Posted on 27 March 2012.
Examining the Use of One-Take Feature Filmmaking in “Silent House” Vs. “Rope”
I love different styles of telling stories. The straight-forward narrative approach obviously works perfectly fine, but I like the idea that stories don’t necessarily need to be told in chronological order. You can have the hack-and-slash jambalaya of Pulp Fiction, the back-to-front (not the preferred wiping method, ladies) reverse order of Memento, the one story from multiple viewpoints of Go and many others out in existence. Even if the gimmick is used for the sake of being cool, I like that it provides a unique twist to something normally experienced. Life is always experienced from Point A to Point B. Art doesn’t have to be.
By the same token, I’m fond of different visual styles. As Hugo taught us all last year, Georges Melies used cinema to expand his bag of magic tricks. Buster Keaton was using match cuts in Sherlock Jr. to comic effect, Orson Welles was putting a knowingly large camera through a small grate in a sign and Michel Gondry just does all kinds of crazy things. These kind of in-camera effects are what still boggles my mind and provides me with more wonderment than any CG creation ever could. In this grand tradition is the art of the one-take film. My first encounter with this style was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope (though technically not one-take, which I’ll get to later) and the visual style carried over 64 years later in the form of Silent House (a remake of a two-year-old Argentinian film which used the same visual gimmickry).
Rope is obviously not considered one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces. It’s not in the pantheon. It’s probably not in most people’s Top 5 list of films directed by the master of suspense, but it’s always held a soft spot in my heart since my first being introduced to it by long-defunct “Total Movie” magazine (which I mainly subscribed to for the DVD of trailers included with each issue). I’ve since shown it to friends and, like everyone, I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but it’s an endlessly-watchable film that stylistically looks beautiful and carries some trademark tension that makes it so easy to lap up. It was Hitchcock’s first color film, shot with a monstrous Technicolor camera that dwarfed “the silhouette” himself (see below) and his first of many collaborations with Jimmy Stewart.
Hitchcock's 'Rope' was alarmingly shot on "film" and not "rope." Hmmm.
Hitchcock decided to add another wrinkle in experimenting with the visual possibility of filming a play. It was to be shot in real-time and with only one hulking camera to push and pull around, it was decided to shoot the film with as few cuts as possible. Though there’s no way of knowing this (unless there’s a quote out there somewhere), I’d imagine Hitchcock would have filmed the whole movie in one take had the technology been available. Instead, film reels at the time only lasted ten minutes apiece. Therefore, the film was forced to have a cut every time the runtime hit double digits. Most of his cuts are “invisible,” in that the camera will zoom into a character’s back, cut, and then pick up again from that same position so it appears to be one smooth move. Though most of the cuts in action due to film reel length give the illusion of one very long take, there are a few conventional hard cuts in the film. Therefore, the film is not technically nor even artistically a one-take film, but it’s widely viewed as carrying off that experiment, which is one of the reasons I think it’s worthy of looking at while talking about “Silent House.”
A Full “Silent House” Movie Review, Also Comparing it to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 Film “Rope”
Like its 2010 Argentinian predecessor, Silent House is filmed with the one-take technique. Though the technology exists in order to make this possible, it was filmed much the same way Sir Alfred had to make his movie, with technology making the cuts much less apparent to the naked eye. This choice certainly lends an additional credibility to the images you’re seeing onscreen. The process makes a natural point of comparison with “Rope,” but there are other elements that lend credibility to the juxtaposition.
The titular “silent house” is located on a sparsely populated stretch of land. It’s a summer home. A place to go on vacation and get away from it all. Who was getting away from what during visits to this location is slowly revealed in the last act of the film. Elizabeth Olsen – whose first role was playing an extra in her older sisters’ TV movie “How the West was Fun” – plays Sarah, a tag-along with her father and uncle’s bid to gut the home for future sale. She’d almost certainly rather not be there, but shows no real effort to hurry the process along as her dad has to berate her to get moving with the clean-up process.
