Have you ever wondered what it would be like to commit the perfect murder?
What about deciding who deserves to die based merely on an inferiority/superiority complex?
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope deals with exactly this by applying the Nietzschian theory of the superior man having the right to say ‘yes’ to life or death. According to the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, people who take on the rules of morality are inferior because they use it to advance themselves. For Nietzsche and his followers, morality is merely a dichotomy of those put in a position of power but, out of fear, are too scared to transcend moral laws and the ‘superior man’ who is subjugated as a result of his capacity to kill said ‘inferior’ beings.
In the case of Hitchcock’s Rope, we see two (almost homoerotic) friends – the satirical Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and the nervous Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) – kill off their friend, David Kentley (Dick Hogan) as their way of lending power and justice to Nietzsche’s aforementioned theory. The two of them were taught about this in college by their then professor, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), who is described as someone who would appreciate or at least respect what they believe to be the ‘perfect’ murder. We are given the impression that the professor also believes in the theory himself.
As the story unwinds and the murder slowly reveals itself, we begin to see what kind of questions Hitchcock attempts to raise in this psychological crime mystery: Who has the right to kill? Does anyone have that right at all? Would society progress if inferiority was dealt through murder? What makes someone deserving of the ultimate punishment, that is, death? How far are we willing to go to prove our philosophies or theories? At whose cost do we do or not do this?
If that wasn’t enough, Rope is also at the very least a study on human emotions and feelings. For instance, you have to wonder whether Brandon would have committed the murder if it wasn’t for Rupert teaching him about Nietzsche’s theory in the first place. We are told that Brandon is someone who likes to receive praise and be above everyone else in the class. One of these classes would have to be Rupert’s, who seems to be someone Brandon admires greatly. Take a moment to think about Brandon’s thought process: how else do I impress this one one stubborn teacher that I am better, superior and more intelligent than him? By doing the very thing he would not do: bringing theories to life, theories that both of us adhere to.
And then there’s Phillip, the friend who we come to accept as Brandon’s right-hand man. He is nervous, anxious, jumpy, temperamental and almost unhinged. His claim to fame are his piano skills but even then we see in flashes that the piano fails him (during Rupert’s interrogation of him, the slow, methodical piano notes in the end scene). From the get go, it was apparent that Phillip was struggling to accept the heinous crime both he and his friend committed. In other words, if anyone was going to help expose them, it would be Phillip.
Brandon was well aware of this and as a result kept a keen eye on his less trusting counterpart throughout. One would have to wonder, however, the extent of his contribution to Phillip’s rapid character decline. At times the nagging and pestering became suffocating and almost unfair.
For the most part, however, Phillip’s demise came at the hands of himself. He became suspicious of everything and anything; it would be fair to say that underneath the suit and proper manners and sophistication was a man who had deep-seated psychological and mental problems. The recurring theme of strangling chickens points to that. It seems Phillip, on some level, enjoys harming that which are powerless to him but the ironic thing is that, next to Brandon, he is the powerless one. And that is perhaps the biggest reason why he suffers in the end.
And now we come to Rupert, the infamous, headstrong but incredibly learned professor who seems to be at the core of everything without realising it. From the moment his name was mentioned, when we see Phillip recoil at it, and Brandon’s excitable face, we knew this man was going to be the decisive factor in how this story unfolds.
In perhaps one of the most important scenes of the film, we watch how and why exactly these two friends, especially Brandon, would have gone as far as to commit murder in the name of Nietzsche’s theory. Rupert explains, justifies and even desensitises the theory, applying it to a number of scenarios where, in his eyes, society would favour from murder. Brandon also gets involved in the conversation, agreeing with Rupert and challenging those who oppose him. One of these people is Mr. Kentley (Cedric Hardwicke), the father of the man Brandon and Phillip murdered.
Mr. Kentley challenges Brandon on grounds of morality by asking him why exactly he deems himself superior enough to murder and why he gets to choose who is inferior and who isn’t. The conversation becomes awkward and heated, and eventually ends with Brandon apologising for going too far. It is in this scene that we wonder how damaging Rupert may have been in the early years of when Brandon began to form such ideas in his head. It is in this scene that we wonder, even if unintentional, if Rupert has to blame himself in part for the horrific truth that is to come.
Moving on, by this point, Rupert begins to suspect that perhaps his former students have done something they should not have. After all, someone (that is, Brandon) who is so sure of his words will probably not realise nor understand the wrongful actions that he has committed. What follows after this is a series of interrogations, questionable conversations, and suspenseful moments when the body is almost found (which is hidden in a coffin in the middle of the room). All of this leads to what is probably the most revealing scene of all: Rupert describing what may have occurred without actually knowing the facts.
Brandon asks Rupert how he would go about committing a murder and it is here we can really marvel at Hitchcock’s innovative directing. Rather than giving us a flashback to how the murder had gone down, the camera follows the room guided by Rupert’s vision. The point here is, who better than the professor to map out the so called ‘perfect murder’ that the students had created to thwart him more than anything else? What’s even more stunning is that Rupert creates a somewhat diversion by saying that he would take the body out of the room and into a car. The professor is well aware that this would make the perfect murder imperfect as it would lead to problems and room for exposure. Brandon cuts Rupert off on these very grounds and, as ever keen on proving his professor wrong, begins to fill in the blanks. But without realising it, Brandon makes it even more apparent to the audience that he cannot beat a man who knows him better than himself. It is Brandon who does not know his professor as well as he thought.
It is through this murder that Rupert realises that the theories he had once believed in are no more than dangerous mind games that can lead to acts that cannot be reversed. It is all fun and games to debate amongst others about Nietzsche’s theory of the superior man but what happens when we actually go ahead and see the theories through? Innocent lives are lost and someone will have to pay for that. Our society is too fixed in moral laws and rules to ever allow for anything that dares to deviate from it – and rightfully so. In the case of Rope, what’s left are two students who sacrifice their freedom in the name of theories and they are just theories and a smug teacher who can never escape from the fact that he played a role in their eventual demise.
If, after all this, you are unsure of what Hitchcock is trying to do, just replace the ‘inferior man’ as ‘non-egoistic’ and the ‘superior man’ as ‘egoistic’. Do that and it all becomes clear as day.