In 1948 Warner Bros. released Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Rope. Based on the play of the same name by Patrick Hamilton which dramatized the true story of the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder of Bobby Franks in 1924, Rope is perhaps Hitchcock’s most socially relevant film. The Leopold and Loeb case attracted national attention for a variety of intriguing reasons – the victim, Franks, was only 14 years old; the murderers were two wealthy, 18 and 19 year old male University of Chicago students – Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb; and the motive was the most atrocious of all – to prove they could pull of “the perfect crime.” You can read about the actual case here – but to sum up: after they were caught and confessed, their lawyer, the Clarence Darrow, convinced them to plead guilty so as not to face a jury which would have certainly handed them the death penalty, which Darrow strongly opposed. Loeb was killed while serving out his sentence in lockup and Leopold died of a heart attack 13 years after being released from prison.
While the play and other adaptations of the gruesome tale have been consumed by audiences for the past 90 years since the murder, Hitchcock’s version is a masterfully woven web of lies, tension and fear… and one of the best indictments on academia’s early 20th century infatuation with Übermensch.
While the motive of committing the perfect murder remained central to the plot of the film, the foundation as to why the two murderers thought they were the ones worthy enough to carry it out can be found in the concept of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the super-man. The same concept that only 3 years prior to the release of film, saw its worst iteration rear it’s awful head when Adolf Hitler and his third reich proclaimed Germans as the master race and thus able to decide the fates of inferiors. It is precisely the same line of thinking that the film’s villains, Brandon and Philip (John Dall and Farley Granger) use to justify their crime in the film. When challenged, Brandon of course dismisses the comparison to Hitler outright by calling him a “paranoid savage” a mere 20 feet or so from where the body of his victim lies stuffed in a wooden chest – simply because of his inferior intellect.
Hitchcock’s brilliance shines as the film plays out in real-time. With a run-time of about 80 minutes, it moves with a disciplined tone. Think of it as a philosophical version of 24. And Hitchcock wastes no time in setting the scene.
The strangulation is the opening salvo. It’s a sneak attack in a philosophical war of the minds that will come to a head once James Stewart’s character Rupert joins the fray. You see, the victim’s body is placed inside a chest that will double as both a coffin and a buffet for the dinner party. A dinner party whose guests include the victim’s young love and his parents. The added invitation of Brandon’s mentor Rupert, played with delicious pomp by James Stewart, only solidifies in our minds Brandon’s arrogance. It will ultimately be his downfall as his partner in crime, Philip, tries to run from his own actions by crawling deep into a bottle of brandy only to crumble under the immense pressure of fending off suspicion.
One of the more talked about aspects of this film is how Hitchcock manages to make it seem as if he shot the film in one take. With strategic camera placements and and effective use of staging the Master of Suspense defines the moniker. When Hitchcock does use an obvious smashcut it’s only to accentuate a pivotal moment in the film.
The theme of this film and it’s timing of production in our history is a clear representation of the mindset of the culture at the time. Much like the most recent Captain America film is a mirror of our current concerns. This idea of the superior human, the “Super-human,” defined a lot of the progressive thought of the early 20th century. During a morbid dinner conversation, the moral concepts regarding murder are challenged and all respect to the individual is dismissed. It’s as if Rupert was channeling the celebrated writer and fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw who once asked of those whom he considered weren’t contributing to society to simply justify their existence… or else. Throughout the first 40 years of the 20th century, led by such elitist academics – most notable of which, a Princeton university president who would become the president of the United States – these ideas flourished. They spread throughout the west without much pushback, until the shocking discovery of Hitler’s death camps and the fact that somebody actually decided to put the concepts into horrible practice. Rupert’s discovery of Brandon’s actions are simply micro version of those events.
It’s no wonder Rope doesn’t pop up in Hollywood circles when discussing Hitchcock films. With over 50 film credits to his name, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope stands apart as an important weapon in the cultural war as it forces uncomfortable confrontations of thought. Which is probably why it’s my personal favorite of Hitch’s films.