Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) remains to this day something of a curio within the great director’s cannon. Neither attributed classic status alongside the likes of North By Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958) or Psycho (1960), nor as completely under-appreciated as, say, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), Under Capricorn (1949) or Topaz (1969), the film still contains many classic Hitchcock moments of suspense and bold imagination.
Intriguingly, it also highlights an American society on the brink of change, prefiguring many of the social arguments that would dominate the coming decade, and in the process gives the audience an intriguing glimpse of the political side of cinema’s celebrated Master of Suspense.
Like those of John Ford, the films of Alfred Hitchcock are to be found somewhere on the right. This is not to say that Hitchcock inserted direct political messages into his films, but rather that political themes emerged during the filmmaking process, with writers, producers, even actors, all cplaying their part in the overall vision.
Superficially here, the vision, the visual storytelling, is all Hitchcock. Rope finds the director in a somewhat experimental mood. While experimentation has never been Hitchcock’s stock-in-trade, fans will be able to point to more than a little visual chicanery in his filmography, from the Dali dream sequence and subjective camerawork in Spellbound (1945), to the confined settings of Rear Window (1954) and Lifeboat (1944), to the colourful surrealism of Vertigo, but here Hitchcock constricts himself; the story unfolds in only ten takes, with dizzying, constantly moving camerawork.
As with Rear Window there is only one setting, an affluent New York apartment, and as with much of the director’s work, it is underscored with a hint of corrupt society and dangerous, even pathological, sexuality.
Much has been written about the visual techniques employed by Hitchcock in Rope (which he would unsuccessfully try to repeat with Under Capricorn), so let us instead concentrate on the story, which is simplicity itself.
Two wealthy college graduates, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), murder fellow student David Kentley, as a way of proving their intellectual superiority. They have committed the perfect murder, and in broad daylight to boot. If that wasn’t enough, the pair hide the body in a large chest at their apartment, just before some guests arrive for a small diner party – including the parents of their victim. Cue lots of debate about the philosophy of murder, before Shaw and Morgan are finally caught out in a game of cat and mouse by their old Housemaster Rupert Cadell, played by James Stewart.
The roots of this story are to be found in the real-life case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two wealthy Ivy Leaguers (and lovers) who, in 1924, murdered a child in order to prove they could get away with the perfect crime. They didn’t, of course, but the details of the case were recycled by Hollywood for this film (which had previously appeared as a stage play), and later by Compulsion in 1959 and Swoon in 1992.
The story is pared back to basics here, but its vision of an intellectual elite, with the power to organise society was one that, in the real world, was already giving concern to many American conservatives, fearful of the way the US was going to conduct itself in the burgeoning Cold War.
During the 1930s and The Great Depression, the masses were viewed with benevolence by those on the left, who championed their cause, but largely ignored by the right, who were too busy fretting about Franklin Roosevelt’s federal programmes with its whiff of socialism and big government.
By the end of the war, and with a new stand-off with the Soviets in the offing, things had begun to change. Conservatives such as William Buckley began to realise that the support of the people was needed if their political position was to progress. Instead of destroying the markets, FDR’s New Deal had provided a framework within which capital and labour could co-exist. The centre ground was in the ascendency.
By the early 1950s, the left would have all but abandoned the people, feeling let down during the witch hunts, and growing increasing bitter. Ex-liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger, who would one day advise President Kennedy, were never stinting in their unbridled contempt for the proletariat.
Back in 1948 Harry S. Truman would win that year’s elections by a slim margin (typified by the famous ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ newspaper headline). Early on, he laid out his programme for government, which was heavily geared towards foreign affairs and would usher in NATO. At home, he would centralise the intelligence agencies and call on Wall Street friendly figures like Dean Acheson to help spearhead his plans. He remained true to Roosevelt. Society was been organised form the top down.
Conservatives, were, naturally, appalled. If the liberal elites favoured a top-down society, then conservatives favoured one that was organised from the bottom-up. They favoured the local over the national. And more than that, they despised intellectualism; it was instinct, heart, guts, after all, that had made America what it was.
