For many years this was my favorite Hitchcock movie. Sure…I secretly thought Psycho was better, but I didn’t want to be ordinary. It was long before I understood the metaphorical reading of Rear Window; long before my mind was mature enough to wrap itself around the slippery plot of Vertigo; long before I realized that North By Northwest was truly sui generis.
What was it about this film? I had first run across the title in a quote attributed (I believe) to Peter Bogdanovich. Rope was a film to be studied. Rope was a feat of trickery. The Rope trick. Long, unedited shots… It was only later that I discovered how they reloaded the film. Once you know, it seems obvious, but upon first viewing it does seem like the master and slave reels had unlimited 1000s of feet to spool out and take in.
But that’s not it.
What was it about this film? It was Jimmy Stewart. Good, old Jimmy Stewart of It’s A Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart as Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Jimmy Stewart the misanthrope. The novelty of it! But the “kicker” was bloodlust. Jimmy Stewart redeemed with Emersonian integrity. His words thrown back in his face. Even at an old age. Stewart’s character realizes he has been wrong all these years. Would Nietzsche have had the same reaction to Hitler? Would Wagner?
There is no way to accurately “read” this film without placing it in history: three years after the end of WWII.
Inferior. Superior. Intellect. Beyond good and around again to evil.
It is Hitchcock commenting on himself. The character of Rupert is the dark, sardonic, macabre humor of Alfred the auteur and joker. But what of that ending?
There is no more blood-curdling pronouncement of justice in the history of cinema that when Jimmy Stewart proclaims, “You’re both going to die.”
The character names don’t matter. The tricks of filming even less.
This is the inquisitive Stewart of Rear Window already suspecting. This isn’t the Hitchcockean trope of “the wrong man:” this is the right man.
Stewart can’t believe it. We can’t believe it. And we saw the whole thing.
We don’t trust our instincts when the conclusions go (as Dick Cheney said) “beyond the pale.” Look up that phrase. Look up Arnold Rothstein. The “pale of settlement.”
In King of the Jews the author Nick Tosches touches on this phrase. My contention is that Tosches knew in 2005.
Rope is the story of two young men who strangle an “inferior” being (who just so happens to be a Harvard man). Hmmm…from where then would that make our killers? Yale, perhaps? Is this an quasi-establishment jab at the Skull & Bones fraternity?
And Rupert…dear old Rupert…the house master from our murderers’ prep school days… Could the reference be Phillips Academy?
I will leave these remarks as a thumbnail sketch to inspire discussion. But it was certainly the novelty of Stewart as a villain…and his redemption as the voice of reason. Yes. The message is clear. All who have killed in this eugenic manner will die. You’re all going to die for what you’ve done. It is what society is going to do to you. The public doesn’t want to hear your advanced theories and your avant-garde morals.
Hollywood failed the Jews. Cinema failed those in the death camps of WWII. This is Godard’s grand theme in Histoire(s) du cinéma. Film has the ability to preserve the “honor of the real,” to quote Jean-Luc. No country was more technologically advanced (arguably) in terms of motion pictures during WWII than Germany. Why were their scientists so sought after by Operation Paperclip (and the Soviet equivalent) following the war? Why were they so successful? Because they were brilliant. It doesn’t make sense then that there is no available footage from the pre-liberated Nazi camps. Cinema failed to prevent the holocaust and this cinematic gap in history likewise has rendered the medium irreparably hollow. That was Spielberg’s failure with Schindler’s List: one cannot portray what has never been seen. The camps no doubt existed. There is no disputing that. But there is a hole in the heart of cinema’s history.
The 21st century has offered cinema another chance. And contrary to Dick Cheney’s quote and its context, there is nothing beyond the pale.