Rope is a 1948 thriller film produced (with Sidney Bernstein) and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted by Hume Cronyn and with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. It is based on the 1929 Patrick Hamilton play of the same name (called Rope’s End in American productions), the play in turn having been inspired by the Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924.
The film stars James Stewart, John Dall, and Farley Granger. It’s the first of Hitchcock’s Technicolor films, and is notable for taking place in real time and being edited to seem a single, continuous shot through the use of long takes. It’s also the second, after Lifeboat, of his “limited setting” films, since Rope takes place entirely inside an apartment (the outside showing only during the beginning credits and through windows throughout the rest of the film).
Contemporary reviews of the film were mixed, it did poorly at the box office, and neither Hitchcock nor Stewart were happy with the results of the real time experiment. The film’s reputation has improved over the decades, though, and it has, as of this writing, a score of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 49 reviews), with this consensus: “As formally audacious as it is narratively brilliant, Rope connects a powerful ensemble in service of a darkly satisfying crime thriller from a master of the genre.”
Quotes from the film can be found here.
II: Getting a Grip on the Rope
The symbolism of rope, and of rope’s end, ought to be discussed first. The continuous length of rope suggests the continuance of life, just like the real time continuity of the film. Still, the rope must come to its end, rather like the thread of life spun by Clotho, of the Fates, and cut by Atropos.
Similarly, though the film tries to simulate the effect of one seamless take of eighty minutes, back in 1948, takes couldn’t be any longer than ten minutes; so such tricks as having actors’ backs, or those of furniture, block the screen to allow unnoticed switches of reels, were necessary. Also, several cuts are unmasked, as at 19:45, 34:34, 51:56, and 1:09:51. So, there’s the continuity of Rope, as well as the Rope’s End cuts.
The symbolism thus is of life juxtaposed against death, for the ‘life’ of the party that carries on through most of the film coincides with the knowledge that there’s a dead man’s body hiding in a large antique wooden chest, on which dinner is served. Rope, of course, is also the murder weapon.
Hamilton’s play is also continuous in action, adhering to the three unities of place (one setting: the apartment), of time (that of the evening’s party, and no other), and of action (only the one plot of the party and the secret murder). Even this continuous action, though, is divided by the curtain fall at the end of each act: Rope‘s continuity is cut at Rope’s End.
Hamilton’s is what one would call a “well-made play,” whose characteristics are combined with the classical unities mentioned above; this form that it’s in is also symbolic of the elitist thinking of the murderers, who fancy themselves ‘well-made men.’ They are Wyndham Brandon and Charles “Granno” Granillo in the play, but respectively renamed Brandon Shaw (Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Granger) in the film.
These well-to-do young men would end a man’s life to clear the way for the lives of “superior” men like themselves. They use rope as an executioner would, and as Rupert Cadell (Stewart in the film) says at the end of the play, they’ll hang (i.e., by rope–perfect karma) for their crime (Stewart’s Cadell says they’ll die).
Apart from the paradoxical life/death symbolism, the rope can also represent a link between words and deeds. As Slavoj Zižek explains, ‘By means of a prohibition of montage, Rope enacts a psychotic passage à l’acte (the “rope” from the title of the film is, of course, ultimately the “rope” connecting “words” and “acts,” i.e., it marks the moment at which the symbolic, so to speak, falls into the real…the homosexual, murderous couple take words “literally,” they pass from them immediately to “deeds,” realizing the professor’s [James Stewart’s] pseudo-Nietzschean theories that concern precisely the absence of prohibition–to “superhumans,” everything is permitted).’ (Ziźek, page 42)
Another symbolism for the rope is to be understood in light of how the murder of David Kentley (played by Dick Hogan; in Hamilton’s play, the victim is named Ronald Kentley) is, metaphorically speaking, an act of gay sex. In this context, Kentley’s head and neck are the phallus, and the rope is–pardon my crudity, Dear Reader–the tightening sphincter.
This all ties in with the next topic of discussion.
III: Of Homosexuals and Homicide
With the prudish Production Code at the height of its authority and power in the late 1940s, one would think it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to include any gay innuendo in a film. Nonetheless, Hitchcock managed to pull it off with Rope, as he would later do in Strangers On a Train.
Though Hitchcock was a bourgeois liberal, he actually had quite a progressive attitude towards homosexuality for people of the time, and he was intrigued with the idea of suggesting that not only the two young killers, but also Cadell, were gay. Hitchcock often pushed the censors as far as he could (recall the kissing scene in Notorious between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and how close we seem to come to seeing Janet Leigh naked in the shower scene in Psycho); so it would have been irresistible to him to drop many, many hints that the two young killers in Rope are a couple.
