Alfred Hitchcock has a ton of movies on the List. That is no secret, in fact it may be the first thing you notice when you flip through the book. I will stay out of the discussion of whether his many entries are deserved or not and just enjoy the opportunity to actually follow a director’s development over the years. Where early Hitchcock films had a tendency to be all over the place, he gradually developed a sharper focus so that eventually he could produce exactly the message he wanted. I think that with “Rope” this focus is finally perfected.
This is a movie where everything else is cut away, no dallying around. From start to end Hitchcock focuses his and our attention on a single evening in an apartment where a murder has been committed.
The background stories on “Rope” are very much about the technique used. That Hitchcock wanted to make this look like a stage play in real time and therefore tried to make it seems like there are no cuts at all, that we are there all the time. It is interesting and it works as intended, but it is also a bit of a gimmick and not really the reason this film is as good and interesting as it is. I feel that this gimmick steals the attention but in a way I should be pleased by that. Because this may well be the reason there is a film at all. More about that below.
“Rope” has a number of interesting elements.
The first is of course the murder itself. The two men living in the apartment, Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) have killed an acquaintance called David, hid him in a chest in the living room and invite a group of relatives to the deceased to a party in the self-same room. It is morbid in the extreme and the suspense is in whether or not the guests will discover the stiff. This is mostly interesting because we are not really sure if we are hoping the body will be discovered or that it will not be discovered and that is largely due to the characters of the two perpetrators. Brandon is an asshole and clearly the one who engineered the murder. He needs to go down and we are rooting against him. Phillip on the other hand bears all the marks of one who are in this against his will. He bitterly regrets the deed and is searching for a way out. His nervousness and misery makes make us hope the body will not be discovered. With his usual deft touch Hitchcock keeps us on that knife’s edge throughout the movie before we find release. Especially the long scene seen from just behind the chest where the unsuspecting Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson), the maid of the boys, is clearing the chest and preparing to stuff the books back in the chest, is nerve wracking.
Behind this plot is the next layer, which is one of philosophy. This is just after the war where a number of traumatic experiences on the world stage has thrown a glaring light at the misbegotten idea that some people are better than others. I suspect at this point (1948) the world has not yet fully digested these events and so it is still a matter of debate. Well, to a point this is only the beginning, the discussion is still going on, sadly as it is. In any case, in the circles Brandon and Phillip moves in, the ideas on Nietche, that there is some sort of übermench identifiable by a larger and more sophisticated intellect, which is surrounded by lesser beings, who because they lack the clarity of mind must be subservient to the übermench, lives well and good. The old “house master” on their college, Rupert (James Stewart) has been promoting these ideas, and Brandon has not only adopted them, but decided to live them out. Instead of just talking about that some people deserve to die and that some exalted few are free to exact that punishment on a whim, Brandon has decided that he is one of those few and practically everybody else (with the exception of Rupert) are those lesser beings. David, he decided, must die, simply because he is a lesser being. David’s friend Kenneth (Douglas Dick) and David’s girlfriend Janet (Joan Chandler) can be manipulated and David’s parents can be mocked, all so Brandon can feel almighty.
It is this move from talk to action that shocks Rupert so badly when faced with it. He may have the role as “detective”, but he is also the teacher who is faced with a student that actually listened and now reveals what horrors those words actually meant. Much like Nazism took those words and slogans that were so easy to banter around and took them to their natural conclusion in what became the world’s biggest horror show ever. By what right can you claim to be a better person and by what right can you enforce your judgment on others? Those are the questions “Rope” asks us.
But that is not enough. “Rope” has a third layer that may or may not be related to the two above, but is not less interesting. In fact it makes the movie down right unique. “Rope” is a very homosexual movie. Brandon and Phillip are living together, shares one bedroom and behaves in every way as a couple. Homosexuality is not mentioned by a word and there are no kisses or hugs or outright remarks in that direction, but there is no need. It is very clear these two are together and it is just as clear that Brandon is the one on top. This is just about unheard of in American movies of this period and normally the censors would have cracked down on much less than this. Homosexuality was after all the kind of “filth” they were supposed to protect the innocent American population from. My only explanation is that Hitchcock’s revolutionary technique stole all the attention so the censors simply missed it. Amazing as it sounds.
Brandon may be together with Phillip, but that is not where his love is. He wants Rupert. Rupert is his teacher, but he is also Brandon’s idol and the entire evening can be constructed as one big hit on Rupert. The stammering, the eagerness of recognition and respect, damn, he wants to be found out by Rupert so Rupert can see that Brandon is worthy of him. Phillip is of course upset that Brandon is giving them away, but mostly I think he sees that Brandon plays up to Rupert and he feels like the third wheel. This is a very advanced love triangle!
Rupert of course is played by James Stewart and he is about the straightest man ever. This means of course that Brandon’s love can never be returned and I think the movie suffers a bit from it. Of course Stewart is excellent as the professorial “detective” and he is even better as the academic who realizes what dangerous crap he carelessly has been teaching, but the gay element is missing. In that way it makes Brandon even more disturbed and blind, but I cannot help thinking that that might not have been all the intension.
“Rope” is simply one of the most interesting Hitchcock movies I have seen, maybe not the best, but probably the most advanced. It worked completely for me and I have not even mentioned the excellent script. The dialogue is so spot on and helps to lubricate a message that is by no means a light one. A lot of people after the war had to ask themselves what they had been thinking of. The übermench is a very very disturbed character.