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"Who Wants to Die for Art!?!": Reflections on a Meta-Film Sub-Genre: Part I
𝘙𝘰𝘱𝘦: Transcendence and Self-Incrimination through the Art of Crime
Rope’s narrative begins with the strangulation of a young man named David Kentley (Dick Hogan) by two of his prep school classmates, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger). Brandon is enlivened by the murder, but Phillip expresses remorse for his role in the grisly deed, and this difference in the killers’ reactions mirrors their “alpha-beta” relationship, which is coded as gay (Brandon and Phillip are based on the notorious real-life lovers Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb, who in 1924 abducted and killed a fourteen-year-old for the same reasons Brandon and Phillip kill their victim.) Before guests (including David’s father and girlfriend) arrive to the party they host in their Manhattan apartment, Brandon and Phillip conceal the corpse in a wooden chest and discuss their motivation for killing David: the sheer thrill of doing so.
This “for the sake of it” ethos is connected in Arthur Laurents’s script (as adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play; Hume Cronyn wrote the film’s story treatment) to the artist’s ability to aestheticize and ennoble reality, including its ugliest elements. At various points throughout the film, Brandon makes this connection explicit: “I’ve always wished for more artistic talent. Well, murder can be an art, too. The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create,” and “[The party’s] the finishing touch to our work. It’s more. It’s the signature of the artists,” and so on. It’s worth noting that while Brandon wishes “for more artistic talent,” a wish that he transforms into a reality through his orchestration of “the perfect murder,” Phillip is an actual artist, a piano player and actor — Phillip’s ability to express himself creatively might account for his disgust at, and guilt for, having participated in Brandon’s act of destruction, the homicidal medium through which he expresses himself.
Brandon’s warped aestheticism is in turn associated with an intellectual, creative, and moral superiority he believes people like himself and Phillip possess over and above the “ordinary average man,” “the inferior man,” for whom “good and evil, right and wrong were invented…because he needs them.” According to this philosophy — extremely similar to that of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom another character directly references — Brandon and Phillip’s superiority bestows upon them the right to exercise brutal power over people like David because “the Davids of this world merely occupy space, which is why he was the perfect victim for the perfect murder.”
At the party, Brandon’s former prep school housemaster, cultural studies author Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), expresses agreement with Brandon’s philosophical views and also likens murder to an art. Indeed, Brandon tells Phillip that he’s invited Rupert to the party because Rupert is the only person who would not only understand but also approve of David’s murder. Along with Phillip’s increasingly agitated behavior, Brandon drops enough hints about the killing — often through puns, double-entendres and veiled allusions, verbal corollaries of the “game” he plays in hiding David’s corpse among his party guests — to arouse the writer’s suspicions that something is amiss, and in this way Brandon fosters the audience needed for his “artistic” crime to be sufficiently appreciated as a “masterpiece.”
Eventually Rupert uncovers the murder and discovers David’s corpse, and at film’s climax he denounces Brandon, Phillip, and his own amoral philosophical pretensions:
“Tonight you’ve made me ashamed of every concept I ever had of superior or inferior beings. But I thank you for that shame, because now I know that we are each of us a separate human being, Brandon. With the right to live and work and think as individuals, but with an obligation to the society we live in. By what right do you dare to say that there’s a superior few to which you belong? By what right did you decide that that boy in there was inferior and could be killed? Did you think you were God, Brandon? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him? Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave?! I don't know who you are but I know what you've done. You've murdered! You choked the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as you never could, and never will again!”
On the surface, Rope functions as a clever “howcatchem?” (as opposed to a “whodunnit?”) as well as a clear-cut denunciation of moral relativism by way of Hitchcock’s supreme proficiency in the suspense thriller genre. But on a deeper level, Rope — like so many of Hitchcock’s best works — is a chilling implication and self-implication of this very aestheticization. That’s because the film’s driving aesthetic element is the “programmatic perfection” (to use literary critic and film scholar D.A. Miller’s description of Rope’s perceived visual purity) of a single, unbroken shot (114).
