I WOULDN’T SAY THAT I’m a classic film buff. I got nothing against movies filmed in black and white or against sometimes
excruciatingly slow-paced films. I enjoy watching TCM (Turner Classic Movies) just as much as anybody else who can’t find anything else good to watch on TV on a Sunday afternoon. Occasionally, I’ll stumble upon a classic film I actually like.
Which is exactly what happened the first time I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.
If you ask any even slightly serious connoisseur of film, they’ll most likely tell you that British film director, Alfred Hitchcock (1899 -1980), is one of their favorite film directors. That wouldn’t be surprising, considering that Hitchcock directed some of the most influential films in cinema history.
Although Hitchcock is renowned for his psychological thrillers (Psycho, released in 1960 is probably Hitchcock’s best-known psychological film), Rope, released in 1948, is, by far, Hitchcock’s most philosophical film.
In addition to being Hitchcock’s most philosophical film, Rope also includes one of the greatest zingers about philosophy, ever.
Phillip: Rupert only publishes books he likes, usually philosophy.
Janet: Oh. Small print, big words, no sales.
Rope, based on the British stage play, which was loosely inspired by the 1924 murder of Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, was called, by Hitchcock, a “gimmick”.
Hitchcock attempted to shoot the film as a filmed stage play, not-so-cleverly hiding film cuts by zooming in on the backs of the actors, a technique that was technically impossible in the day.
Although the film isn’t technically great (the film’s flaws are sometimes glaring), in 1948, the year of the film’s release, the homosexual subtext was more of a problem for studio executives than Hitchcock’s technical ambitions. The implied homosexual relationship between the film’s central leads, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, Played by John Dahl and Farley Granger (respectively), had to be removed to avoid violating Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production code.**
…despite the fact that the film’s two male leads, Farley Granger and John Dahl, and the screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, were all “it”, a word that Laurents said the studio used in place of the word “homosexual”.
If you look past the film’s flaws (especially a dreadfully miscast James Stewart as the murdering duo’s former schoolmaster), Rope isn’t remotely subtle with its philosophy.
The philosophy in Rope is club-you-over-the-head-with-a-frozen-leg-of-lamb level philosophy.
There’s a full-blown discussion of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch during a dinner scene.
Although other films have done philosophy better, Rope is an important philosophical film − if not for the reason that Hitchcock’s underrated masterpiece demonstrates what happens when Nietzsche goes wrong. Or rather, what happens when the wrong people read Nietzsche.
Not to give anything away, but somebody ends up dead.
It’s not too great an assumption to speculate that the homicidal pair in Rope are the kind of guys, if they lived now, would be the kind of guys who’ll watch Fight Club and fall under the delusion that they must start their own fight club, posting videos of their backyard fights on YouTube.
Totally violating the first rule of Fight Club, by the way.
And like Fight Club, the main characters of Rope are also examples of what happens when Nietzsche happens to morally ambiguous people.
So who is this Friedrich Nietzsche that the movies like to talk about?
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), was a German philosopher and social critic, most associated with Nihilism. Nihilism, according to Wikipedia
“…is a philosophical doctrine that suggests the lack of belief in one or more reputedly meaningful aspects of life.
Nietzsche has been accused of advocating for and/or blamed for every bad idea from anti-Semitism to racism to National Socialism.
And like those who implicate Nietzsche in the rise of 20th century Nazism, the problem with Brandon and Phillip is that they got Nietzsche all wrong.
The problem with the film’s antagonists, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, is that they fancy themselves Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, (often translated as “Superman”, but also translated as “overseer” and “transhuman”).
They make a pretty big assumption, considering that the concept only briefly appears in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published in 1883.
That’s where Nietzsche introduces the Ubermensch.
In the prologue, Nietzsche writes:
“The Übermensch shall be the meaning of the earth!
I entreat you my brethren, remain true to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of supra-terrestrial hopes! …Behold, I teach you the Übermensch: he is this lightning, he is this madness! …Behold, I am a prophet of the lightning and a heavy drop from the cloud: but this lightning is called Übermensch.”
I’m warning you all right now that in my effort to achieve some sort of brevity explaining Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, I will almost certainly butcher Nietzsche’s philosophy.
