On that note, one of my favorite shots in the film is the one in which Brandon goes into the kitchen to dispose of the murder weapon. Preserving the film’s structure of long takes, Hitchcock captures Brandon not by actually entering the kitchen but by catching a peek of Brandon through the swinging kitchen door: Brandon enters the kitchen and briefly disappears, but then when the momentum of the door causes it to swing open again we see Brandon delicately drop the rope into a drawer with lighthearted glee. It’s a perfectly executed stunt, one that if mistimed would have ruined the entire take, and it’s undeniably playful—both Brandon’s handling of the rope and the way that Hitchcock captures it.
EH: I love that shot with the swinging door. It’s all that’s best about this film: the morbid humor, the streak of playfulness, all executed with this formal flair that calls attention to its own virtuosity and to the themes of the shot. I think you’re really onto something in saying that Hitchcock invites us to initially root for Brandon before pulling the rug out from under us, and in this shot the arrogance and superiority of Hitchcock and of Brandon are one: the killer showing off his brazenness with his murder weapon and Hitchcock showing off his total confidence in his timing and ingenuity. There’s certainly a relationship between the killer eager to prove that he can commit the perfect crime and get away with it, and the director eager to prove how little he needs to cut, how long his shots can be maintained without errors. So although Brandon is more and more revealed as an insufferable asshole who richly deserves his ultimate comeuppance, there’s no question that Hitchcock also has some admiration for his daring and cunning, his artistry. It’s like in Se7en, when Kevin Spacey’s John Doe compares his crimes to an artform and it’s obvious that the director, David Fincher, is also nodding to his own cunning in devising these fiendish cinematic crimes.
For Hitchcock, it goes beyond that, even. I think it’s interesting that as the film’s alignment moves further and further away from the slimy, despicable Brandon, it doesn’t necessarily move towards anyone better. After all, Rupert is ostensibly the hero of this story—he’s the one who finally uncovers Brandon and Philip’s plan and reveals the truth—but in many ways he’s as much of a jerk as Brandon is. The two of them engage in some repartee of their own at the party, talking about how murder can be an art, a privilege of the superior few, a class that of course includes them. It is, in its own way, a kind of flirtatious banter on a par with To Catch a Thief’s dialogues about jewel robbery; Brandon is hitting on his mentor by hinting at his crime, suggesting that he’s been able to take the next step from words into action.
In the end, of course, Rupert rejects Brandon’s actions, horrified by what his pupil has done in his name. But for all the moral outrage that Rupert unleashes at the climax, doesn’t it feel a little hollow? Not too long before, he’d been playing along, saying how great murder could be, delighting in the way he was scandalizing the other party guests—and engaging in some mockery of the “inferior” Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier) that it’s obvious Hitchcock agrees with. Sure, the ending reveals the terrible end result of Rupert’s philosophy, and makes him repent of his ideas, saying that Brandon had misinterpreted Rupert’s words. That always struck me as fairly silly; Rupert outright says that murder is okay, then he’s surprised when one of his students follows through on the concept. What a shocker, Rupert. I have to think that Hitchcock intended for the moral outrage of that final scene, in which Rupert storms around the apartment lecturing his wayward student, to come across as hypocrisy.
JB: It’s tough to know what Hitchcock wants us to take away from that final lecture by Rupert. There’s some hypocrisy, no question, but how much? Stewart, like Tom Hanks after him, has a quality that tends to make him effortlessly likeable and relatable, which is one of the reasons Hitchcock liked to cast Stewart as an Everyman in films like Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much. In the latter film there’s a terrific scene in which Stewart’s Benjamin struggles to figure out how to sit comfortably at a Moroccan restaurant. Stewart’s character is an educated man, a doctor, but he’s not so elite that he isn’t disoriented by his inability to cross his legs under the table or to lean back in his chair, and this fish-out-of-water discomfort keeps him at our level. In Rope, however, Stewart’s Rupert is far from an Everyman. He is both elite and elitist.