Not only are the characters gay, but so were the actors: Dall (closeted) and bisexual Granger. In fact, even the scriptwriter, Laurents, was gay…and he often wondered if Stewart knew that the character he was playing was gay. So Hitchcock had no bigotry towards LGBT people (recall that Anthony Perkins was also bisexual).
These characters in the film are gay because Brandon and Granno are hinted at being gay in Hamilton’s play, too. This is so because, in turn, Leopold and Loeb were actually gay lovers. Hamilton was a socialist, as Hitchcock was socially liberal, so both playwright and auteur would have wanted to address homosexuality in their productions of this story.
Now, the film begins with the strangling of (or symbolic sex with) David, who gives off quite an…orgasmic…scream. The lights are off, the curtains drawn in the middle of a sunny day outside; after all, we generally prefer to screw in the dark, don’t we? Especially if it’s in the socially taboo form of gay sex, something especially taboo before the second half of the twentieth century.
Phillip/Granno wants to keep the lights off and the curtains drawn for a while longer, since he’s the weaker-willed of the killers. Brandon fittingly lights a cigarette. Both are panting. They put Kentley’s body in the wooden chest, on which Brandon would proudly have dinner served.
After handling a phallic champagne bottle, Phillip asks Brandon how he felt doing “it,” a euphemism at the time for homosexual sex, but also of course referring to the murder, since the latter sin is symbolic of the former in Rope. Brandon answers that when David’s body went “limp” [!], he felt “tremendously exhilarated.” Now, how should we think about associating gay sex with murder?
The Legion of Decency–a group of Catholics working in association with the Hays Code, and watching every film of the time like a hawk to see if anything even suggestive of lewdness was there, and thus needing to be censored, boycotted, or banned–surely must have sniffed out the homosexual innuendo in Rope. Still, they approved of it. I suspect that they allowed Rope to go past the censors because, in their Catholic bigotry, they were happy to present to the public a film that associates homosexuality with homicide, a morality tale to deter the Christian flock from ever practicing…it.
But surely neither Hitchcock nor Laurents wanted to promote such an idea, did they? This seems to be where the good gay character, Rupert Cadell, comes in. Now, with Jimmy Stewart’s box office draw and charm as a movie star, the homosexuality of his character had to be toned down. The scenes in which Brandon and Cadell discuss “strangling chickens,” though, would be enough of a hint at Cadell being as gay as the killers.
The association of homosexuality with murder also hints, however subtly, that Cadell is either gay or at least philosophically approving of homosexuality. His defence of murder can thus be seen as a code for defending homosexuality. He is a liberal defending something deemed a sin by society; but like many a liberal hypocrite, he’s disgusted and horrified when presented with a graphic presentation of the act, as we see symbolized by Kentley’s murder, at the end of Rope.
The association of homosexuality with murder, in a way, can be seen historically in the homophobic fear–a totally irrational fear given the low percentage of the world’s gay people (as can be seen, for example, in these statistics of LGBT people in the US)–that tolerance of such sexual practices (anal and oral sex, mutual masturbation, or…choking chickens!) would result in a society producing far fewer children than an exclusively heterosexual, monogamous one. Such “murderers of [their] own posterity” as gays and perpetual bachelors were seen to be detrimental to the survival of any society (Farrell, pages 73-74).
Now, empires, in their political strength, have been somewhat more tolerant of homosexuality; but the Abrahamic religions started out as persecuted minorities, in whom a quick population increase was desperately wanted. Hence the homophobic passages unfortunately immortalized in the Bible (Leviticus 20:13) and the Koran (Al-Nisa, verse 16), meant to discourage gay sexuality, or similar scriptural passages condemning any sexual acts that didn’t result in children protected through the institution of heterosexual marriage.
Small wonder the Nazis condemned homosexuality as contributing to ‘race suicide,’ and put gay men in concentration camps. There was, however, Ernst Röhm, head of the SA, and a practicing homosexual. His sexuality was known, and Hitler grudgingly tolerated him for a while, because Röhm was so highly placed in the NSDAP; but when Hitler had come to power and needed to wipe out anyone who was deemed a threat to him, Röhm’s homosexuality was conveniently used as part of the rationale for having him killed.
