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Archive for February 3rd, 2015

Rope001

 

Introduction

As an example of evaluating a film with consideration of its worldview I will be looking at Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).  This movie reminded me the lesson that bad ideas can make people into monsters.  In what follows we will look at a summary of the story of the film, make the point that this movie is about philosophy, cover the philosophy that drives the villains follow by a discussion of the dilemma that such a philosophy poses for the characters and the audience before a quick summary of what we can learn.  Readers must also be warned that there that this essay will have many spoilers.

 

The Story

In an essay by Helen Cox and David Neumeyer, this is how they summarized the movie:

 

Brandon and Philip share a New York apartment. They have distorted the rather Nietszchean ideas of their former headmaster Rupert and decide to strangle their “inferior” friend David Kentley. Placing the body in an old chest, they continue with plans to hold a dinner party whose guests include David’s parents, his fiancee Janet, and Rupert. As Brandon’s behavior becomes increasingly more daring and Philip’s more nervous, Rupert begins to suspect. He finally confronts them and then calls the police.[1]

 

Wikipedia gives us a more detailed plot that would help us for the discussion of the worldviews in the film:

Two brilliant young aesthetes, Brandon Shaw (Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Granger), strangle to death a former classmate, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), in their apartment. They commit the crime as an intellectual exercise; they want to prove their superiority by committing the “perfect murder”.

After hiding the body in a large antique wooden chest, Brandon and Phillip host a dinner party at the apartment, which has a panoramic view of Manhattan’s skyline. The guests, who are unaware of what has happened, include the victim’s father Mr. Kentley (Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier); his mother is not able to attend. Also there are his fiancée, Janet Walker (Joan Chandler) and her former lover Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick), who was once David’s close friend.

In a subtle move, Brandon uses the chest containing the body as a buffet table for the food, just before their housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) arrives to help with the party. “Now the fun begins,” Brandon says when the first guests arrive.

Brandon and Phillip’s idea for the murder was inspired years earlier by conversations with their prep school housemaster, publisher Rupert Cadell (Stewart). While at school, Rupert had discussed with them, in an apparently approving way, the intellectual concepts of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, and De Quincey’s art of murder, as a means of showing one’s superiority over others. He too is among the guests at the party, since Brandon in particular feels that he would approve of their “work of art”.

Brandon’s subtle hints about David’s absence indirectly lead to a discussion on the “art of murder”. Brandon appears calm and in control, although when he first speaks to Rupert he is nervously excited and stammering. Phillip, on the other hand, is visibly upset and morose. He does not conceal it well and starts to drink too much. When David’s aunt, Mrs. Atwater, who fancies herself as a fortune-teller, tells him that his hands will bring him great fame, she is referring to his skill at the piano, but he appears to think this refers to the notoriety of being a strangler.

Much of the conversation, however, focuses on David and his strange absence, which worries the guests. A suspicious Rupert quizzes a fidgety Phillip about this and about some of the inconsistencies that have been raised in conversation. For example, Phillip had vehemently denied ever strangling a chicken at the Shaws’ farm, but Rupert has personally seen Phillip strangle several. Phillip later complains to Brandon about having had a “rotten evening”, not because of David’s murder, but over Rupert’s questioning.

As the evening goes on, David’s father and fiancée begun to worry that he has neither arrived nor phoned. Brandon increases the tension by playing matchmaker between Janet and Kenneth. Mrs. Kentley calls, overwrought because she has not heard from David, and Mr. Kentley decides to leave. He takes with him some books Brandon has given him, tied together with the rope Brandon and Phillip used to strangle his son.

When Rupert goes to leave, Mrs. Lawrence accidentally hands him David’s monogrammed hat, further arousing his suspicion. Rupert returns to the apartment a short while after everyone else has departed, pretending that he has left his cigarette case behind. He hides the case, asks for a drink and then stays to theorize about the disappearance of David. He is encouraged by Brandon, who seems eager to have Rupert discover the crime. A drunk Phillip is unable to take it any more; he throws a glass and says, “Cat and mouse, cat and mouse. But which is the cat and which is the mouse?”