Rupert’s entrance into Rope is notably unusual. Like Harry Lime in The Third Man, Rupert is much talked about long before he shows up, but unlike Harry Lime he doesn’t get a memorable introduction: Phillip is playing the piano while others listen quietly when the camera slowly pans left to reveal Rupert, who has just walked into the room unnoticed. His first line is a backhanded compliment—by noting that Phillip’s “touch” on the piano has improved, Rupert reminds Phillip that his touch used to be worse, while also asserting himself as something of an expert on the subject. Soon after, Rupert is introduced to Janet (Joan Chandler), who he says Brandon has mentioned before. “Did he do me justice?” Janet asks. “Do you deserve justice?” Rupert responds dismissively, stunning Janet with the remark. Then Rupert is off to shake hands with Kenneth (Douglas Dick) who tells his old teacher that it’s good to see him again. “Why?” Rupert responds, intentionally turning a congenial gesture into an academic exercise. Rupert, it’s obvious, is above social niceties and eager to demonstrate as much. He’s out of touch with the everyman, and intentionally so. Later on, when Janet and Mrs. Atwater discuss movies they’ve seen recently, Rupert observes them like they are an alien species, perplexed not only by their inability to remember the names of films (“The something and the something.”) but by their fondness for a kind of entertainment that Rupert obviously doesn’t think is worth his time. (Though he says he’s seen a Mary Pickford film, it’s quite likely that Rupert doesn’t go to the movies at all. He’s above it.)
All of this makes Rupert surprisingly unlikeable despite the somewhat irrepressible Stewart charm. And then the film gets to the talk about murder. The scene in which Rupert explains his theories is especially difficult to read. Rupert insists that he’s serious that “superior” people should be able to commit murder, but at the same time he throws in obvious jokes that there should be some kind of murder season—“Cut a Throat Week” or “Strangulation Day”—and he notes that one of the benefits of murder would be shorter lines at popular restaurants. Mr. Kentley (Cedric Hardwicke) can’t tell whether to take Rupert seriously on the whole, and it’s hard to blame him. Brandon, of course, identifies with Rupert’s comments, but he does so while entirely ignoring the jokes mixed in. Just as Rupert suggests he’s seen a Mary Pickford film in order to get a reaction, perhaps his murder routine is merely talk. Regardless, Mr. Kentley hits the nail on the head when he says that all the theorizing on murder reveals “contempt for humanity.” Of that, certainly, Rupert is guilty.
Given that Rupert’s contempt inspired Brandon’s, Rupert is proven to be the architect of the murder at the same time he is clearly demonstrated to be an unknowing and unsupportive accomplice. Hitchcock confronts Rupert’s culpability: Rupert admits that Brandon merely acted out his own words, and as he identifies his unintentional role in Brandon’s crime he frequently glances down at the wound he suffered when wrestling the gun away from Phillip. Literally, as well as symbolically, Rupert has blood on his hands. And yet after Rupert’s kinda-sorta admission of guilt, Hitchcock allows him some wiggle room. Rupert mentions he’s ashamed, and he seems to mean it. He says that he’d never have gone through with murder himself, and we believe that, too. But does Rupert not murder because underneath it all he has strong morals, or is it because underneath it all he’s a coward? That’s the question, because as Rupert screams at Brandon that there must be something wrong with him, he seems to be trying to wash himself of any responsibility. Thus I find it fascinating that before Rupert fires the gun out the window in an effort to summon the police, he doesn’t say that Brandon and Phillip will be imprisoned for their crimes. Instead he twice yells, “You’re going to die!” So, in the end, Rupert is playing God again without actually taking action, just like before. So it’s worth asking: Does he not kill the boys himself because that’s the “right thing to do,” or is it because he’s too cowardly to carry out the death sentences he believes are perfectly justifiable?
EH: Hitchcock makes very interesting use of Stewart’s Everyman persona in this film, twisting the actor’s laconic charm into this snide elitist who has offhand insults ready for everyone—an attribute that he seems to have passed on to Brandon, who responds to Mrs. Atwater’s admission that she “used to read” with the sarcastic, “We all do strange things in our childhood.” Stewart turns in a very different performance from his unhinged obsessive in Vertigo, but it’s a similar subversion of the actor’s likeability. All his charm here is dedicated to getting in subtle, ostentatiously clever digs at the “inferiors” he meets at this party, as though he’s always concerned with proving his superiority to everyone he encounters. It’s interesting, too, that, as you note, he uses movies as a sign of inferiority: I wonder if Hitchcock genuinely does see the movies as low-class or if Rupert’s condescension to the movies is yet another of his crimes.
For all the reasons you cite, Rupert is a very ambiguous character, and his fuzzy ethics extend to the film as a whole. It’s obvious that Rope is, in addition to a technical exercise, a moral exercise. It’s about broad moral questions probing the very nature of laws and class. Who do laws protect? What is the purpose of the law? To maintain order? To punish immorality? To codify society’s values? Should anyone be exempted from the prohibitions or protections of the law? And yet, though the “right” answer seems obvious—Brandon, his actions, and his reasons for those actions are all distasteful—only Mr. Kentley argues even remotely convincingly against the justifications for murder advanced by Brandon and Rupert, and even then Rupert manages to make Kentley seem merely over-sensitive and easily ruffled. The killers don’t get away with it in the end, but otherwise the deck seems stacked for the side of evil, when even the eventual hero of the piece has to push aside all his previous views on the subject in order to protest their crime.
