by Michael L
Jimmy Stewart is a badass because he didn’t mind playing a homosexual in 1948. According to the special features on the Rope DVD, Cary Grant did. For shame. I love Cary Grant, but that’s exactly the problem: Cary Grant never played anyone besides Cary Grant.
He was the first choice for Jimmy Stewart’s character in Rope, but he turned it down. He didn’t want the Cary Grant persona to be too gay.
Jimmy Stewart, on the other hand, didn’t give a damn.
The “Jimmy Stewart persona” really was amiable. Despite being sort of an all American good-’ol-boy (or, perhaps, precisely because of that image), he found himself playing a full range of varying characters under Hitchcock’s watch.
Whether being the misogynistic voyeur in Rear Window, or the obsessive-cum-lunatic romantic in Vertigo, or the Nietzsche inspired homosexual professor in Rope, he was always trying on a new hat.
But wait, wait, wait. What Nietzsche inspired homosexual professor in Rope?
The great, campy thing about the flick today is how not-so-coded all the gay references are. The film begins with two men, alone in the dark, shaking after consummating some sort of act that involved their hands. La petite mort might be a fitting description. After word, the one murderer asks the other not to turn the light on, and if they can “stay that way” for a while longer.
It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but it’s kind of wonderful, and altogether fascinating. Robin Wood has written a fantastic analysis of Rope in his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. He says something to the effect of: it doesn’t really matter that Rope is equating homosexuality to murder. It’s really that it has the balls to talk about homosexuality at all.
Not only that but it boldly calls out theory as a predicator of practice. As far as the late 40s were concerned, Nietzscheism might be fine in theory, but the practice is Nazism.
All of Stewart’s harmless Nietzsche-inspired blather at the party in Rope has actually led to a murder, no matter how inadvertently. Hell, his students have taken him seriously. What happens when people start believing the things you say; hell, what happens if they act on it?
A discussion I’m sure HItchcock, as artist, was intimately familiar with.
It calls to mind the debate over film censorship. What happens when you unleash all of these violent movies onto the world? What happens when people start taking them seriously? If they start acting on them?
Which makes the paradox in Rope something extremely complicated. On the one hand, Jimmy Stewart’s character really needs to be quiet. It is simply inspiring madness and murder, Nietzscheism and Nazism. On the other hand, that would be censorship. A film like Rope could not exist with that kind of censorship. And wouldn’t that be Nazism?
Somehow a discussion of homosexuality fits in there. It’s not such a surprise: after the end of World War 2, America was taken by the “Lavender Scare,” a persecution of homosexual behavior, where all things gay were equated to the enemy threat of communism (which, somehow, was equated to the enemy threat of Nazism). By some sort of “6 degrees of separation”, homosexuality was comorbid in a national, paranoid discussion of foreign, potentially dangerous ideas.
It’s almost beside the point to mention that this point of view seems horribly out dated today. It IS worth mentioning that several cast members in Rope were homosexual themselves, and so the piece resonates in another (perhaps less intentional) way: that of being afraid of discovery (which, really, is an extraordinarily large subtext in the film).
Again, Robin Wood talks about how this is a film about characters who feel as though they are monsters (because, in the context of the film, they are murderers; and, in late 1940s-1950s society, monstrous is how homosexuals were made to feel), and about the rage and self-hate that accompanies that line of thinking. Further, it is about the fear of discovery, all things that are extremely personal, and resonate no matter what the context or time period.
Anyway, all of this is only to say that Rope is an extremely fascinating, intelligent film, despite its ideas being somewhat outdated. It is more an artifact, than; an exceptionally well-made example of the thoughts that accompanied a certain time and place.
But, of course, it is the craftsmanship that endears cinephiles to this particular tableaux again and again.
First, there is story as craft. Rope is a film about a party, buzzing with all kinds of wonderful ideas. But at its heart, it is the story of a party hosted by a duo of murderers who have hidden a dead body in the room. Further, the party is being held FOR the deceased.
It is a variation of the “ticking-time-bomb” scenario of film suspense: a conversation at a table is boring, unless you show a bomb under the table that the conversationalists are not aware of. Suddenly, the situation is tense and exciting, no matter how dull the conversation.
Hitchcock was a master at this, and the suspense displayed in Rope is in fine form.
Secondly, the film is a masterpiece of mise-en-scene. The film has a “real-time-feel”, as every extraordinarily well choreographed scene dove-tails into the scene immediately following, the transitions facilitated by hidden cuts (or not so hidden: ram-rodding the camera into someone’s back, thereby coating the frame in darkness, only to pull out and resume the shot is odd, but texturally it works). The film, quite literally, feels as though it all takes place in one long take; i.e., the film feels as though it is taking place in another unfiltered reality before our very eyes, like a play where the audience perpetually has the best seat in the house (and that seat MOVES through the action).
This also serves to amp up the suspense. Because the film feels as though it never jumps through time, and because we never leave the party, we are constantly aware of the presence of the dead body, and always concerned that one or more party goers will stumble upon that secret. In short, we are afraid that we will be in the room when the bomb goes off, and that dread-cum-excitement is the magic trick that is Rope.
So is it a little dated?
Even so, it is one of Hitchcock’s finest achievement (then again, in a body of work consisting largely of diamonds, it’s hard to pinpoint a crown jewel), and is a treat to watch even 62 years later.
I give it 4 1/2 out of 5 stars