By Peter J. Dellolio
Filmic space and real time in Alfred Hitchcock’s
R O P E
By Peter J. Dellolio
Like Robert Bresson’s L’Argent
(1983) and Vittorio DeSica’s Bicycle Thief
is possibly one of the most disconcerting films ever made. (10)
The film contains elements of irrationality and causes a degree of viewer alienation that is quite rare for the American screen in 1948. In later films, greater permissiveness in Hollywood allowed Hitchcock to vividly portray the destruction of an innocent (Psycho, The Birds, Topaz, Frenzy
), something that, with the exception of Rope
, was almost impossible to introduce in his films from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Moreover, the murder of David Kentley in Rope
, in spite of his nonexistence as a character, unlike Marion Crane in Psycho
, is particularly heinous because of its utter meaninglessness and cruelty. David’s death is made that much more unsettling for the viewer not from knowing him as a character but from being exposed to those in his life who loved him. The screenplay was adapted from the 1929 British play by Patrick Hamilton, produced in the United States as Rope’s End
, which bears many similarities to the real-life Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924.
Two affluent, homosexual lovers, Brandon Shaw and Philip Morgan murder a former prep school companion, David Kentley. Hitchcock was keenly aware of how far a verbal or dramatic nuance could go to suggest a homosexual alliance between characters. In Rope
, the homosexual sub-text is thematically linked to elitism and perversity. Brandon’s espousal of Nietschean doctrine of intellectual superiority is more than superficially linked to the Nazi doctrine of ethnic superiority.
Brandon and Philip believe they posses a Nietzschean superiority that places their actions above the judgment of conventional law. During a conversation with Mr. Kentley that is initiated by Rupert’s tongue-in-cheek discussion of murder as an art (“Not one of the seven lively, perhaps, but an art nevertheless,” says Rupert), Brandon asserts his position that those who are entitled to commit murder “…are those men who are of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they are above the traditional moral concepts.” Mr. Kentley’s response is, “Then obviously you agree with Nietzsche and his theory of the Superman?” “Yes, I do,” answers Brandon, to which Mr. Kentley softly replies “So did Hitler.” The murder of David, an “inferior everyman,” becomes a clinical test to validate Brandon’s postulate that he and Philip are not only entitled to commit murder but are naturally clever and intelligent enough to get away with it. As Brandon tells Philip “Nobody commit’s a murder just for the experiment of committing it.” The basis for their act is both egocentric and philosophical in that they believe they have the right to commit murder with impunity. This may be called a politically correct ingredient of the scenario: the condemnation of Nazism as it was perceived within the context of post-World War II America, an era that differs from the privileges of the rich in the roaring twenties society of Leopold and Loeb or the fictional characters in Hamilton’s play. As Nazi atrocities became more commonly known to the American public during the late 1940’s, the perception of good versus evil acquired dramatic proportions for most socially conscious Americans. Hence Brandon’s icy sarcasm is quite outspoken for its time: “Good Americans usually die young on the battlefield, don’t they?” says Brandon, comparing David’s death to the recent fate of so many American soldiers. Citing philosophical justification for taking David’s life, Brandon adds that, “The Davids of this world merely occupy space” and with the sardonic humor that is sprinkled throughout the film, goes on to say that “he was a Harvard undergraduate…that might make it justifiable homicide.” It is noteworthy that in spite of what appears to be an indifference to society, Rupert supported the struggle against evil by fighting in the war. “Mr. Cadell got a bad leg in the war for his courage” asserts Mrs. Wilson when Brandon speaks of Rupert’s inability to participate in “the perfect murder” because he lacks courage.
As Brandon so perversely points out afterwards, “The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create.” A number of paintings adorn his apartment and he speaks of art during the party. Murder is Brandon’s substitute, as he “always wished for more artistic talent.” The underlying theme of artistic and possibly sexual frustration leading to an obsession with destruction perhaps links Brandon with Hitler and Nazi doctrine. Brandon looks upon David’s murder as a “work of art” and considers his sudden inspiration to place the candelabra over the victim’s improvised coffin, turning it into a “ceremonial altar” from which the “sacrificial feast” will be served to be the crowning touch that “(makes) our work of art into a masterpiece.”
The homosexual sub-text or inference, though not ideologically or socially programmed, appears intermittently in Hitchcock’s work, mainly as an indicator that villains, while polished and charming, have a deceptive surface. Leonard (Martin Landau) in North by Northwest
(1959) refers to his “woman’s intuition” when he questions Eve Kendall’s (Eva Marie Saint) loyalty to Van Dam (James Mason). Van Dam says he is “touched” by what he perceives to be Leonard’s jealousy. Philip confesses to Brandon that he has always been afraid of him, “Part of your charm, I suppose” says Philip coquettishly, and so on. The homosexual undercurrents of Rope
are also rather simplistically based on the metaphorical “climax” of strangulation. Brandon and Philip appear “spent” after they place David’s lifeless body in the chest; Brandon says he felt “tremendously excited” the moment that David’s “body went limp,” asking Philip “How did you feel?!” with wide-eyed intensity, quite as if two lovers were discussing their shared ecstasy in the aftermath of heated love-making. There is the grabbing and squeezing of the chicken’s neck in Brandon’s story about how Philip’s touch “was perhaps a trifle too delicate” and the bird “like Lazarus” arose from the dead, something that obviously is quite upsetting to Philip considering that David’s (effectively?) strangled body is laying in the chest. Rope
was, in fact, banned in some U.S. cities at the time of its release. Hitchcock’s original choices for the roles of Rupert and Brandon were Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift who, according to screenwriter Arthur Laurents, refused the parts because they did not want to be associated with “it,” i.e. the highly taboo subject of homosexuality that was euphemistically referred to as “it” in Hollywood during the 1940’s. Hitchcock used these strains or chords of inference to serve his larger purpose of questioning the superficial appearance of decency and moral health, just as characters such as Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) in The 39 Steps
or Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger) in Saboteur
are presented as respectable and ethically sound individuals.