The operative word here is “perceived” since the actual construction of Rope contains, after its title sequence, what only appears to be an unbroken shot that runs for approximately 78 minutes. This unbroken shot is really ten shots of various durations that were edited seamlessly so as to seem continuous, but even this illusionary “single, unbroken take” contains four unconcealed and typically unacknowledged cuts. (These cuts occur at the end of each of Rope’s four reels so as to coincide with projection changeovers.) So seamlessly executed is the “single, unbroken take,” and so ensconced in cinematic legend is that take’s construction and appearance, that only until very recently did I notice the four unconcealed edits contained therein — and only after I was informed of them.
But even if only an artistic “ideal” (François Truffaut called Rope the realization of a director’s “dream of linking all of a film’s components into a single, continuous action”), the “single, unbroken shot” calls blatant and unmistakable attention to Rope as art, and an artificial construction (184). Ironically so, for even though it unfolds in a more “lifelike” fashion than almost all other Hollywood films (one can argue that we visually experience life as a single, unbroken shot), Rope stands conspicuously apart from these films due to the conventionalized “lifelikeness” they achieve through classical continuity editing.1
In his famous series of interviews with Truffaut, Hitchcock dismissed the experimental construction of Rope as pointless: for all of its long-take virtuosity, the Master claimed, the film nonetheless adheres to a classical sequence of camera positions and angles — long shots to orient the audience as to the spatial parameters of the setting and the characters’ movement within it, closer shots to emphasize important facial expressions or details within the setting, etc. — and so the “single, unbroken shot” of which Rope is mainly composed proves technically impressive but ultimately ornamental (180). Yet Hitchcock failed to give himself proper credit, since Rope’s eschewal of classical continuity editing’s conventionalized “invisibility” (that is, the inconspicuous transitions among separate shots) encourages an unusual experience in which viewer awareness of the camera’s spatial relationship to characters and other elements of mise-en-scène is not only activated but intensely heightened.
By shooting Rope largely through the “single, unbroken shot,” Hitchcock primes his audience to view his film in far less “realistic” terms than an audience would almost all other films, and thus he foregrounds his creation as a work of art and not as a verisimilar representation of reality. The irony that the “single, unbroken shot” masks its four unconcealed cuts — at least for most viewers, including this one — better than would a conventionally constructed and edited film speaks to Rope’s tense relationship with immersive spectacle. Most films contain artificial elements that unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) distance the viewer from complete immersion in spectacle, but not by employing the kind of extreme oscillations Hitchcock employs to push the viewer into and pull the viewer out from the fictional drama. In Rope, the “lifelikeness” of the “single, unbroken shot” can evoke the absorbing quality of a dream, but it can also evoke the contrived nature of a self-consciously performed stage play.
In this way, the very construction of Rope parallels Brandon and Phillip’s motivation for committing murder — something gratuitous2 that enhances reality, or at least enhances one’s relationship to it — and so the audience’s motivation for watching Rope, and perhaps the cinema as a whole, is brought into the harsh light of day: we watch movies to aesthetically “redeem” subjects we find “inferior” and to aesthetically “enliven” circumstances and situations we consider “ordinary.” (A proposed experiment: a re-edit of Rope’s party sequence so that it loses a few secretive side-conversations between Brandon and Phillip and is no longer preceded by the murder sequence nor followed by the climactic confrontation between Rupert and the killers. Would the party be at all interesting without an audience’s knowledge that a corpse was hidden amid the partygoers?)
