The elephant in Rope‘s posh Manhattan apartment isn’t the strangled corpse stashed in a trunk but the gay subtext that Alfred Hitchcock knew he was working with yet was scarcely able to drag out of the closet in 1948—from the duo of John Dall and Farley Granger (both members of Hollywood’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell community) to the surreptitious curlicues dropped in by screenwriter Arthur Laurents (Joan Chandler’s suspiciously throwaway “How queer” seems to always bring the house down), the film is crammed with submerged gay intimations. The story of two preppies, sardonic Brandon (Dall) and jumpy Phillip (Granger), who kill off their friend as a way of exercising the philosophy of Nietzschian superiority they learned in college, is based on the Jazz Age Leopold and Loeb murder case, but Hitchcock is more interested in examining the way violence erupts out of oppression than in using gays as convenient shorthand for boogeymen. The territory is a censors-enforced minefield, with brutality and sexuality, the plot’s main elements, having to be alluded to rather than declared. Indeed, the opening camera setup, looking down at the street before panning left to the outside of the pair’s window, the killing taking place inside obscured by drawn curtains, shows not just the director’s awareness of the small space separating life and death, but also how much of it he is allowed to show.
The victim’s scream brings us inside, and into Hitchcock’s stylistic experiment: Rope is shot as a series of long takes, each editing fissure hidden to create, nearly five decades before Russian Ark, the feeling of a single continuous shot—where Sokurov’s stance posited a historical perspective, Hitchcock’s suggests a moral decision. Brandon and Phillip throttle their friend and hide the body inside a living room chest and invite the dead man’s friends and family to the party, with food served off the trunk-coffin, the kind of ghoulish touch that, according to Brandon, separates a “work of art” and a “masterpiece.” The clear-cut lines between good and evil would have been tidily laid out with the entrance of James Stewart as Rupert Cadell, the professor who planted the seed in the murderers’ minds, yet the picture’s moral complexity stems from the way Hitchcock employs the continuously mobile camera to keep the moral issues at hand from hardening into reductive labels. As the guests are entertained by Brandon and Rupert’s morbid jesting, Hitchcock gently pans right to reveal the dead boy’s father (Cedric Hardwicke) looking out the window as he waits for the son we know is never coming, the movement superbly linking the allure of the characters’ philosophy of superiority with the consequences it has on the real world once it is enacted. Far from just “recording a play,” the suffocating long takes enforce ethical contemplation by refusing the relief of a cut (which, in the director’s voyeuristic world, would have amounted to looking the other away).
“A crime for most, a privilege for some” is how Rupert classifies murder, but Hitchcock’s eye-am-a-camera technique in Rope is after more than Nazi-superman residue still lurking after WWII. When first seen, the duo is strangling their chosen victim, whose body goes limp as life seeps out of him; Brandon and Phillip recompose themselves as if awkwardly cleaning up post-coitus, complete with a was-it-good-for-you cigarette to soothe jangled nerves. Their crime clearly stands for another illicit act, and its braiding of outlaw (homo) sex and brutal violence may give plenty of ammo for people taking the filmmaker to task for the gay-vilification in films from Murder! to Strangers on a Train (a not dissimilar dance of death in which another avidly menacing actor mops the floor with bland Granger). Given Hitchcock’s sensitivity to the anxieties upon which order is unnaturally erected, however, it is just as valid to see the murder as not so much a perversion of their mentor’s teachings as a perversion of the feelings they are not allowed to express for each other. Hitchcock dutifully restores normalcy by sending estranged lovebirds Joan Chandler and Douglas Dick home at the end of the party, but his real interest lies with the society-whelped “monsters” and the smug teacher who comes to realize his own inescapable role in their condition. It’s fitting that Hitchcock’s themes of death and sex culminate in a pistol’s climatic ejaculation out the window, a moment of necessary exposure that, leaving the three characters alone with their sobering revelations under the camera’s non-dodging gaze, feels paradoxically liberating.