Rupert lifts the lid of the chest and finds the body inside. He is horrified but also deeply ashamed, realizing that they used his own rhetoric to rationalize murder. Rupert seizes Brandon’s gun and fires several shots into the night in order to attract attention. The film segues to the end titles with the sound of approaching police sirens.[2]

This is a movie about philosophy

Right after the murder of David we hear one of the murderer name Brandon say “We killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing,” thereby tipping the audience that this is not a typical murder for gain but something more sinister.  We see hints that a dim view of man is driving Brandon’s murder  as hinted in his dialogue when he said, “The good Americans usually die young on the battlefield, don’t they? Well, the Davids of the world merely occupy space, which is why he was the perfect victim for the perfect crime.”  Such a view of humanity is philosophical in nature and is contrary to a biblical anthropology.

Having put David’s dead body in a chest we see how demented Brandon was when he immediately invites the victim’s friends and parents over for dinner.  Here we discover a little more that Brandon is one who thinks of himself and his worldview as intellectually superior which is conveyed by Hitchcock with the role of books in the movie.  As Jim McDevitt observed: “That it was books that drew Mr. Kentley’s attendance at the party—and served as the final object of disposal for the murder weapon—is significant.  Brandon views himself as intellectually superior in part because he is well read.  Books serve as the tool for gaining knowledge, for development of the intellect.  A fine collection of first editions indicate that Brandon does not just want to appear refined; he wants the world to know he’s educated.”[3]  The emphasis in the beginning of the film of Brandon’s murderous act and his intellect sets the philosophical trajectory of the film.

There are also other intentional hints in the movie’s dialogue that this film is about philosophy.  For instance, twenty two minutes into the movie both Brandon and Phillip are in conversations with their guests Janet and her former lover Kenneth about whether or not Rupert was coming to the party. Janet asked the three of them who was Rupert and Phillip tells her that he was their former housemaster at prep school with Kenneth chiming in that he’s a publisher now.  When Janet responded that perhaps she can find a job with him Phillip downplays that by replying “Rupert only publishes books he like, usually philosophy.”  This reference to philosophy is an editorial decision of the director and screen writer and gives us a valuable clue that we expect the main character’s philosophical leaning would later come into play during the movie.  As the conversation continues on the subject of Rupert, Kenneth ask of Brandon: “He used to tell you the weirdest things didn’t he?” When Janet asked what sort of things Brandon replied “I suppose Kenneth means Rupert’s impatience with social conventions” with the example that “Murder is a crime for most men, but a privilege for the few.”  Here we see a dangerous philosophy is at hand, one that has serious moral and ethical implications.

The philosophy that drives the Villains

There were other moments in the film that expounded more on the philosophical worldview outlook of the murderers (Brandon and Phillip) and their Rupert their mentor:

  • Thirty five minutes into the movie there is an argument between Brandon and Phillip about whether or not Phillip has killed any chickens which is followed by Rupert telling the other guest that he thinks “ a chicken is a good enough reason for murder” as any other reasons; Here you see definitely that Brandon’s worldview definitely came from Rupert:

  • When faced with the dilemma raised by a guest that wouldn’t murder being permitable mean everyone will be murdering each other, Rupert stated “the privilege of committing it should be reserved for those few who are really superior individuals.”
  • Brandon told his guests in the movie said “Good and evil, right and wrong were invented for the ordinary average man, the inferior man, because he needs them.”
  • Another quote from the movie: “The power to kill could be just as satisfying as the power to create.”

 

The dilemma

When the film was first released there were some condemnation of it in America and certain European theatre actually refused to show it due to its moral cynicism.[4]  However a careful evaluation of the film would reveal that Hitchcock was not endorsing the murderers’ philosophy but rather he was posing to the audience that there are definitely tensions and problems with their espoused worldview.  Hitchcock presented this through the narrative itself and also artistically in how the film was presented.

Dilemma shown through the Narrative

Recall the scene in which Brandon told his guests that “Good and evil, right and wrong were invented for the ordinary average man, the inferior man, because he needs them.”  Following Brandon’s line David’s father identified Brandon’s worldview as being in agreement “with Nietzsche and his theory of the superman” to which Brandon replied “Yes, I do.”  However David’s father doesn’t end it there for he goes on to say “So did Hitler.”  With this movie being in 1948 and World War Two just being three years before, the name Hitler would have been fresh on the mind of the original audience with the images of the Holocaust and other brutality.  We must not miss the force of the line “So did Hitler.”  Ideas have consequences, and it’s as if Hitchcock is giving us a moral lesson that the application of Nietzchean’s Übermensch is dangerous and undesirable.