Hitchcock confronts the audience with its desire for transcendence through art, a desire that mirrors the killers’ desire for transcendence through a creatively orchestrated murder and its concealment. Hitchcock suggests that the difference in the motivation of “thrill-killers” and the motivation of artists and art consumers may lie more in degree than in kind: an underlying dissatisfaction with the “ordinary” and even “inferior” aspects of reality that drive people to seek “something more” motivates both art and murder, even, or especially if, that “something more” has no practical or socially redeeming purpose. In this sense, the coded gay relationship between Brandon and Phillip (and the coded or not-so-coded queerness of so many killers in Hitchcock’s films, from Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt  to Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates in Psycho ) reinforces Rope’s theme, since Brandon and Phillip’s sexuality is “excessive” and “non-productive” (according to the values of mainstream American society) in the way of so much “art for art’s sake.”3
One can reasonably argue that creating or enjoying art is not nearly the same as ending the life of a human being — that art is almost always victimless, whereas murder by definition involves the dispatching of a victim. But this is where Rope complicates matters with the character of Rupert. If Brandon and Phillip make crime their art, then the audience for whom they intend to entertain and impress is Rupert, the teacher who imparted to his former charges the ideas of murder-as-art and murder-as-the-privilege-of-the-superior-few. Between the killers and Rupert exists a feedback loop predicated on the desire for transcendence over the practical or “positive” applications of art as well as the limitations of society through transgressive acts that prove one’s intellectual, creative, and, thereby, moral superiority. But though Rupert inspires Brandon and Phillip, the teacher differs from his pupils in sincerity. Rupert half-jokingly espouses his ideas while his students turn these ideas into reality by bringing them to their logical, horrific conclusion. As Thomas M. Bauso points out, Rupert’s facetiousness provides the core means through which Hitchcock aligns the sympathies of the audience with those of the character: “For the audience can more easily be teased into identifying with the character and thus can be entrapped by that identification at the end of the film, when the deadly consequences of Cadell’s cavalier toying with ideas are fully brought home to him, and the space between his play-acting and his pupils’ acting-out of his fantasy is dramatically closed” (234).
Unlike most Hitchcock films in which spectator identification with characters is achieved through point-of-view editing, Rope remains “outside” of its characters — the film never employs point-of-view editing, and so the audience never perceives and experiences events through the characters’ eyes. Rupert functions as Rope’s audience-surrogate, though through a strategy diametrically opposed to Hitchcock’s usual methods. Rather than gradually “embedding” the viewer into or “aligning” the audience with Rupert’s subjectivity through point-of-view editing, Rope has Rupert assume the viewer’s omniscient vantage point — as fostered by the roving movement of the “single, unbroken shot” — as he gradually catches up with the audience’s knowledge of events and discovers the murder. Rupert’s discovery, however, leads to disillusionment as well as mastery: In denouncing Brandon and Phillip, Rupert distances himself from their crime, but also implicates himself in having shared the ideology that motivated them to commit it.
Rupert’s subjectivity becomes fully meshed with both the killers’ and the audience’s subjectivity, particularly in one of the film’s most ingenious sequences, a pseudo-point-of-view within the “single, unbroken shot” that suggests what Rupert would have seen or how he would have navigated within Brandon and Phillip’s apartment if he himself were to have killed David. No characters are in frame during this sequence, and so Rupert’s step-by-step narration of the imaginary murder, which verbally recreates the actual murder committed by Brandon and Phillip, provides the sequence’s only “action” — the audience is thus encouraged to visualize the events that led up to David’s murder in the same manner that Rupert imagines and describes them. Beyond that, Rupert’s plan for entrapping the murderers involves a creative indulgence that replicates that of the killers. Rather than simply report to the police his suspicion of David’s murder (a suspicion founded on more than just Brandon’s hints and Phillip’s bizarre behavior, since Rupert discovers telltale evidence of the murder via David’s hat, which Brandon and Phillip foolishly leave in their hallway closet), Rupert cleverly goads the killers into a confession with verbal taunts, feints, and allusions. Rupert’s interest in artistic “play” over and above pragmatic, socially conscious responsibility is recognized and called out by Phillip when he likens Rupert’s ploys to his and Brandon’s own propensity to delight in sick “games”: “Cat and mouse, cat and mouse! But which is the cat and which is the mouse?”
