and immersing the audience in a gripping narrative experience.

Camera Movement Directions

In order to achieve this fluid look on film, careful planning and choreography was needed.

“The technique of the camera movements was worked out, in its slightest details, well beforehand,” Alfred Hitchcock explained to François Truffaut.

“We used a dolly and we mapped out our course through tiny numbers all over the floor, which served as guide marks … it was an amazing thing to see a shot taken.” (“Hitchcock/Truffaut” 134)

This choreography is evident throughout the multiple sheets of typewritten lists of detailed camera movements included in the file. While watching the film on DVD, you can actually track the on-screen camera movements precisely by following along with these notes.

Detail from one of the camera choreography sheets for the retakes of Reel 5 (Alfred Hitchcock / Rope, 1948)

Some pencil notes on a few sheets, and some extensive handwritten pencil notes on one, such as: “14 – As Philip says ‘I just think its a clumsy’, camera moves to 15 insert of books hold for two counts.”

Some pencil notes (in various hands) appear on the reverse sides of the camera directions; one note jots down the clue that was used on the January 3, 1948 broadcast of the Truth or Consequences radio program – the famously popular “Walking Man Contest”, along with suggestions for the answer to the contest.

Production on “Rope” began just nine days later on January 12, 1948.

Hitchcock’s Hand-Drawn Storyboards

However, before filming even began, Alfred Hitchcock was at work, sketching his ideas for the setup of all of the scenes in the film. Hitch, a professional artist in his early career, often personally sketched his storyboards as he mentally directed the film in his head.

The file contains 18 sheets of storyboard paper with pre-printed cells – in all, there are 41 individual scene sketches. Some of Hitchcock’s handwritten notes, page numbers, and directional arrows can be seen, as well as a few overhead diagrams drawn to show the placement of the three main characters – Brandon (labeled “B”), Philip (“P”) and Rupert (“P”) in relation to the set walls and piano.

“Rope” Prop List Document

Headed “Johnny More – ‘The Rope’ – 348-02”, a typewritten document lists items such as “2 pair Eye Glasses (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) … 2 boxes .38 Shells, blank … 13 Flintridge Dinner Plates, yel. & gold border”, and perhaps the prop that figures most prominently in the story – a metronome. 

Interestingly, it also notes “Purchased Books”, with titles such as “1 Andre Gide … 1 Other Voices, Other Rooms … 1 Dr. Freud”. These books share a common theme of exploring various aspects of the human mind, identity, and psychology – perfect for the bookshelves of these characters.

At the bottom of the page are handwritten notes referencing the dressings for the enormous set window: “2 sets DRAPES … 1 large window set of curtains … Above held in prop room (Leo Lynch) until further orders.”

The Mechanics of Hitchcock’s “Rope” Set

The iconic set backdrop seen outside Philip and Brandon’s apartment throughout the film pictured roughly 35-square miles of the Manhattan skyline, featuring landmarks like the Empire State Building, Hotel Astor, Radio City, and the Chrysler building.

With a 12,000-square-foot cyclorama backdrop three times wider than the set, it allowed unrestricted camera movement without affecting the background. Utilizing forced perspective, miniature buildings were arranged to create a realistic visual effect of distance.

The clouds, constructed from spun glass, were individually movable and autonomous. They were suspended from unseen wires or positioned on stands, forming a semicircular arrangement behind the miniature buildings.

Set of “Cloud Charts” for Rope’s Set

Throughout the film, which spans from 7:30 PM to 9:15 PM, viewers can observe the gradual transition of evening light outside the apartment window. The effect was created with lighting, miniature models of famous New York buildings, and 3D clouds wisping across the sky.

“We had a special working plan designed for the clouds, and between reels they were shifted from left to right,” Hitchcock explained of the set’s background. “They were never actually shown in motion, but you must remember that the camera wasn’t always on the window, so whenever we changed the reels, the stagehands would shift each cloud into the position designated on our working plan.” (“Hitchcock/Truffaut” 132)

Alfred Hitchcock Rope Set Diagrams
The panoramic view of Manhattan’s skyline in this “Cloud Chart for Rope”, with clouds positioned as seen in Reel #5 of the movie.

Titled “Cloud Chart for Rope”, the file folder contains the detailed set of twelve panoramic working plans for the miniature background depicting New York City as seen from the apartment’s window, referenced by Hitchcock. There is one plan for each of the reel shot, plus retakes.

The plans specify the exact numbering and placement for the prop clouds, and pencil notations on each panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline indicate where the clouds should be hung or placed on stands.

Verso bears the name of Ralph Webb, the special effects / mechanical effects expert who worked on the production creating the effects seen outside the apartment’s window. 

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