The house has been boarded up due to windows being broken by squatters and whatever rambunctiousness lurks when they’re away enjoying normal life. A long-lost summertime friend, Sophia, pays Sarah a visit and they exchange an immensely awkward tete-a-tete that could only be worse if it was shared between Tim Tebow and Lindsay Lohan. Though Sophia insists on a connected past, Sarah can only lie her way through the conversation, finally admitting to having gaps in her mind.
After reluctantly agreeing to hang out with Sophia later on, Sarah traverses back inside the dimly-lit cadre of stairs, rooms and furniture, with only a shining blue lamp to guide her. As it’s wont to do, the darkness unsettles her easily and any noise sets off instant shivers up her spine. She suspects intruders out to do harm and like any good frightened heroine, sends her father to check on the potential monsters for her.
Both Hitchcock’s “Rope” and “Silent House” Were Shot at One Location
Like Silent House, Rope is centered on one location, an apartment occupied by Phillip and Brandon who are planning a trip together. In celebration of their future adventure, they decide to throw a soiree with some friends. At least, that’s the ruse and reason presented to their attendees. The true purpose of the event is for the adrenaline rush received from keeping a secret hidden in front of the faces of their guests. They just strangled an acquaintance, stashed the body inside the apartment and invited his girlfriend and others to come mingle around the corpse unbeknownst.
Phillip and Brandon welcome someone into their home for the thrill of ending his life. Sarah tries to navigate her vaguely familiar whereabouts and protect her being from deadly invasion. The stories that take place in singular locations are almost direct inverses of the other. However, the real-time technique bridges the same sunlight to nighttime duskly transition, metaphorically taking our characters from an enviable to vastly more bleak position, doing their best to not get caught.
The Roving Camera and One-Take Technique Create Movie-Audience Intimacy
In Silent House, the roving camera touring the location alongside Sarah lends an intimacy to what unfolds in front of us. Rope truly is more play-like as the camera settles down at various points, allowing suspense to settle in and gather, as opposed to creating constant tension. You may find your heartbeat racing in either circumstance. Silent House may as well be in first person (though you’d miss out on the numerous Olsen cleavage shots that are so prevalent that it’s been deemed a plot keyword by IMDB), with the camera never taking you out of Sarah’s predicament, allowing you to feel every shred of her distress. In Rope, the camera invites you to be a guest at this party (a living one, luckily), but one that knows the protagonists’ secret and refuses to blab, as watching their comeuppance would be much more entertaining.
Plot keyword "Elizabeth Olsen Cleavage" satisfied.
This “one-take” visual trick is fascinating in both instances, but whereas it provides the first sense of claustrophobia and voyeurism that Hitchcock would perfect six years later in Rear Window, it’s ultimately Silent House’s undoing. The film presents a twist which betrays a certain indeterminate amount of screen story we see unfold before our very eyes. This isn’t some Rashomon-style interpretation of viewpoints. We witness every second of what Sarah has – live, as it happens for over an hour – and things suddenly devolve into something very reminiscent of 2003’s High Tension (if you read Roger Ebert’s review of that film and/or the tone of my sentence, you know this isn’t praise).
I’m not remotely twist-averse, as I recognize brilliance in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable as the audience was never once lied to, with The Sixth Sense even willing to relive some of the events to prove it to you. It would be incorrect to state the twist in Silent House isn’t hinted at prior to its reveal. In fact, I think some of the premeditation works rather well. Unfortunately, I believe there’s an extra bit of i-dotting and t-crossing that needs to be done in twisted endings and if the makers of Silent House believe it was done, it was handled so clumsily that the audience is unable to come to the same conclusion.
Though I haven’t seen it, I have to doubt the Argentinian original does much to clarify things, as the same one-take technique is utilized while receiving roughly the same type of ‘mediocre-at-best’ acclaim. If the technical aspects of the premise are intriguing, you may be dazzled enough to be let down by the story. If you want to witness the same type of technical achievement – that was performed with a higher degree of difficulty where the story still stands up – it’s better to stick with the master of the genre.