Rope, Homosexuality, and the Fear of Seemingly Everything

March 23, 2010

Rope is one of Hitchcock’s most technically interesting films – desiring a literal reinterpretation of the original play of the same title by Patrick Hamilton, the director chose to shoot the film in about eight long takes of about eight to ten minutes each. The result is at times cumbersome, with the need to switch to another reel obvious whenever Hitchcock focuses on a character’s back or on a door – but at other times, this self-imposed constraint creates interesting textuality, as in the long shot in which Ms. Wilson slowly clears nearly everything off of the chest in which Brandon and Phillip have hidden the body of their former friend David, while the audio consists of the off-screen conversation of Rupert Cadell and several other characters as they ponder what may have happened to David.

richard loeb, circa 1924

Another reason that Rope is so interesting is the daring themes it tackled in the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the height of the power of the MPAA code over the production of movies in Hollywood. The theme of murder – while prevalent in Hollywood films, especially those of Hitchcock – found new treatment in this film, because of the historical implications of the

Nathan Leopold, circa 1924

true story the original play was based on – the case of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy University of Chicago students who decided to commit the “perfect murder” in 1924, a case which was fraught with fear and disgust from the public — and a case which implied homosexuality between the two perpetrators.

The Final Shot of the Film: Indeed, the visual trope of The Trinity is prevalent throughout the film, which makes an interesting companion to the idea of Communion, with the characters eating and drinking from what Brandon characterizes as "an altar," which contains, effectively, a sacrifice for Brandon and Phillip's sins.

One aspect of the film which leaves the question of murder and guilt up to ambiguity is in the lack of non-diagetic music throughout the film. There is no musical theme to announce the immorality of Brandon or Phillip – indeed, the viewer, even after viewing the film several times, may wonder where to place the blame. After all, Brandon and Phillip got the idea of a higher class of people having free reign to murder those deemed “inferior” from their old teacher, Rupert Cadell. Even as the sirens blare in the final shot, all three characters form a Trinity, sharing equal sides of blame for the murder of David, who seemed like a great guy from what all his friends said about him throughout the party.

But even barring the heightened ambiguity of the murder theme, Rope is full of what Hume Cronyn, who wrote the treatment of the play for the screen, called “it.” As some noticed when they saw Rope back when it was released, the relationship between Brandon and Phillip, as well as the relationship between the two men and their old teacher, Rupert Cadell, brings up a lot of questions.

The opening scene in which Brandon and Phillip murder their former friend David is often read as an allegory for homosexual desire.

Right from the beginning, Rope is full of homosexual undertones. “Until his body went limp, and I knew it was over,” Brandon says casually when asked what felt best about the murder. However, the viewer could also construe this statement sexually, and is probably meant to. Indeed, Cary Grant turned down the role of Rupert Cadell on the grounds that it is suggested (albeit quite obliquely, perhaps only with Rupert’s assertion that he has been to Brandon Shaw’s farm on more than one occasion) that Cadell had an affair with one or both of the boys when they were younger.

Additionally, Brandon and Phillip plan to go visit the farm together the day after the party takes place, and Phillip apparently lives in the Shaw apartment, with Brandon — as subtly revealed by his having his own key. In fact, many theaters refused to screen Rope on the basis of the homoeroticism hinted at in the story and script — an interesting fact considering that Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman is what truly corrupts Brandon and Phillip, not their sexuality.

"Thus Spoke Zarathustra," the seminal novel penned by German philosopher Fredreich Neitzsche in 1885, was the first appearance of the concept of the "Superman" — albeit, Neitzsche's Superman was not particularly congruous to the comic book character.

But what really fascinates me about Rope is not the murder or homoeroticism, but rather the idea of the inability to confront “it” — it being, in the case of this film, homosexuality, but if we widen our interpretation of “it,” we can explore infinite possibilities within the world of film, and the ways in which we watch movies.

In thinking about doing this private reading, I was very conscious that I have not seen Psycho yet. I cannot give an exact reason why I haven’t — perhaps I just haven’t gotten around to it, but that wouldn’t be fully truthful. It seems that, somehow, like the MPAA, I am (on some level) afraid of what cinema can say without being explicit – what watching a film can make me think about without that film explicitly exploring it. I have a knowledge that the mind creates things using language, and that what the mind creates using language can be startlingly different from what the mind accepts as real and possible. What am I afraid of? Becoming the main character, Norman Bates?

Certainly not, but I am afraid of my mind conjuring up the images of another — in this case, Sir Alfred Hitchcock. I am afraid of not having textual control.  The trouble with Psycho is not that it’s scary; it’s that it tells me something I don’t want to hear, and it tells me in its own way. Perhaps in that same way, the attraction of films like Vertigo is the main characters’ fear of and attraction to knowing the truth, and their paralyzing inability to stop searching for it, much in the same way that I know I will need to watch Psycho at some point, but am afraid of what that experience may bring.

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