The Dark Half of the Id | Hitchcock’s Rope At 70
“…as dark as midnight and as sombre as the grave”
1948 was a good year for film, without doubt. Among the thousands produced were classics of cinema such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bicycle Thieves, Oliver Twist, The Red Shoes, Les Parents terribles, Key Largo and, in my opinion, the most inventive and most disturbing film Alfred Hitchcock directed in his extraordinary career; Rope. For anyone not familiar with Hitchcock, he was a filmmaker who very much embraced the darkness in someone’s soul. Just glance at his body of work and you will see some of cinema’s most intriguing characters, namely Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates from Psycho, or the icy Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt, or Farley Grainger in Strangers on a Train. Those mentioned above are a cross section of the characters brought to life by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock has always been drawn to the dark half of the id, and what could be darker than the motivations of the three central characters in Rope – murder for the intellectual thrill of it; as a privilege and a natural method of culling the inferior in society and by inference, a means of reinforcing a belief that the murderer is a superior being.
Rope, based upon a 1929 stage play by Patrick Hamilton, concerns two men, Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) who, in the opening moments of the film strangle their friend, David, with a piece of domestic use rope. Hiding David’s corpse in a large wooden chest, Brandon and Philip organise a dinner party. Inviting some close friends (even the parents of their murder victim) to their apartment and using the wooden chest as a buffet table of sorts, they wonder where David could be and why he did not show up. One of their guests, Rupert (James Stewart) a former college Professor of theirs and the one who planted the Nietzschean seed that selective murder might actually be good for society, soon begins to suspect that all is not right with this little soiree. In terms of tone, Rope is as dark as midnight and as sombre as the grave, and (what does this say about me) something delicious because of it. It is one of the most intriguing films Hitchcock produced because it delves into the darkness of high society, illuminating a sense of segregation and snobbery within the ranks of the social elite, of what we might now call “yuppies”. Where it had traditionally been held that violence was the intellectual antithesis of the elite, Rope turns this on its head and shows the academically superior resorting to violence for a thrill, highlighting the high society social construct as a bankrupt notion.
During this dissection of society Hitchcock doesn’t keep a distance, instead inviting the viewer into the “why” of a character’s motivations. And this time the “why” isn’t insanity or paranoia but a deluded sense of social and intellectual superiority, the concept of the Ubermensch. This is real horror. And what is truly scary about Rope is the audience’s knowledge of what has occurred and what is unfolding. Unlike Psycho, where the audience didn’t know that Norman Bates was mentally ill, from the opening frames of Rope we know that Brandon and Philip are murderers, we know that the body of David lies cramped in a wooden chest which serves as the focal point of the room and the story (there are very few points in the film where the chest is not visible or referred to in some sense) and we know that Brandon and Philip are stoking the fires of their own ego by inviting David’s nearest and dearest to their party, to be no more than ten feet from his corpse and not even know. These men are monsters and this anticipation is as tantalising as it is terrifying. My father often said to me as a teenager, “Don’t be afraid of ghosts, there are scarier things in real life.” Rope is the perfect example of that, of two men’s gleeful delight in besting those they see as subservient, as lesser beings than they.
The Inferior Man
The concept of the Ubermensch is the cornerstone of Rope, a thought extolled chiefly by Brandon and exemplified when he says, “Good and evil, right and wrong were invented for the ordinary, average man, the inferior man, because he needs them.” At several points during the film Brandon emphasises the fact that in killing David they have elevated themselves above the common man, “murder can be art. The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create,” he tells Philip and then cajoles him into having a celebratory drink before chastising him for wanting to drink beer, “you can’t drink beer, that’s for the ordinary man.” In Brandon (John Dall’s greatest performance) you have a character with no conscience and no heart, he is one of the great screen monsters who did not need make up, exampled by many things but maybe none so telling as his treatment of David’s whiskey glass.
