Top 20 Favourite Films #14: Rope

Contributor: Rick McGimpsey


It takes a great screenwriter and cast to make a film shot in real-time successful. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is such a film. The famed director wanted the film’s narrative to resemble the original play from which it was adapted so with clever camera techniques he made the film resemble one consecutive take for its entire 80 minutes. This makes for a unique and intriguing film-viewing experience.  My only criticism is that some of the transitions from one reel to the next can be obvious at times. It is impossible for a filmmaker to expect his actors to perform an 80-minute take while the camera follows them and in those days film reels could only hold 10 minutes of film. Thus, in many scenes throughout Rope we see the camera unexpectedly zoom in and then out of a character’s back where there was a cut. From a cinematographic and narrative standpoint there is no logical reason for the camera to do this unless to hide an edit in a film with a real-time narrative which can take the viewer out of the film at times.

All in all, however, I consider Rope to be a masterpiece and it is my favourite Hitchcock film.
The story is about two university students named Brandon and Philip who strangle their fellow classmate, David. Why did they kill him? The reason they give is simple and disturbing. They murdered David because they could. Considering themselves superior beings who have the moral right to eliminate anyone whom they consider to be inferior they applied their views on the hapless victim.
Brandon and Philip are the former students of a professor named Rupert (played by Jimmy Stewart) who adopted Nietzsche’s philosophies of the ubermensch, or the Superman. According to Nietzsche’s theories man has the ability and potential to transcend and free himself from moral law. That is too say, a person may theoretically reach a level of intellectual development where he can acknowledge the necessary role rules and law play in common man’s society but no longer need them for himself. He can discern where unorthodox behavior may be appropriate and moral law need not rigidly apply to him.
A common misunderstanding people have about Nietzsche (and is the same misunderstanding Rupert, Brandon, and Philip exemplify) is that they believe he said moral law did not exist and humanity had the freedom to behave however it wants without concern for consequence or the effect it would have on the World. In reality Nietzsche would have called that nonsense. He himself in his book, Beyond Good and Evil, stated that morality was necessary for keeping society safe, secure, and in equilibrium. His theories suggested instead that humans may mature themselves to the point that they can recognise morality’s cause and be able to see relative circumstances in which they can ignore the law entirely. Rigid obedience to the law, according to Nietzsche’s philosophy, is only for those who cannot tell the difference.
Now Rupert was an avid follower of Nietzsche’s ubermensch theories and published several lengthy books on the subject (which had “small print, big words, and no sales” as one character sharply observed). Brandon and Philip ate those books up with relish. Professor Rupert had taken a very eccentric and disturbing turn with his views on supermen and moral law in which he asserted that superior individuals who can leave conventional morality behind them may be given the right to commit murder. He says, “murder is a crime for most men, but a privilege for a few”. Rupert believes that a superman may kill anyone who irritates or inconveniences him as a public service to society by removing insignificant individuals from the World.
Philip and Brandon became so enamoured with his theories that they decide to practise them on poor David.
Philip immediately begins to feel remorse and becomes paranoid about getting caught. Brandon, on the other hand, looks on his crime as a work of art in need of embellishment. He places David’s body in a trunk upon which he places a table cloth, candles, and hors doeurves for a party that he invites, with a cruel display of the macabre,  David’s fiancee, aunt, father, and close friends (including Professor Rupert himself) to. There the invited unwittingly, to Brandon’s morbid delight, eat off of the inconspicuous coffin. Brandon justifies his psychopathy to himself and Philip as a perfect application of Rupert’s teaching. Philip, however, throughout the film becomes more and more paranoid guilt-ridden as the party commences. When Brandon begins discussing Nietzsche’s theories with Rupert and David’s father the latter becomes disgusted with Rupert and Brandon’s cavalier attitude toward human life. He points out that Nietzsche’s theories were used by the Nazis during the Holocaust to which Brandon replies with the denial that the Nazis properly understood Nietzsche and suggests that even they too were inferior beings in need of extermination.
Rupert becomes perturbed by Brandon’s enthusiastic defense of his theories and questions him about it. Brandon maintains nonchalant and calm, but Philip incites Rupert’s suspicions when his sketchy behaviour and nervousness remain unexplained. After noting that David never arrived at the party Rupert becomes visibly shaken when he mistakenly puts on a hat in the hallway as he is about to leave that has David’s initials in it.
After the quests leave, Rupert feigns an excuse to re-enter the apartment and interrogates the two students about their behaviour leading to a tense confrontation ending with him finally running over and opensing the trunk where David’s corpse confirms his suspicions. Rupert becomes horrified to the point that he, then and there, rejects his lifetime of theorising and declares that he no longer can callously believe in exclusion from moral law for any man.

What I like about Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is its simplicity. The theme of evil men imagining themselves excluded from moral law is not a new thing. It has been observed in fiction and real-life throughout history such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where the protagonist, Raskolnikov, murders a woman and her sister after believing he has an exclusive right to end their lives. In a manner similar to Philip’s in the film Raskolnikov descends into paranoia raising everyone’s suspicions around him. And the infamous shootings at Columbine were conducted by two disturbed young men who believed they were the next stage of human evolution and considered themselves free from moral principal.
In Rope these themes are handled in such a simple manner that it does not overwhelm the viewer with philosophical jargon and pretentious unrealistic monologues. It tells a very simple story with simple conversations that after its end leaves the viewer still asking the same questions he may ask after reading Crime and Punishment or studying Nietzsche’s writings.

One issue Rope keeps reminding me of is how far a misinterpreted philosophy can go. Nietzsche never advocated the behaviour we see in Rope, Nazi Germany, Crime and Punishment, or Columbine. Rupert, even after his reformation at the end, fails to see this never realising that Nietzsche never believed in the right to murder whomever we choose. Rupert rejected a teaching from a philosopher that the philosopher never taught. I don’t think Nietzsche, himself, would have rejected his own theories if he witnessed the atrocities the Nazis committed in Germany. If anything, he would correct them.
Even in Christianity I have observed teachings being taken too far with misinterpretation. So many church-goers I have met take “Do not judge” out of context to justify their own bad behaviour and avoid criticism.
These circumstances do not mean the teachings are wrong. It only means people can make false conclusions based on them. Rope reminds me to be vigilant when it comes to understanding and applying philosophy and academia to my personal life. That’s why I can’t stand factoids and trivia which too easily fail to communicate accurate data.

If you wanna take a look at a good old-fashioned study of ethics versus freedom watching Rope may just be a good start.


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