David’s father was also the first to ask the most important question of the movie about thirty seven minutes into the film: “Who is to decide if a human is inferior, and therefore a suitable victim for murder?”  He presses Brandon to be more tangible as to whom he thinks are the superior people who have the right to kill inferiors and Brandon names himself, Phillip and Rupert.  The hubris displayed by Brandon is repulsive yet ironically pride is what lead Brandon to his downfall:

 

“They want desperately to impress their former prep school housemaster Rupert Cadell (James Stewart).  Phillip is a bit uneasy about it, increasingly so as the film wears on, but Brandon is consumed by the idea of showing himself to be superior to Rupert.  By the third act, we begin to winder if the whole point of the murder in the first place wasn’t to somehow show that he had replaced his professor as the smartest man in the room.”[5]

 

The most powerful moment in the film came towards the last ten minutes of the film.  At the end of the film when Rupert is shocked to find the dead body and during that tense moment Brandon threw Rupert’s philosophy back to his face when he said “Remember we said, ‘the lives of inferior beings are unimportant,’” and how they both believed that moral concepts of good and evil don’t hold the intellectually superior.  These exacts words of Rupert quoted by Brandon from the previous discussion with David’s father now comes back to haunt Rupert when Brandon says “That’s all we’ve done.  That’s all Phillip and I have done.  He and I have lived what you and I have talked.”  Brandon and Phillip has carried out their philosophy to its logical application.  Yet how does Rupert responds?  His words are very telling:

 

Rupert: Brandon, ’til this very moment, this world and the people in it have always been dark and imcomprehensible to me, and I’ve tried to clear my way with logic and superior intellect….. and you’ve thrown my own words right back in my face, and you were right too, if nothing else a man should stand by his words, but you’ve given my words a meaning that I never dreamed of, and you’ve tried to twist them into a cold, logical excuse for your ugly murder…… well, they never were that, Brandon, and you can’t make them that. There must’ve been something deep inside you that let you do this thing, but there must’ve been something deep inside me that would never let me do it, and would never let me be a party to it now….”

 

Despite Rupert saying he would never be a party to the murder yet Jim McDevitt observes: “Rupert will live forever knowing that he was a party to it, unwilling as he may have been.”[6]

Rupert and Brandon’s closing exchange shows that when the fruit of Rupert’s philosophy is lived out, Rupert adamantly rejects it:

 

Brandon:What do you mean??

Rupert: I mean tonight you’ve made me ashamed of every concept I ever had of superior or inferior beings…. and I thank you for that shame….. because now I know that we are, each of us, a separate human being, Brandon, with the right to live and work and think as individuals…. with an obligation to the society we live in…. but by what right do you *DARE* say that there’s a superior few to which you belong??!! By what right did you *DARE* decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed??!! Did you think you were GOD, Brandon!!?? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him??!! Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave!!?? Well I don’t know what you thought or what you are but I know what you’ve done!!! You’ve murdered!!! You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as YOU never could and never will again!!!

Brandon: What are you doing?

Rupert: It’s not what I’m going to do, Brandon…. it’s what society is going to do…. I don’t know what that’ll be but I can guess!!! and I can help….. you’re going to die, Brandon….. both of yall!”

 

Note what is in bold echoes the very questions that David’s father first raised against both Rupert and Brandon.  Hitchcock shows the fruit of this worldview and using Rupert to give this monologue as a plea for us to reject the nihilistic philosophy of the murders.  We must reject relativism, Nietzsche’s philosophy and any other philosophy that undermine human dignity as being made in the image of God.

The Dilemma shown through artistic elements

Hitchcock presents this film in such a way as to make us uncomfortable with the dangerous worldview of Rupert and Brandon.  One of the ways he makes it so for the audience is through the role of sound.  One might observe the lack of strong thematic music in the movie.  Cox and Neumeyer notes how

 

“the lack of music aids drama in Lifeboat and Rope. The “languor” in these films is perhaps more a result of the heightened discomfort the viewer feels-aspects such as silences certainly do feel longer without a musical background, but these silences are compelling through their realism and involve audience members further through their discomfort.”[7]

 

In light of the above, Hitchcock isn’t trying to glorify the murderer’s driving philosophy.