Rope dramatises these fears. It represents the projected conservative nightmare of a liberal society taken to its extreme. Furthermore, it discredits this vision of society, and finds redemption in another. Hitchcock may not have realised it, but his film was a precursor of arguments to come.
The contempt expressed by embittered liberals finds echoes in Rope’s murderous protagonists. “The Davids of this world merely occupy space,” says Shaw after the murder, “which is why he was the perfect victim for the perfect murder.” Immediately, we are presented with a society where the chosen few can have power over those deemed inferior.
But more than that, it is a society forged within academia. Here, intelligence is not presented as something that could solve society’s problems, but as something dangerous. In Rope, intelligence is equated with pathology.
But this is only half the nightmare; there’s uncomfortable sexuality as well.
Presentations of sex and sexuality are not uncommon in Hitchcock films; indeed their recurring presence could give amateur psychologists much to ponder. Here, as in his other movies, sex is treated as something abnormal, something to be feared. In Rope, for example, Shaw’s distinctly post-coital reaction to the murder, which he will later describe as making him feel “exhilarated”, makes a direct link between sex and murder.
Hitchcock is often thought of as being something of a misogynist, and while it is true that a strain does run through his films, his apparent displeasure for any kind of sexual activity runs just as forcefully. In addition to Rope, homosexuality is linked to murder in Strangers On A Train (1957) and North By Northwest, while in Psycho mother’s boy Norman Bates is the transvestite killer, the very psycho of the title.
Sex is alright for single men, but vigilance would appear to be the watchword; in The 39 Steps (1935) marriage is presented as a cradle of paranoia and abuse, while in Rear Window it is portrayed as the death of sex, and women as predatory. In Frenzy (1972), one of Hitchcock’s last films, it is rabid misogyny that fuels the killer, much like a latter day Jack the Ripper, who was the fictionalised subject of one of his first films, The Lodger (1927). In Shadow Of A Doubt (1943), misogynist serial killer Charlie (played by Joseph Cotten), not only despises women, but also the banality of society itself, with its emphasis on normality. In a strange parallel universe it’s hard not to see Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan from Rope watching and agreeing.
Intelligence, elitism, sexual deviance; here is everything that rampant liberalism represented to the conservative. Society is rotten to the core. “Perhaps what is called civilisation is hypocrisy,” says Shaw at one point. But we know he’s wrong, civilisation isn’t hypocritical, just his vision of it. By now, Cadell is circling, and it won’t be long before things are resolved. Sure enough, after each of the guests leave, Cadell returns, under the pretext of searching for a missing cigarette case, to confront the pair.
Upon discovery of the body, Cadell is horrified to discover that it was he who had inspired the murder through his teaching of unconventional philosophies at school. “You’ve given my words a meaning I never dreamed of and you’ve twisted them into a cold logical excuse for your ugly murder. Well, they never were that,” he says. For Cadell, repentance comes quick and the lesson comes fast – progressive education makes killers of our children.
“Tonight, you’ve made me ashamed of every concept I’ve ever had of superior or inferior human being”, he continues, quick to abandon his former beliefs. “And I thank you for that shame, because now I know that each of us, we’re separate human beings with the right to live and work and think as individuals, but with an obligation to the society we live in.”
But renouncement is not on its own good enough. Justice must also be served. A new convert to the conservative cause, Cadell has been quick to express familiar fondness for the individual, but like all good conservatives he stops short at support for vigilantism, which is the preserve of extremists. Brandishing a revolver, which he wrestled from the pair during the final confrontation, he tells them their fate. “It’s not what I’m going to do,” he warns, “it’s what society’s going to do. You’re going to die, both of you.” Executions are permitted, but only as administered by the state, not by a lone man with a gun.
And with that, he makes his final gesture. Opening the window, he fires shots into the air. On the street below, we hear a commotion. The police are called for, and within seconds, we can detect their faint sirens, which grow ever louder. Having first renounced his former values, Cadell has now firmly sided with the people. He may have been the one to solve the crime, but it is those outside that complete the cycle of justice, the man on the street, the local cop.
In Rope, if elite society is corrupt, deviant and murderous, and that corruption comes for the top-down, then the only antidote is the reverse. Justice can only be served from the bottom-up.