Rope: The Poverty of “Superior Human Beings”

“Brandon’s spoken of you.”

“Did he do me justice?”

“Do you deserve justice?”

This coarse response is one of the 1st things Rupert Cadell says when he introduces himself.  The morose but strangely-friendly prep school philosophy teacher and book publisher is the last character to introduce himself in Rope, but in many ways this movie is the story of his transformation–of how he discovers that he believes everyone deserves justice.

Hitchcock would cast Jimmy Stewart as the protagonist in 4 of his movies--Rope (1948), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1953), Rear Window (1957), and Vertigo (1959). In sharp and refreshing contrast to Frank Capra, Hitchcock would always cast America's everyman as off-beat, even disturbed individuals. In The Man Who Knew Too Much he plays a man driven by the race to save his son from kidnappers. In Rear Window he portrays a recuperating photojournalist who spies on his neighbors in his boredom until circumstantial evidence of a serious crime consumes his attention. In Vertigo he stars as a long-single man driven to the edge of madness by the desire for a woman he can't fully understand. In Rope he appears well into the action as Rupert Cardell, a boarding school teacher who has become very close to some of his students, sharing genuinely subversive ideas with them in the process.

Rope is a remarkable movie.  Dating to 1948, it is chronologically the earliest Alfred Hitchcock film the Liberal Ironist can recall expressing a satirical message.  I have previously reviewed Vertigo on this site, and Rope starts that tradition of simple plots about men driven by dark impulses.  Rope was Hitchcock’s 1st movie starring legendary Hollywood everyman Jimmy StewartVertigo was the last.  Besides that surface connection, both movies are focused on a conflict between a man’s desire for more power and the conventions and scruples necessary for us to live together as human beings.  Interestingly (at least to yours truly), this conflict is only put into words in Rope, but only in the later and murkier Vertigo are we invited to sympathize with the man (Stewart’s “Scotty” in that case) who seeks to impose his will on others; in Rope sympathy with the 2 young criminals is impossible.

The strange thing about Rope from a filmmaking perspective is that, in a sense, the premise, plot and all spoilers are right there in the 1st scene.  (Incidentally, “scene” is a bit of a misnomer since I have only ever noticed 3 cuts–and thus 4 unbroken segments of film–across the entire film.)  The entire movie follows the all-important incident, and all the tension to follow is character-driven.  What is at stake now is the sentiments of a man whose appearance is merely anticipated.

Brandon assures Phillip that they have a perfectly-good reason for serving dinner for their guests off of a chest in the living room. What they didn't have a good reason for was murdering David Kentley and stuffing his body inside that chest so they could serve dinner to his friends and family from it. Brandon would even refer to this chest as a "sacrificial altar" to his housekeeper. All this irony struck Brandon (at right) as master strokes in his demonstration of his superiority.

So, here it is: Brandon and Phillip, college graduates who have been close friends since boarding school, murder David Kentley, their classmate at Harvard University, for no other reason than to see if they could do it.  Brandon chose as his victim a young man whose father and aunt would attend a party he and Phillip would throw a short while later, where they would serve dinner buffet-style from the server in which they had dumped David’s body.  Brandon also serves his guests expensive champaign–which he didn’t tell the others was served to celebrate his and Phillip’s successful murder of someone they knew.  With much pretense of doing so he pushed an acquaintance he respected more than David towards Janet, David’s girlfriend, who was entertaining the marriage proposal he had made earlier that day.  During the party Brandon frankly discusses his belief that “intellectually- and culturally-superior human beings are above conventional morality,” and that there is no reason they should not have the power to kill their inferior if they happen to be in the way.  He admits to believing that he and Phillip are such superior human beings.  At the end of the party, he gives David’s father some nice 1st-edition books he’d been hoping to unload–bound together with the rope Phillip used to strangle David.

Brandon services his petty vanity with such double-entendres and allegory the entire evening, constantly demonstrating his capacity for idle chatter while indirectly reminding Phillip and himself of their supposedly-authenticating crime.  In the 1st scene Brandon describes his decision to serve food off of the server in which he stashed the body of a man who believed him to be a friend as the single stroke that would turn his and Phillip’s “work of art” into a “masterpiece.”  Nothing seems to give him greater satisfaction–following the murder–than keeping his own secret.  Well, there is 1 thing which would have meant more to him.