There’s another question here, one that’s implied by all of Brandon and Rupert’s rhetoric about superiority. Is society truly structured to protect all equally, or are there certain “superior” classes that are placed above others? This last question is especially loaded within the context of a film where all the characters are obviously upper-class and privileged, where it seems apparent that in countless ways they are superior to the lower classes, in terms of wealth, status, opportunities, privilege and education. Brandon and Rupert, of course, view themselves as superior even in relation to these high-society aristocrats; at the very least, they believe that they possess superior taste and refinement to, say, Mrs. Atwater. But it’s obvious that Mrs. Atwater, despite what Rupert regards as her lowbrow taste in culture, is herself a cultural and societal elite. In a way, it makes the film’s surface message—that all lives are equal and equally worth protecting—ring somewhat hollow. What does a message like that mean in the context of a movie where all the characters belong to the “superior” class, where all the characters are elites and elitists?
This is a very hermetic world, where everyone has gone to the same private schools and knows the same small circle of wealthy friends. Rupert and Brandon aren’t different from Janet or Mr. Kentley (or, for that matter, David, the victim) in class, only in degree; they’re merely more elitist than even their elitist peers. It’s hard to deny, in this context, that all people within society are not treated equally, that some are placed on higher rungs than others, that there are hierarchies in which the privileged few are given greater material goods and opportunities. By emphasizing the class barriers that fence these people off from the rest of the world, the film is both providing the basis for Brandon’s arguments and confirming his impression that he’s in an elevated station. He doesn’t possess the moral superiority he believes he does, but Brandon—who obviously comes from a wealthy family and can afford a servant and a fancy apartment with a panoramic view—is unquestionably not one of the masses.
JB: Those are good observations. On top of them, the fact that Brandon’s apartment seems to be the building’s penthouse further adds to the uppity air of these characters and their interactions. And then of course the hermetic environment you spoke of is further emphasized by the film’s one-set design.
That said, I suppose it’s time to talk in more detail about Rope’s famous construction—about the way that Hitchcock more or less attempts to provide the illusion of the whole film happening in one shot. Inspired somewhat by actual events, Rope is based on a stage play by Patrick Hamilton that was then made into a BBC television drama. It was from the latter, if legend is correct, that Hitchcock was inspired to use long takes. But we should be careful with such legends. After all, some legends suggest that Hitchcock used the long takes merely as a way to keep him interested, as a game, a personal challenge. Others, however, say the long takes had a more legitimate purpose: making us feel ever aware of the body in the room. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
You mentioned before that Hitchcock is only somewhat successful at splicing together two takes to appear cut-free. Due to the limitations of the camera, the longest take Hitchcock could film was around 10 minutes (otherwise he ran out of film). So in some cases he had to cut where he didn’t need to or want to. In those instances, Hitchcock has the camera focus tightly on an object—the back of Brandon’s jacket in one instance, the open lid of the trunk in another—to camouflage the cut. This gimmick is so memorable that it’s easy to forget that Hitchcock doesn’t attempt to disguise every cut, and in fact one of his blatant cuts is also one of the film’s richest moments.
The transition in question happens after Rupert has arrived at the party and mingled long enough to remark on Brandon’s “excited” stuttering and Phillip’s curious behavior. At Rupert’s urging, Brandon tells a story about Phillip strangling chickens and struggling to finish them off. (There’s a sexual metaphor in there somewhere, but I’m not quite sure what it is. Impotence? Ineptitude?) Phillip reacts to this too-close-to-home public humiliation by screaming that the story is a lie, and then—wham!—Hitchcock cuts to the face of Rupert, who knows the story is true, and who now detects more than ever that something unusual is going on. Rupert had suspicions before, clearly, but now he’s sure that something is amiss. This cut to a reaction shot, which in any other film might have gone unnoticed, here is remarkably powerful—a visceral symbol of Rupert’s awakening.
Hitchcock’s decision to break from his long-take form in that scene mirrors the way that he liked to judiciously employ closeups for effect. In previous conversations, particularly when we discussed David Lynch, but also when discussing Werner Herzog, we’ve debated the significance of intent and whether deliberate actions by a director have any greater value or meaning than accidental, ambiguous or abstract ones. I’m not looking to have that discussion all over again, but I will say this: as much as I think that it’s the finished product that counts, regardless of the filmmaker’s intent and regardless of the means by which the filmmaker created the shot, I find something thrilling about the obvious consciousness of Hitchcock’s filmmaking, the way nothing seems accidental. I don’t think this in and of itself makes Hitchcock a superior filmmaker, but I can’t deny that I find that naked purposefulness especially appealing.
