Saturday, July 13, 2013

Hitchcock's Rope: Crime and Punishment and Gide's Gratuitous Act in One

Poster of James Stewart holding a piece of rope from that film

Rope (1948) is an early masterpiece of the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock in which the notorious director combines technical prowess with strong characterization and writing. In terms of technique, it is quite advanced and experimental for its time: the movie plays out pretty much in real time and gives off the impression that it is filmed in one continuous shot (it is not).

(Many years later the film Russian Ark (2002) tried out the same concept by presenting the whole gamut of Russian history in one continuous and uninterrupted shot in an art gallery.)

The movie Rope is equally modern and timeless in its topic and theme. I am more interested in the story and its characters in my analysis here; however, the technique adds not only suspense but a clearer and palpable sense of reality to its fictional dimension making the whole film seem more realistic and much scarier because of it.

Although not unique in the crime drama business, the movie deals with the attempt of the perfect crime. We already know that the perfect crime is not possible, and when it indeed ends up being successful like in Allen's Match Point (2005), it would have to be so through sheer dumb luck.

Yet what makes Rope interesting and unique is not the crime itself, but its lack of motive. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by the crime, and in fact, it is utterly senseless. The murderer and his chosen accomplice kill their former classmate for the sake of killing only. The main character Brandon believes that he is morally and intellectually superior, and hence he has the privilege and right to kill others whom he deems inferior.

Should he, and he firmly believes so, get away with murder, he would prove and make his philosophical point. Such argumentation may bring to mind the duels of the times of chivalry in which the one favored by the Almighty (later poetically and romantically replaced by a beautiful dame) would eventually win the battle since in a fair and balanced world the just will be rewarded and the unjust punished for their acts.

So where did ideas of moral flexibility and superiority and the license to kill come from? The obvious culprits would be Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Gide, or at least misinterpretations of their ideas. In the movie all of them are combined and symbolized in James Stewart's character Rupert Cadell, their former prep-school teacher who brought them into contact with philosophy. He believes and embraces those ideas, at least in theory. He would have never guessed that one of his own students, the brightest in fact, would attempt to put them into practice.

Here murder is treated like an art form. Something that one can master to its highest degree. The impressionable young Brandon believes himself to be superior in the vein of Nietzsche's Ubermensch, a kind of god-like being to whom the morals of the masses do not apply. As a master, he firmly believes he can indeed transcend (human) morals and even commit a pointless crime with success.

Brandon even daunts and tempts his fortune, by adding a dose of black humor and a shot of dramatic irony to the situation since the corpse is not only physically present in the chest of the room, but the guests are dining from the top of it; they are completely unaware of having the missing dead person constantly present among them. 

All this time, Brandon believes himself both morally and intellectually superior to all the guests and people involved; in fact, he even takes the risk of inviting his former teacher to the “party” by proving his own superiority since the student is outsmarting and outplaying the master, or so he believes.

These themes and situations are reminiscent of Dostoevsky's brilliant novel Crime and Punishment, in which the hero falls under the spell of the same dangerous fallacy. Years later Bresson would create his own version of Dostoevsky's novel in the film Pickpocket (1959) in which its narrator suffers from the same type of delusion, of being above morality and free to commit crime scot-free. Yet in all the cases including the novel itself (and this film) the perpetrators get caught, which I believe seems to imply that none of the authors or directors agree with these theories, at least not when it is applied to the practical real world.

It is only when Professor Cadell with his astute and observant mind realizes what has actually happened here, that he sees how wrong and horrifying these ideas are or can be when put to the test. This may illustrate how some ideas may sound interesting and even fascinating in thought and theory, but they may be shocking in practice.

For example, it is one thing to believe in these concepts and that there may be steps of development towards Nietzsche's Superhuman and quite another thing to take actual steps in that regard. I am still amazed how these ideas and happenings are presented at a time where Nazi atrocities must have still been fresh in the mind of the viewers. Hence these dangerous philosophical speculations are being played out with that horrible and bitter foil as historical background.

Equally, there is a sense of awe (in both senses of the word fascination and fear) in what Gide has termed l'acte gratuite - the gratuitous act. It is a deed that has no link to morality, no regard for life, but what's worse has no motive either. It is utterly senseless because there is nothing to be gained by it. There is no reason behind it, but it is all about listening to and following upon one's unhampered whims. One does something for its own sake without attaining or deriving any tangible profit from it.

In other words, we have here a case of wish fulfillment, fulfilling the deep and dark desire of killing another human being and by interpreting and defining it all as an esthetic art form; it is murder for murder's sake. The main characters or protagonists are the murderers, and while one is cunning and calculating to the nth degree, the other shows a human side, by demonstrating feelings of anxiety and guilt.

This film is almost as complex as the twisted mind of its creator who seems to relish in the depiction of violence and torture on one hand, while at the same time revealing to us, like a peeled onion, his heart and humanity deep within. For all these reasons (and a few more unspoken ones to boot), I think that this movie is one of the most daring and satisfying films in the impressive canon of this celebrated filmmaker. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

watched the movie yesterday and also saw certain similarities to 'crime and punishment' (though it's been some years since i've read it). anyway thanks for an interesting read. really would like to watch 'pickpocket' now.