Hitchcock's Rope and Gay 'Rights'


A cake in the small box. A corpse in the large one.

Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope is regarded by some as one of his lesser works, a mere gimmicky curio:

A movie made in what is supposed to be one long take, the better to recreate the experience of watching a stage play (which Rope originally was).

Because that would have been technically unachievable at the time — a Technicolor camera’s film cartridges had to be replaced every ten minutes — Hitchcock challenged himself to employ the fewest cuts he possibly could.

The finished movie features only ten, a mixture of traditional hard cuts and not very subtle dissolves.

Hitchcock later called Rope “an experiment that didn’t work out.”

It fell into semi-obscurity until a 1984 rerelease prompted critical reevaluations and introduced the movie to a new generation.

I’ve never understood why Hitchcock was disappointed with the movie.

Then again, I’ve always been very fond of Rope.

Its themes intrigue me.

David, Brandon and Philip are gathered for cocktails in a swanky Manhattan apartment, but two of the pals throttle the third and cram his body into a heavy wooden chest. Instead of hiding themselves, or the evidence of their crime, they throw a party, inviting the dead man’s loved ones to sip champagne and make small talk, just a few feet from his cooling corpse.

The murderers are supercilious Brandon (John Dall), and sensitive Philip (Farley Granger): friends and, it is heavily implied, lovers, too.

The party’s guests have been carefully chosen: the murder victim’s father and aunt, his fiance — and Rupert Cadell, played by Jimmy Stewart.

Rupert taught all three boys at prep school, where he filled their heads with dime-store Nietzsche, with a sprinkling of Wilde and Rand:

Intellectually superior people (like themselves, of course) were above the law, you see.

Even murder was acceptable, if the victim was an inferior. In fact, such an act of creative destruction would render the world a better place.

It’s hinted — again, this was 1948 — that Rupert had also initiated the boys (or at the very least, Brandon) into homosexuality.

And indeed, despite the strictures of the era, Rope remains one of the gayest movies ever made pre-1960s.

Both Dall and Granger were gay in real life; so was screenwriter Arthur Laurents, who was sleeping with Granger during filming.

To the amusement of all involved with Rope, words like “gay” and “queer” made it past the powers that be because, as usual, Hitchcock intentionally larded the original script with enough superfluous “offensive” fluff — lines like “My dear boy” — to preoccupy, and ultimately wear down, the censors.

The murder scene that opens Rope is, to modern eyes, campily sexual, and not just because the weapon of choice, that titular rope, suggests bondage; Brandon pulls orgasmic faces and even lights a “post-coital” cigarette.

Meanwhile, audiences in 1948 would have picked up on the most obvious clue to the characters’ sexuality:

Their resemblance to Leopold and Loeb, who’d committed what had once been quaintly called — pre-Hitler and other horrors — “the crime of the century”:

Rope is based on a 1929 play (Rope’s End) by Patrick Hamilton, which in turn is based on the strange real-life murder case of Leopold and Loeb. As you may recall, these two University of Chicago students murdered a teenage boy, Bobby Franks, in 1929 for the simple reason that they wanted to commit “the perfect crime.”

Infamously, these killers fancied themselves authentic “Nietzschean Supermen” (or Ubermensch) and therefore were not only above the law; but actually the creators and arbiters of a new, better law. One in which God was dead, and the “superior” class had the right to murder the inferior.

Attorney Clarence Darrow defended these notorious, well-educated killers, and his well-remembered defense was – essentially – that it was foolish to blame Leopold and Loeb for putting into practice a philosophy they had been taught in school. In other words, Nietzsche’s writings were to blame! And the University that taught them those philosophies was at fault too! Nice huh? To some extent, this unique gambit paid off: Leopold and Loeb escaped capital punishment and were sentenced to life in prison instead.

Hitler’s name is inevitably invoked as Rupert and Brandon expound on their philosophy for the benefit of their innocent, squirming guests.

David’s father is the most discomfited by this somewhat ghoulish small talk. After all, he puts in, America has just fought a war to rid the world of the German dictator — a man inspired by Brandon’s avowed hero, Nietzsche.

Brandon then launches into a not-terribly-convincing condemnation of the Nazis, one which rests more on their style (or lack thereof) than their substance.

Today’s sophisticated viewers can’t help watch this scene, and the whole of Rope, through a knowing modern lens that adds another layer to the film.

As Jonah Goldberg elucidates in Liberal Fascism, what was only whispered about the Nazis mid-century has become an almost comical cliche:

While it is true that some homosexuals were sent to concentrations camps, it is also the case that the early Nazi Party and the constellation of Pan-German organizations in its orbit were rife with homosexuals.  (…)

Scott Lively and Kevin Abrams write in The Pink Swastika that “the National Socialist revolution and the Nazi Party were animated and dominated by militaristic homosexuals, pederasts, pornographers and sadomasochists.” This is surely an overstatement. But it is nonetheless true that the artistic and literary movements that provided the oxygen for Nazism before 1933 were chockablock with homosexual liberationist tracts, clubs, and journals.

The least convincing speech in the movie, however, is Rupert’s last.

Having cut himself during a scuffle with the boys, at this point, a bandaged Rupert literally has blood on his hands.

After he correctly deduces that Brandon and Philip have murdered David — have destroyed a family to prove a philosophical point, a philosophy they imbibed at Rupert’s feet — Rupert delivers a desperate, incoherent disavowal of their actions, and his own beliefs.

Not even Jimmy Stewart at his most high-pitched and passionate can uncouple ideas from actions, and actions from consequences.

(Interestingly, one of the modern American Right’s ur-texts, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, was released the same year as Rope.)

We on the Right tsk a lot about the left’s apparent ignorance of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Except we’re the fools who persist in believing that our political opponents are well-meaning if misguided individuals, and that the catastrophic “consequences” of their actions are all “unintended.”

If you don’t believe gay activists intended all along to destroy marriage and the family; to proudly, publicly violate laws with impunity while persecuting “homophobic” bumpkins who refuse to submit to their increasingly absurd demands; to adopt fascist techniques to acquire imaginary “rights”; to have their cake, eat it too, and force you to bake it, or else — you haven’t been paying attention to the clues.

Alas, even after the mystery — which was never much of a mystery — is solved, the victim remains just as dead.