EH: Hitchcock is, even under ordinary circumstances, definitely one of those directors where every cut, every shot, betrays the filmmaker’s hand. There is, indeed, a sense of “naked purposefulness” to his filmmaking, a sense that everything that appears onscreen is part of a tightly constructed framework in which no object, no character, can exist for its own sake but must have some larger—often symbolic—meaning within the narrative. (In that sense, David Lynch is actually an obvious descendent, it’s just that Lynch’s symbols aren’t often as crystal clear as Hitchcock’s are.) It’s a very artificial approach to narrative, certainly, an impression enhanced by Hitchcock’s frequent reliance on rear-projected backgrounds and matte paintings and, in this film, a cityscape view that’s about as convincing as a child’s cardboard diorama for a school project. We’re constantly being reminded that this is a construction, an artifice. It’s this purposefulness and self-consciousness that gives objects such weight in Hitchcock’s work: the ROT monogram in North by Northwest, the cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train, the glowing glass of milk in Suspicion, the handcuffs in The 39 Steps, the film reels in Sabotage, the wedding ring in Rear Window, the jewels around Grace Kelly’s neck in To Catch a Thief. Things are never just things for Hitchcock, precisely because every shot in his films comes with an implicit “look at this” stage whisper from the director, furiously underlining the images that will be important, either thematically or narratively, throughout the rest of the film.
This impression is even more pronounced in Rope, where the design of the film calls even more attention than usual to Hitchcock’s authorial presence behind the camera. (And in front of it as well; his famous cameos are yet another way in which the director reminds his audiences that we’re watching his creation, we’re watching precisely what he wants to show us.) Once again, objects take on great symbolic and thematic heft beyond their relevance to the plot. The rope that’s used to strangle David is of course central; the film’s title refers both to this object and, perhaps, to the movement of the camera, threading its way through the apartment. The rope first appears after the first cut, the abrupt shock cut following the opening credits sequence. The camera, which had been outside on the balcony, looking down at the street, pans up towards the curtained windows of the apartment, and then after a scream Hitchcock suddenly cuts to the tortured face of David as he’s killed, panning back to reveal his killers on either side of him (his death is a very homoerotic ménage a trois, after all).
The rope reappears, after Brandon and Philip have placed the body in the trunk, in the lower lefthand corner of the frame. In a neat trick, the rope is almost entirely out of view but nevertheless becomes the focus of the shot, this nagging presence that we can’t help but stare at, fascinated precisely because Hitchcock’s framing constantly threatens to cut off our glimpse of the rope altogether. It’s one of the first ways that Hitchcock subtly increases our sympathy for the killers, too; I doubt anyone, watching this shot can help but root for the killers to notice the potentially incriminating rope hanging out the side of the trunk. And they do notice, which gives rise to that gleeful swinging door shot and then, later, the re-emergence of the rope during the party, as Brandon audaciously ties up Mr. Kentley’s books with the very same rope that he’d used to murder Kentley’s son earlier. I think, yes, Hitchcock’s purposefulness, his stylized attention to objects like this, is thrilling and powerful. In the hands of a lesser director, it might seem like didacticism, like hammering home a point with a sledgehammer, but Hitchcock consistently creates self-contained worlds in which such heightened attention to symbolic details and metaphorical objects seems not only natural but compelling, in which choking a chicken and choking a friend are intimately related acts, mingling equal parts violence and sexual suggestion.
JB: That’s right. Hitchcock had such a penchant for giving significance to key props that it’s tempting to read meaning into even the most insignificant ones. During the scene in which Brandon excitedly stutters through his first conversation with Rupert, for example, he’s grasping a champagne bottle in a way that would seem innocuously routine in most films but here seems sexually suggestive—especially when watching Rope in close proximity to the oh-so-suggestive To Catch a Thief. All that’s missing is the exploding cork, and the blatant “look here” closeup that Hitchcock did so artfully. On that note, though Rope often makes little effort to disguise its stage roots, that doesn’t prevent Hitchcock from harnessing the power of cinema, using the camera as a tool to focus our attention, whether tightening on an object, like the murder weapon, or pulling back to keep us ever aware of the proximity of the trunk. The actors deliver most of their lines in those stage-inspired open triangles, and we’re very much aware of the lack of a fourth wall in the apartment, but Rope’s roving camera allows us onto the stage and ensures that the film is cinematic as much as theatrical.