A discussion of Nazi ‘superiority’ over homosexual ‘inferiority’ thus ties in with the next topic.
IV: From Untermenschen to Übermenschen
One of Hitchcock’s main purposes in making Rope was to discredit the Nazi notion of the ‘superior Aryan.’ We can see an irony in having two gay men, considered ‘inferior’ not only by Nazis but also by conservative society in general, who fancy themselves examples of the Nietzschean Superman. Röhm would have seen himself racially thus, too, as would his gay deputy, Edmund Heines.
[It’s interesting to note in passing that some have speculated that Nietzsche was gay. Also, one should recall how his younger sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, edited his writing to make his notion of the Superman seem proto-Nazi.]
To get back to Hitchcock’s intentions for the film, though, and his commendable use of Rope as a condemnation of Nazi thinking, on the other hand one mustn’t forget his reactionary stance as a bourgeois liberal, who during the late 1940s would naturally have been eager to distance himself from fascism as much as he could. All the same, consider in this connection what Stalin once said about liberals and their ilk: “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Nazis are to be crushed, not merely distanced from; and Western liberals were using unpunished ex-Nazis to help them fight the Cold War, starting right around the time that Rope was made.
Connected to all of this is a passage about homosexuals in Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis: ‘homosexuals or inverts…are men and women who otherwise have reached an irreproachably high standard of mental growth and development, intellectually and ethically, and are only afflicted with this one fateful peculiarity. Through the mouths of their scientific spokesmen they lay claim to be a special variety of the human race, a “third sex,” as they call it, standing with equal rights alongside the other two. We may perhaps have an opportunity of critically examining these claims. They are not, of course, as they would gladly maintain, the “elect” of mankind; they contain in their ranks at least as many inferior and worthless individuals as are to be found among those differently constituted sexually.’ (Freud, pages 313-314)
I bring up this quote because Hitchcock was known to have been heavily influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis, and gay Brandon’s and Phillip’s preoccupation with Nietzschean ‘superiority’ causes me to wonder if Hitchcock ever read the above-quoted book by Freud, its ideas influencing him in his making of Rope.
In any case, Brandon’s (especially) and Phillip’s/Granno’s sense of superiority doesn’t stem from their homosexuality, but rather from malignant narcissism, in which we see a huge overlapping of extreme narcissistic and psychopathic (ASPD) personality traits. Though the two may have felt narcissistic injury from being regarded by society as ‘sex perverts,’ and therefore wish to assert their ‘superiority’ by displaying the courage to kill, the thrill factor in killing Kentley seems to indicate the psychopathic side to Brandon’s personality, an impatience with boredom.
Now, Phillip/Granno, being the weaker-willed of the two killers, and lacking Brandon’s ability to tolerate stress (even though it is Phillip who does the actual strangling of Kentley!), is racked with guilt and stress throughout the film. While this guilt is surely a factor in his outburst, denying he’s ever strangled a chicken, this denial seems more connected with the implication, as stated above, that he’s gay rather than a killer. In other words, his lie that he’s never strangled a chicken seems to be his narcissistic rage at being implicitly labelled ‘queer.’
The narcissism of the two young killers can be linked to something else, in fact, something far more significant than being gay or wishing to emulate the philosophy of Nietzsche: it’s their elevated social class that gives them a false sense of superiority to most other people.
This ties in with the next point.
V: The Übermenschlichkeit of Capital
Brandon and Phillip/Granno, just like their real-life inspirations, Leopold and Loeb, are spoiled, well-to-do kids from affluent families. They’re preppy students living in a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, wearing nice suits, drinking fine champagne, and inviting similarly upper-middle-class friends to their evening party. They also have a servant in their employ, played by Edith Evanson.
Their smug belief in their supposed superiority is therefore symbolic of the narcissism of capital in general. Capitalist imperialists, like those in the British Empire, and now the US, have justified their plundering of the world–killing millions in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Southeast Asia (whether directly or indirectly)–by imagining their stock and civilization to be superior to all the brown people they’ve brutalized. Killing a fellow preppy like Kentley doesn’t deflate my argument, for those white imperialists, the Nazis, killed such whites as Jews and Slavs in their racist hubris, too.
