April 18, 2007

Rope: The Constraints on Pure Reasoning.

Rope is one of the more interesting pieces from Alfred Hitchcock- Hitchcock made the film in just around a dozen takes and the takes are very long, ending on someone's jacket or on the opening of a chest door. It was also one of the first films to concentrate on a possibly homosexual couple, the screenwriter Arthur Laurents definitely thought that that was the main subject of the film. Despite both the technical gimmickry and Laurents' stress on the homosexuality in the text, I think there is more going on in this small piece of drama- much more and much more interesting things are happening within the story.

Rope is a piece which concentrates upon a murder- a murder that happens in the first frame of the film. The body is then stashed inside a chest within a room and the murderers begin organising a dinner party. Having a brilliant idea, they have invited the murder victim's family and girlfriend and her ex-boyfriend along with a teacher to the house to a dinner party and serve food off the chest in which the dead man's body is placed. Of course this is the cue for Hitchcock's macabre humour to be let loose- and for him to explore all the suspense of the murderers' fear of being discovered.

The film though really focuses upon the justification of the murder- why the murder happened rather than the how or the who, all of which we know within minutes of the opening. The reasons for the murder are explored by the lead character within the two murderers, Brandon (played by John Dall, standing centre in the photo above). During the party, we become aware that amongst the guests, one of them Rupert Cadell (played by James Stewart), the boys' old teacher has a particular opinion which his student, Brandon the most charismatic of the murderers has absorbed: we can see that in this exchange of conversation

Rupert Cadell: After all, murder is - or should be - an art. Not one of the 'seven lively', perhaps, but an art nevertheless. And, as such, the privilege of committing it should be reserved for those few who are really superior individuals.
Brandon Shaw: And the victims: inferior beings whose lives are unimportant anyway.

Rupert's views are outrageous- and one of the guests, the father of the victim, makes clear the fact that he equates such opinions with Naziism. But the way that he puts them forward is witty and charismatic- he tells the guests that it would solve problems of unemployment, busy theatres, queues and overbooked resturants. Its outrageous but there is a kind of witty seduction in it. Brandon though doesn't have Rupert's witty appreciation of the meme- rather for Brandon the words matter and mean something- they aren't just a frivolous opinion for a dinner party conversation, they represent an ambition and an aspiration- he tells Phillip (played by Farley Grainger- standing opposite Stewart in the photo) his partner in crime and maybe other things that he wants this murder to be his piece of art- Rupert's later words are a witty echo of Brandon's more sinister comment.

What this all means becomes revealed in the end- and I have to say if you don't want to ruin the film don't read the next paragraphs- in the end Rupert discovers the killers and confronts them. The confrontation is very powerful because it demonstrates the quality of Rupert and Brandon's beliefs. Rupert beleives that society will avenge the death of the victim David- that Brandon had no right to kill David and that Brandon has perverted his words. Brandon tells Rupert that he hasn't perverted the words that Rupert spoke- and indeed there is no sense in which we can say that Rupert's words were perverted. But what we can say is that Rupert thinks that Brandon has an obligation to society, that he is wrong because he can't say that he is a superior being and can't therefore take the right to murder upon himself and that he is wrong because he lacks human sympathy.

The distinctions between Brandon and Rupert's behaviour boil down to distinctions in their personalities. Hitchcock shows us that both Rupert and Brandon have an amazing amount of charisma- they are both witty, the lives and souls of the party. They share many character traits but crucially Rupert has more of a sense of empathy- whereas Brandon beleives that his superiority is guarenteed and is happy to offend people, Rupert has a slightly less aggressive strategy, still happy to be outspoken there is more of the sense that he entertains a party rather than offending people. He withdraws rather than maintaining an argument- essentially Rupert's views are subject to the consensus view whereas Brandon's aren't. Brandon as a student has absorbed all the teachings of his teacher and taken them literally- for that is the other aspect to this- the way that Rupert's words have become Brandon gospell but they aren't Rupert's. The words have become Brandon's instruments of actions- but for Rupert they aren't as important, society's suggestions override them, personal delicacy overrides them.

When Brandon does his murders- he does them by controlling and manipulating his partner- Phillip- he also does them obeying the words and beliefs of his mentor Rupert. Rupert though wouldn't do this because he hears the words of society rather than his own words, however sincerely meant. Hitchcock introduces us therefore to a person without empathy- whose words are his laws, whereas he suggests that in the case of most people, our words aren't our laws, instead we act under a mixture of influences and outrageous beliefs are bent backwards by the force of taboo. The danger though is that when we repeat those statements we make those who have no taboos beleive our beliefs and without the taboos, they are free to act anyway they want. Rupert tells Brandon he would never do what Brandon has done, that his words were never meant to summon up murder- but that is of course what he said- why he couldn't do it is because the beliefs that he acts on are not the beliefs that he speaks of, rather than being logical Rupert is constrained by taboo. It is his normality which saves him from the noose.

Brandon though, a great manipulator of men, a very logical man, lacks that sense of societal constraint, indeed lacks the empathy that constrains us all. Hitchcock points out that it isn't the beliefs alone which result in the murders- Rupert shares them- it is the fact that Brandon doesn't have any constraints upon himself, bound in with his own sovereign, proud ego he performs the actions his beliefs have pushed him towards, meeting no resistance they have led him on a road where Rupert would not go, a road to murder.