In many ways, the character Rupert Cadell represents the viewer. It is Rupert who speaks of murder with a sense of smug superiority; who seems to enjoy the idea of disposing of inferiors from a safe, ideological distance; and who, after realizing that Randon has used this point of view to murder a human being, becomes outraged that an academic position has been transformed into an excuse for a senseless killing. The viewer, through Rupert’s reactions, is forced, in a sense, to make some kind of moral reparation for his/her amusements. The series of ironies and instances of black comedy resulting from the viewer’s privileged knowledge of David’s murder and the whereabouts of his body make the viewer and, by extension, Rupert, participants in something ugly.
Apart from the opening pan, the content in the film is restricted to Brandon’s apartment during the dinner party he and Philip have arranged to “celebrate” the implementation of their ideology. The guests include Mr. Kentley and David’s intended fiancée Janet Walker, as well as their former schoolmaster, Rupert Cadell. The two murderers, especially Brandon, revere Cadell, whose theories of moral and intellectual superiority strengthen their belief that they have the right to “(do) what you and I have talked,” as Brandon explains to Rupert near the conclusion of the film. Rupert knows Brandon and Philip, as well as David and Kenneth, with some degree of adult insight: having taught all of them during their early teens at boarding school, he is very familiar with their personalities and habits. In fact, the play implied a homosexual liaison between Rupert and Brandon that was completely avoided in the screenplay; something that was more readily accepted as part of the British social context of the headmaster-pupil relationship at the time of the play. Rupert knows, for example, that Brandon tends to stammer when he is excited; that Brandon’s favorite bedtime story involved a chest that inadvertently became a coffin for an unsuspecting victim; that Philip lied about not strangling any chickens.
He suspects that something is amiss and ultimately discovers the truth, revealing that his disdain for so-called inferior beings was always a facetious, academic posture that toyed with the inconsistencies of language and ideas but could never sanction the murder of another human being. As Brandon introduces Rupert to the guests, we realize that Rupert likes to call rituals of social decorum into question. When Janet wonders if Brandon has done her justice in his comments, Rupert asks, “Do you deserve justice?” Reminded by Mr. Kentley that he also “taught” David, apparently a substandard student, Rupert replies, “You flatter me.” Told by Kenneth that it is good to see him again, Rupert demands “Why?” but immediately adds “Don’t mind me” when he sees that he has made Kenneth feel awkward. Rupert merely questions the conventions of polite society; unlike Brandon, he does not despise his fellow man.
Rupert summons the police by firing shots out an opened window, thus disrupting Hitchcock’s most insulated soundtrack (11)
by introducing natural sounds for only the second time in the film. There is some nominal traffic noise after Brandon opens the curtains but it is very low and lasts only a few moments. The first time we hear distinct street sounds is while Philip plays the piano and is questioned by Rupert. When Rupert asks him “What’s going on?” there is a siren, perhaps a hidden portent, and Philip looks up at the window for a moment, indicating that he hears it.
These off-screen sounds recall the outside world from the opening pan in which another of Hitchcock’s typically ineffectual policemen halts traffic to allow two boys to safely cross the street in counterpoint to the very moment that David is murdered. The film begins, therefore, with a gesture that connects the apparent security of the boys in the street to David’s helplessness as he is murdered. The opening pan initiates the whole process of the viewer becoming implicated in David’s murder.
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10. Hitchcock’s Re-Released Films, Eds. Walter Raubicheck & Walter Srebnick (Wayne State University Press: Detroit, 1991): pg. 232. “Rope: Hitchcock’s Unkindest Cut” Thomas A. Bauso ‘[Hitchcock’s] central achievement in viewer disorientation is his simultaneous provoking of his audience to regard the crime with horror and his implicating of that audience in the performance of the crime. More than anything else, this complex process accounts for the unpleasant sensations that Rope seems to produce in many of its viewers.’ [Italics mine.] (Back)
11. The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, by Donald Spoto (Ballentine Books: New York, 1984): pg. 324. James Stewart commented on the difficulties during shooting and the necessity of post-synchronization: “We had a lot of rehearsal, but the noise of the moving walls was a problem, and so we had to do the whole thing over again for sound, with just microphones, like a radio play. The dialogue track was then added later.”(Back)