Cadell’s ‘defence’ of murder is meant to be heard as a sardonic take on the hypocrisies of bourgeois society, not as a green light for Brandon and Phillip/Granno to kill. Cadell’s words, like Sade‘s glorification of the most heinous of crimes, are cloaked in irony. Cadell points out, in Hamilton’s play, that war is murder on a mass scale, and thoroughly approved of by patriotic society. Similarly, Hamilton’s Cadell approves of theft because society already condones capitalists’ theft of the poor through their ownership of private property: in this observation, he refers to Proudhon‘s notion that property is theft. Hamilton the socialist would have wanted to make this point to his audience, in the hopes of promoting progressive social change. In these ways, Cadell’s approval of crime is the opposite of capitalist Brandon’s relishing in crime.
…and the notion of narcissistic, bourgeois hypocrisy ties in with the final topic.
VI: Opening the Chest
Another part of narcissism is presenting a False Self to the world, a hiding of one’s True Self. Brandon’s and Phillip’s/Granno’s pretensions to superiority are an example of the False Self, while the concealment of their crime in the chest symbolizes the hiding of the True Self.
Since the crime is also symbolic of gay sex, the two killers are presenting themselves publicly as straight, ‘respectable’ members of society with their innocuous, high-class party. Phillip’s vehement yet dishonest denial of having ever strangled a chicken is an example of such pretending. Cadell, who knows better, and who is growing increasingly suspicious of his two young hosts, cross-examines Phillip, so to speak, while the latter is playing the piano. Cadell has witnessed the…choking of chickens…and knows Phillip has lied in his denial of committing the act. This cross-examination happens while Phillip has been playing, over and over again, the first of Francis Poulenc‘s Trois mouvements perpétuels. (Poulenc, incidentally, was also gay.)
The harmonic construction of the piano piece is a perfect parallel to the growing tension in the movie. It starts off with a pretty, light tune, the ideal sort of musical setting to a party with such people as the father (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke), girlfriend (played by Joan Chandler), and friend (played by Douglas Dick) of the murder victim, none of whom of course know of the murder. But as the piano piece carries on, it grows–however subtly–more and more dissonant, something paralleled in the unease that the guests are feeling over Kentley’s never showing up for the party. Though Phillip never plays the first movement to the end, anyone who has heard it knows it ends at the height of inconclusive dissonance, just as the film ends at the height of tension and uncertainty for the two killers.
Now, Phillip has been revealing his guilty True Self through such parapraxes as breaking a wine glass in his bloodied hand and letting out nervous outbursts; his heavy drinking is also facilitating his disclosing of guilt. Brandon, on the other hand, enjoys suggesting that he’s guilty of murder, for he fancies himself above the common man’s hypocritical pretences of virtue.
In these ways, just as Rope demonstrates the dialectical relationships between life and death, continuity and breaks in it, ‘inferiority’ and ‘superiority,’ and pride (Brandon) vs. shame (Phillip), so does it demonstrate the dialectical opposition between hiding one’s True Self behind a mask of one’s False Self on the one hand, and on the other, removing the False Self mask to reveal the True Self, be such a removal through parapraxes or through the criminal’s vanity, his proud wish to display his murder to the world.
Just as the murder symbolizes gay sex, so does hiding the body symbolize hiding one’s homosexuality, while Brandon’s unconscious wish to have his mentor, Cadell, know of the crime represents a wish to come out of the closet…or come out of the casket, as is the case here…Brandon’s defiant wish to tell the world that homosexuality is no crime.
In keeping with the gay interpretation, though, we find that liberal Cadell, in his condemnation of the two young men’s symbolic gay sex act, is a hypocrite himself. He has philosophically condoned the act a mere 40 minutes before this condemnation, an unmasking of his own False Self. He thanks Brandon for this unmasking, just as Brandon has wished to be unmasked, too.
At the same time, though, in keeping with the capitalist/imperialist interpretation (particularly in Hamilton’s play), Cadell redeems himself by, first of all, frankly acknowledging his own guilt in killing in war and stealing in his ownership of private property, and second of all, condemning Brandon’s and Granno’s murdering of Kentley (an excess Cadell would never lower himself to), all out of a narcissistic fancying of themselves as superior.
Cadell’s redemption, however, is only partial: for as a liberal (as Hitchcock was), he is symbolically condemning the excesses of fascist delusions of superiority used to justify killing, while maintaining the bourgeois liberal class structure of society out of which fascism arises in times of crisis…just as Cadell’s verbal approval of murder inspired these two bad boys’ achievement of murder.
The rope that links the teacher and his pupils doesn’t end here, doesn’t get cut off, through the difference between word and deed. The continuity between the former and the latter is as smooth as Hitchcock’s deft camera tricks hiding the cuts between long takes.