One should also take the set of the film into consideration.  The whole film is situated in a stuffy room that is shut off from the rest of the world although the beautiful background of a sunset over the city is visible through the windows.  Yet one hears no noise from the city even though it was the primary noise at the beginning of the film.  It seems artificially quiet and I think Hitchcock did that intentionally to emphasize that here is a microcosm of Brandon and Phillip’s own little world insulated from the outside world and its morals and social convention.  Any outside noise intrusion into the apartment seems to be symbolic of external sources of morality as opposed to the subjectivism of Brandon and Phillip.  I think this interpretation explains those moments when one does hear the life of the city.  For instance when Rupert is catching on that something is going on and he begins interrogating Phillip, Phillip’s conscience is disturbed when we see that he raised his voice, avoid questions and how he stops playing the piano while simulataneously one finally hear the faint sirens of the city.  It is almost as if the siren are the sirens of Phillip’s conscience despite his attempt at suppressing it.  It gets even more fascinating later in the film when Brandon thought they have gotten away with their perfect crime after their guests have departed.  Yet Phillip is at a wreck with his conscience bothering him and again you hear little background noise that are signs of the outside world.  Then when the phone rang, which source is obviously from the outside world, there is panic from Phillip.  It is as if the last phone and door bell ring were warning bells.[8]  The most obvious moment of the importance of noise from the city came towards the end of the film when Rupert gives his speech condemning his very own philosophy; here we hear more of the noise of traffic, cars honking, etc., and it climaxes with Rupert opening the window, firing his gun to get people’s attention to call the cops followed by voices of the people and police sirens overtaking the room thus signifying that morality does prevail and dominate.

There is also the irony to the claim that going beyond morality is freedom despite the claim of Brandon’s worldview.  This is artistically demonstrated in light of the role of space and place.  We have the tight confines of the room that certainly gives the atmosphere of being locked up.  Within this apartment we see how it is a place of oppression in which Brandon ends up controlling Phillip and even Phillip eventually snapping and telling Brandon to stop controlling him.  Brandon’s philosophy does not bring freedom even for the minority of brightened individuals as seen in Brandon’s abuse of Phillip to the point of even Phillip being slapped.  Furthermore, we see that Brandon and Phillip are also not free and safe within their own place when they interact with others.  Ironically they still care about what others (inferiors?) think—and this is true even when they invite others to their own microcosm—their own world, the place where they act out their own worldview.  One wonder if Brandon’s philosophy would work within their own little world—let alone the question of whether it can work in the rest of society which the backdrop of the city throughout the film constantly remind us.

What can we learn

  • Ideas have consequences!
  • There is a danger of bad philosophy/worldview.
  • An unbiblical view of man can have deadly consequences.
  • There is a danger of usurping God’s role.
  • Romans 1 reveal that man suppresses the truth and become more and more depraved as a result.
  • How then shall we live? Definitely not with the worldview that Brandon and Rupert represents.
  • “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20)
  • This movie reminded me the lesson that bad ideas can make people into monsters.
  • We must turn to Jesus to be saved from our sins and also to be made Holy.

[1] Helen Cox and David Neumeyer, “The Musical Function of Sound in Three Films by Alfred Hitchcock” Indiana Theory Review, 16, https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/3559/CoxNeumeyerTheMusicalFunctionV19.pdf?sequence=1  (accessed February, 3rd, 2015).

[2] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rope_%28film%29#Plot (accessed February, 3rd, 2015).

[3] Jim McDevitt, Hitchcock’s Villains: Murderers, Maniacs, and Mother Issues, (New York: Scarecrow Press, 2013), 68.

[4] Helen Cox and David Neumeyer, “The Musical Function of Sound in Three Films by Alfred Hitchcock” Indiana Theory Review, 14, https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/3559/CoxNeumeyerTheMusicalFunctionV19.pdf?sequence=1  (accessed February, 3rd, 2015).

[5] Jim McDevitt, Hitchcock’s Villains: Murderers, Maniacs, and Mother Issues, (New York: Scarecrow Press, 2013), 61.

[6] Ibid, 69-70.

[7] Helen Cox and David Neumeyer, “The Musical Function of Sound in Three Films by Alfred Hitchcock” Indiana Theory Review, 14, https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/3559/CoxNeumeyerTheMusicalFunctionV19.pdf?sequence=1  (accessed February, 3rd, 2015).

[8] Helen Cox and David Neumeyer, “The Musical Function of Sound in Three Films by Alfred Hitchcock” Indiana Theory Review, 18, https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/3559/CoxNeumeyerTheMusicalFunctionV19.pdf?sequence=1  (accessed February, 3rd, 2015).

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