According to Nietzsche, modernity corrupts society. The old values that were the foundation of society pre-modernity (namely Christian values), no longer provide a meaning to life. The old values are no longer life affirming. The old, life denying values die. Without life affirming values, society needs a great man to emerge.
You know, to create a new morality and stuff.
Eventually, Nietzsche says, the Ubermensch arises. The Ubermensch is independent in his mind and spirit. He (it’s always a HE) overcomes the old values and creates new, life affirming values instead of following the old meaningless values.
Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan totally believe that this is them.
At this point I might add that the inclusion of the homosexual subtext of the film would have come in handy. Not only would including the homosexual subtext help to explain the murderers’ motivations, but, as Arthur Laurents states, the original stage play suggests that the two killers are romantically involved, and that at least one of the pair had a sexual relationship with the former headmaster.
Now you see why James Stewart was miscast.
Namely, as the Ubermensch, Brandon and Phillip believe they alone, like Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, decide morality. They alone decide who lives and who dies. In Brandon’s assessment, superior people like Brandon and Phillip possess the right to kill.
And because they are beyond the conventional rules of society, the pair decide to exercise their ubermenchness by killing their former classmate, David Kentley.
They murder Kentley because they are superior to him.David Kentley, and others like him, in the words of Brandon Shaw, are “inferior beings whose lives are unimportant anyway”.
Brandon says of David Kentley:
“The good Americans usually die on young on the battlefield, don’t they? Well, the Davids of this world merely occupy space, which is why he was the perfect victim for the perfect murder. Of course, he, uh, was a Harvard undergraduate. That might make it justifiable homicide.”
During a conversation at a dinner party, ostensibly thrown to celebrate a piano recital to be performed by Phillip (but also as a sick joke to gloat over getting away with committing the perfect murder), Brandon explains, or rather, justifies, his philosophical superiority and why he possesses the right to murder. Brandon says,
“Good and evil, right and wrong were invented for the ordinary average man, the inferior man, because he needs them”
Mind you, Brandon is explaining his ethic to the father of David Kentley, who is unaware, not only that his son was murdered by Brandon and Phillip, but also unaware of the fact that his son’s killers have hidden the body in a trunk upon which the dinner party, including David Kentley’s father and aunt, is served.
There’s a problem with all this, tho.
And not just because murder, no matter how superior you think you are, is illegal.
The problem is that Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan aren’t Ubermensch material.
In the film, Brandon notes that the best kind of men die on the battlefield, something that neither he nor Phillip has done.
They are not strong men.
Not just not strong physically, but they lack strength emotionally.
Phillip is a weak follower. He follows Brandon’s lead because, by his own admission, Phillip fears Brandon.
Nietzsche says that the Ubermensch is not driven by resentment of the success of others.
Quite frankly, the Ubermensch doesn’t care.
Brandon and Phillip are resentful of their former classmate. David is attractive and well-liked. He is intelligent, has good parents, and a beautiful fiancé.
A fiancé that Brandon once dated.
The murder was driven more by their jealousy of David Kentley and their need for the approval of their former schoolmaster than it represented the Ubermensch assuming his rightful place in society.
The Ubermensch don’t need approval from nobody.
What Brandon and Phillip fail to realize is that the Will to Power doesn’t mean to force one’s will on others.
When the former headmaster discovers what Brandon and Phillip have done, instead of being pleased by such a magnificent example of the Ubermensch in action, the former schoolmaster tells the pair that they are not superior beings or the masters of life and death; they had no right to murder David Kentley.
The former schoolmaster is horrified to discover that his former students have used his lessons to justify murder.
The schoolmaster sees firsthand what happens when Nietzsche happens to the wrong people.
He is appalled at what he sees.
…and so would Nietzsche.
**If you’ve never heard of the Motion Picture Production Code, the code, also known as the Hays Code, named after
stick in the mud and notorious fuddy duddy Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America president, Will H. Hays, was the set of dos and don’ts imposed on motion picture studio productions (for the purposes of preserving morals) released in the United States between the years 1930 to 1968, when the code was replaced by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) ratings system.
Rope. 1948. Screenplay by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Rope Unleashed. 2006. Universal Home Video.