Thomas Hemmeter points out that Rupert’s favoring of “play” over responsibility enters into the very logic — or illogic — he uses to philosophically separate himself from Brandon and Phillip (256). Rupert’s climactic denunciation of the killers is also an unintentional admission that he never attached genuine meaning to his words concerning murder-as-art and murder-as-the-privilege-of-the-superior-few, and so, in effect, he was just “playing” with language and “toying” with ideas:
“But you’ve given my words a meaning that I never dreamed of! And you’ve tried to twist them into a cold, logical excuse for your ugly murder! Well, they never were that, Brandon, and you can’t make them that. There must have been something deep inside you from the very start that let you do this thing, but there’s always been something deep inside me that would never let me do it — and would never let me be a party to it now.”
Hemmeter sees Rupert as a “structuralist” (as opposed to Brandon’s “deconstructionist”) who feebly attempts to control ideological play by anchoring the explosive potentialities of his irresponsible language with a meaning that exists outside language itself, a mysterious and never-defined “something deep inside me” that is moral and upright as opposed to the “something deep inside” Brandon that took from Rupert’s words “a cold, logical excuse for [his] ugly murder” (257-261). Rupert’s attempt to divorce himself from Brandon’s artistic playfulness itself indulges in an artistic play with words, and this circularity is perhaps one of the reasons Rupert feels “shame” for having inspired the murderers. It is not only that Rupert believed the same ideas that led to the murder of David, but that he participates, both as an audience member and as an artist, in the kind of irresponsible and purposeless creativity that animates his mentees.
As Hemmeter shows, Rupert’s failure to convincingly distance his values from Brandon and Phillip’s values mirrors the repeated dead-ends commentators have encountered when attempting to reconcile Rope’s formal conceit with its purported meaning (253-254). Historically, critics have either dismissed the film as indulging in an experimentation that outstrips its meaning, and in so doing they have refused to acknowledge the ways in which Rope’s construction is integral to the communication of that meaning; or else critics have recuperated Rope’s integrity as a meaningful narrative by divorcing it from the film’s experimentation, and in so doing they have reduced Rope’s ideas and implications to the moralistically simplistic.
The overall result of the strategies that Hitchcock uses to identify the audience with both the killers and Rupert, as well as the strategies he uses to identify Rupert with the killers, is that Rope’s audience becomes implicated in sharing the three major characters’ desire for transgression in pursuit of the Real, that “something more” that art promises but that crime delivers. Bauso explains:
“No moment in the film more clearly invites the audience’s compassion for Rupert’s tragic insight [as Rupert’s discovery of David’s corpse], but the supreme irony of this sympathy resides in the parallel between the audience’s identification with Rupert and its own implication in his crime. For he is inarguably, though indirectly, guilty of David’s murder, and so his shallow speech of self-justification at the end goes beyond simple hypocrisy or obtuseness and enters a transcendent realm of the absurd. To laugh at Rupert’s ludicrous rationalizing is, for the audience, to laugh at itself (237).”
Rope encourages dark, self-incriminating laughter not by mocking its audience’s temporary abandonment of democratic values and Judeo-Christian morality in identifying with the killers and their unwitting role model — a frivolous objective in any case, since the vast majority of Rope’s viewers don’t stand in danger of imposing a violent Nietzschean “will to power” over others — but instead by uncovering the anti-social impulses at the heart of artistic practice and appreciation. Just as Brandon and Phillip might never have murdered David if they hadn’t conceived of their act as a work of art that would be applauded by someone sharing their desire to transcend “ordinary values” through the transgression of written and unwritten law, so might Hitchcock have never directed Rope if he hadn’t been aware that audiences desire to transcend the “ordinary” through the transgressions of art.
