Sound and Semiotics in Hitchcock's Coming Attraction: Locating and Unraveling Meaning in Rope's Movie Trailer

Kevin Clifton, Sam Houston State

In her groundbreaking book, Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers (2004), Lisa Kernan persuasively discusses the movie trailer for Hitchcock's Rope (1948) in terms of visibility and invisibility. In the trailer, the audience sees first hand that Brandon and Phillip are murderers, thus avoiding the veil of mystery associated with suspense films since we know from the outset -- indeed, the very prequel to the film itself -- who the killers are. Hitchcock's marketing strategy is bold in that he implicates the filmic viewer/voyeur in the murder as third-party participants, agents who will hopefully return to the cinema to see if Brandon and Phillip get caught or get away with murder. In her analysis, Kernan discusses how the movie trailer -- one that uses content and material not shown in the film -- foreshadows many of Rope's narrative concerns. My presentation supplements Kernan's contribution to movie trailer scholarship by providing an in-depth study of the intermedial use of music in Rope's movie trailer. In sum, I will first focus on the orchestral transcription of Poulenc's piano music and consider extra-musical meanings for the various musical instruments, paying special emphasis to the role of the exotic woodwinds to connote in a Barthesian (1974) sense a lurking homosexual subtext in the filmic narrative; and second, I will take into consideration how the music itself is chopped up and reordered to counterpoint the visuals in the movie trailer. As we will see and hear, as Brandon and Phillip start to unravel on screen on account of what they have done, the accompanying music itself becomes more and more dramatic, successfully creating tension and suspense in the hopes of seducing audience members to return to the cinema -- that is, to the scene of the crime -- to see the entire film.