In my review of Vertigo, I mentioned Hitchcock's fascination with the potential for mundane objects to yield up the outrageous. So it is with the chest in the foreground.

Brandon’s long, excited talks with his favorite philosophy teacher, Rupert, inspired him with the belief that he was an “intellectually- and culturally-superior human being,” and some dark animus in him interacted with this sense to bring him to the thought that he could by right take another life.  Even before the party starts Brandon suggests that Rupert is the only other person he knows who could appreciate the combination of resolve and finesse that went into their murder of a classmate.  It is Janet who obliviously avers that “Freud says there is a reason for everything we do,” and for all his insistences otherwise Brandon seems utterly unable to stop himself from dangling evidence bereft of significance in front of “those idiots” at the party–or from subliminally broadcasting his guilt to Rupert.

For all his volunteered contempt for ordinary human beings, Brandon is unable to stop himself from sharing his awful deed with another person even while his life is at stake.  When he assures Phillip that “Murder can be every bit as exhilarating as creation,” his inability to share the simple fact of what he has done with anyone aside from his accomplice proves to be first his unhinging, and then his undoing.

It’s worth discussing the sources for this story.  Before Alfred Hitchcock adapted it into one of his best films, Rope was a play by Patrick Hamilton, but it also dramatized a true crime, and did so in the words of another fictional criminal.  The true crime was the Leopold & Loeb murder, and the fictional criminal is Rodion Raskolnikov, the murderer from Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s outstanding novel Crime and Punishment.  The Leopold and Loeb murder occurred in 1924, in which a 19-year-old meticulous birdwatcher and crude reader of Nietzsche named Nathan Leopold and an easily-bored 18-year-old with no morals named Richard Loeb murdered an acquaintance simply to see if they could successfully blackmail his father.  Leopold’s reading of Thus Spake Zarathustra apparently led him to the belief that Nietzsche’s ubermensch–a person of loftier perspective and profound self-mastery–could demonstrate his autonomy from conventional moral understandings such as the evil of murder.  (Nietzsche didn’t argue that an ubermensch would seek to authenticate his or her status through the commission of a crime, merely that he would clearly-behold that all morality is a human creation and thus not allow it to proscribe his purpose–though this potentially invites the same problem.)  Leopold thought of Loeb–with whom he had a homosexual relationship and who he claimed to love for the rest of his life–as an ubermensch–and apparently served as Loeb’s accomplice because of intense feelings of dependence on Loeb.  (Interestingly, there is a very brief, interrupted exchange between Brandon and Phillip which suggests their similar involvement.)

Every time I’ve seen Rope I’ve come back to the same simple thought: How visibly a product of adolescence it is when a few or individuals set themselves up as “superior human beings.”  Of course, talents or intelligence and even a circumstantially-justified sense of good taste are not evenly-distributed assets, but there is something about that broadest category of “superior human beings” where no one who seems worthy of that distinction ever seems to turn up.  Those who would set themselves up as such are always so visibly-resentful, or so lacking in truly creative notions, that they seem almost to have come around to the idea of their superiority to the masses as a way of making sense of their own failure to recognize merit in others.

This review probably read somewhat as a list of plot-items, but that isn’t the point of it.  With all the action coming either before it starts or at the very end, Rope isn’t simply about what happens.  It’s character-driven to the point that there’s often little to engage one’s care besides subtle gradients in the way the various people Brandon dismisses as “those idiots” are feeling.  Strangely, the only characters who seem truly uninteresting to me are the 2 killers.  They are insipid people, Brandon sure-enough of his own superiority to appear ridiculous, and Phillip hopelessly-dependent upon Brandon.

The Liberal Ironist won’t tell you what happens.  I’ll just say Rope is the story of how Rupert Cardell goes from being an ironist to a liberal ironist himself.  He will never ask another person if they deserve justice again.

I won't tell you exactly what happens in Rope, but note what side of the room Brandon's much-admired Rupert (Stewart, in the foreground) is sitting on.

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