After the murder, Brandon tidy’s up and he dries the glass that David took his last drink from. Brandon is glum, believing that it should be a museum piece, an exhibit for all to see in the study of how the perfect intellectual murder was committed. But, as he places it back on his sideboard, he sighs that it won’t ever happen simply because he doesn’t want to break up his set of crystal glasses. This is how cool and icy Brandon is, later claiming that the only crime they may be guilty of is being weak, in getting caught. Which is a very real possibility and the main reason why they invite not only David’s parents and fiancé, but also Rupert Cadell, a former teacher of theirs and a fellow believer in the Nietzschean philosophy of murder being a service to society and not truly a crime. “Now the fun begins,” Brandon says as the guests start to arrive, but Philip does not agree, and it is this tension between them, Brandon getting bolder as the film progresses mirrored against the gradual disintegration of Philip (who in fact committed the murder) that makes the denouement between Brandon, Philip and Rupert so gripping. Where Philip falls apart, Brandon finds a strength and perverse arrogance, a smugness knowing that he is the smartest man in the room simply because he is a murderer.
While talking about Rope in terms of philosophy and Nietzsche, it is also hard not to forget that this is a Hitchcock film filled with the artistic touches and flourishes that made Hitchcock “The Master of Suspense”. Technically, Rope is a triumph and one of his greatest achievements. After viewing the original stage play almost 20 years prior to making his film version, Hitchcock found himself consumed by one idea, an idea that went almost completely against his own concept of cinema – to make a feature film using only one shot, or one take. Intrigued by how the stage version played out in real time over the course of 90 minutes, Hitchcock wished to recreate this on film and while he did not succeed, he laid the foundation for future filmmakers to achieve such a feat. What Hitchcock did accomplish, almost perfectly, was to create the illusion of real time. If you look closely at Rope, you will see that there are just 10 shots used in the entire film (contrast this to his later film The Birds which used 1,360 shots and you will see just how monumental a feat Rope was). He filmed Rope in 10-minute blocks (10 minutes being the length of a reel of film), instructing the camera man to zoom in on a character’s back, or a book or a wall when the reel began to run out and thus allowing him to create the illusion of real time in the editing suite. While this notion was almost alien to Hitchcock it was a technique that added an extra layer to Rope, one that embraced its stage play origins creating the illusion that the film was happening live and, equally, ensured that Hitchcock himself had to be at his most inventive to create tension in the film.
The Murdered Focal Point
Looking at Rope you will notice one thing, the action is filmed from a focal point, from the position of the chest holding David’s body. The camera moves around the action, following the actors into other rooms and back but it will always come to rest exactly at the position of the chest, as if we the viewer are looking at the back and forth between the characters from David’s point of view. Indeed, the entire set and some of the props were built on dollies and wheels, allowing for the set to part and props to move to accommodate the movement of the camera as it followed the action.
While saying that the entire set was mobile, one of the best shots in the film is one of the only static shots used, a long shot of Mrs. Wilson as she clears the chest of its platters of cold meat and cheese and candle sticks. Taking one thing at a time from the living room to the kitchen, each time returning with armloads of books, books that are normally stored in the chest. With the chest in the foreground, the viewer is sucked into this little parade back and forth as we know what’s in the chest and the anticipation that she may open it is tantalising and terrifying and the equal of Tippi Hedren walking back and forth outside the school building in The Birds or the “Hitchcock Zoom” in Vertigo. Rope is a triumph in “stunt” film making, something that Hitchcock himself admitted to later in his career.
Rope, for me, is Hitchcock’s most interesting film. It was his experiment, one that he often claimed went awry but without it we may never have seen the talents of Roman Polanski, Brian DePalma or M. Night Shyamalan to name a few. Watching the tension build between the main characters is gripping as we, the viewer, know what is in the chest, but we also know what type of character we are dealing with. Nothing is hidden in Rope, Brandon going as far as saying that they killed for the sake of it. Brandon may just be the ultimate sociopath. Again, it is hard to say you like this film without asking yourself the question, “what does that say about me…” But then again, isn’t that what all films should do.