Rope is no mere “having its caking and eating it, too” film — a zero-sum exercise that scolds an audience for enjoying the very entertainment it provides. Instead, with Rope Hitchcock examines his and his audience’s participatory roles in a centuries-old circuit of art production and reception. Frequently instigating that circuit, Hitchcock suggests, are amoral — if not immoral — desires entirely at odds with the oft-stated positive motivations of artistic practice: the creation of beauty, the revelation of truth, the imparting of ethics. Perhaps the ultimate irony of the thoroughly ironic Rope is that even while possessing these positive motivations the film never allows them to fully counterbalance or “redeem” the ideological and aesthetic transgressions that propel its narrative. Its beauty consists of gratuitous and self-conscious artifice, its revelation exposes the selfish, destructive philosophical underpinnings of over-developed intelligence and creativity, and its ethical instruction incriminates the audience rather than solely condemning an evil “other” from whom the audience can maintain a safe moral distance.
Above all, Hitchcock implies with Rope that his work as an artist is fueled by a mischievous, gleeful manipulation only a stone’s throw from his villainous characters’ full-fledged sadism, and that — because art so often involves indulgence in mischievous and manipulative “free play” — the artist’s work as a whole is a sort of glorified criminality, an excursion into transgression with only the flimsiest of socially-approved justifications.
Bauso, Thomas M., “Rope: Hitchcock’s Unkindest Cut,” Hitchcock’s Rereleased Films: From Rope to Vertigo, Ed. Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick, Detriot: Wayne State University Press, 1991, Print, 226-239.
Hemmeter, Thomas, “Twisted Writing: Rope as an Experimental Film,” Hitchcock’s Rereleased Films: From Rope to Vertigo, Ed. Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991, Print, 253-265.
Miller, D.A., “Anal Rope,” Representations, No. 32 (Autumn 1990), University of California Press, Print, 114-133.
Truffaut, François, Hitchcock, Trans. Helen G. Scott, New York: Touchstone, 1985, Revised Edition, Print.
Another major difference between Rope and most other Hollywood films is that the former almost entirely eschews soundtrack music. A theme plays over the opening credits — up to the last moments of the introductory establishing shot — and the closing credits, but otherwise Rope unfolds without an extra-diegetic musical score or musical cues, which are typically employed to immerse audiences in a movie’s visual action: here again, Hitchcock chooses to keep his audience at a remove from what they watch. Furthermore, at a couple of points Phillip performs the film’s theme on a piano. One of these performances occurs at the very end of the film, just prior to the closing credits, as if Phillip’s performance was supposed to lead into the theme as it plays in extra-diegetic form over the credits. These instances, in which the extra-diegetic musical theme is taken up within the diegesis, lend to Rope an additional layer of meta-cinematic artifice. It’s also worth mentioning that Rope was Hitchcock’s first color film. As with the 78-minute “single, unbroken shot” and the relative lack of extra-diegetic soundtrack music, color in Rope initially appears to be a lifelike and realistic cinematic element — at least in comparison to black-and-white film stock — but Hitchcock uses it for increasingly expressionistic and borderline-hallucinatory effect, especially toward the end of the film when a glowing neon sign outside Brandon and Phillip’s apartment bathes the characters in pulsating flashes of red.
The “gratuitous” character of Rope’s construction is evident in the logistical difficulties of shooting the film. These difficulties reached an apex when Hitchcock noticed a color error in the dailies that necessitated the complete re-shooting of the film’s last five reels. Needless to say, had Hitchcock shot the film conventionally such an error would not have produced so much wasted time and celluloid (Truffaut 181).
Much has been written about Hitchcock’s depiction of coded queer characters, and it is, admittedly, much more complex and nuanced than the brief treatment I afford the issue in this essay. For more on the topic see Theodore Price’s Hitchcock and Homosexuality: His 50-Year Obsession with Jack the Ripper and the Superbitch Prostitute: A Psychoanalytic View (Scarecrow Press, 1992) as well as the chapter “The Murderous Gays: Hitchcock’s Homophobia” from Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (Columbia University Press, 2002).
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