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Formal and Subtextual Queerness in Rope

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The second film in The Frida’s Be Gay Do Crime series is Rope by Alfred Hitchcock, released in 1948 and produced by Hitchcock’s production company, Transatlantic Pictures. This was the company’s first film and Hitchcock’s first Technicolor film in his then-20 year career. Rope was originally an English play written by Patrick Hamilton in 1929, inspired by the real-life murder of a 14-year-old boy by two upper class University of Chicago students, collectively referred to as Leopold and Loeb. Almost two decades later, the play was adapted by Hume Cronyn, then made into a screenplay by Arthur Laurents and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s direction has been considered experimental due to its series of continuous shots with roughly 10, five being hidden cuts masked via illusions of blocking, giving the feeling of a singular action occurring within this contained, 80-minute thriller.

Beyond the continuous shots, the whole story takes place in one location, in the apartment of our killers, the dominant Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and submissive Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger). There are no spoilers here; the crime itself takes place within the first five minutes of the story, leaving no room for interpretation of who the killers were. With the suspense of murder gone, the suspense of committing a perfect crime – a “work of art” – becomes steadfast for Brandon and Phillip. In fact, this has been their goal all along, to throw a dinner party with family and friends and have no one suspect their dear friend David Kentley (Dick Hogan) is just inches away from them all. Brandon invites their old professor, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), over, who ever-so carefully begins to unravel the mystery at foot.

The story of Rope has no explicit queerness, although there is almost no scene without some form of queer visual textuality interjected. Chocked in and created during the era of the Hayes Code, there was no room for explicit queer text unless they never wanted this adaptation to see the light of day. In the often-quoted line from Arthur Laurent’s memoir, Original Story By, he stated, “There wasn’t a word of dialogue that said the lovers were lovers or homosexual, but there wasn’t a scene between them where it wasn’t clearly implied.” Even further, Laurent said homosexuality was never mentioned once on set during filming. As Hamilton’s play directly connected with this element of queer relationships, Hitchcock’s Rope does the same thing. Yet, he changes it to fit within the 20th century secrecy of queer intimacies within America. The illusion of Hitchcock’s single-camera trick creates both this closed off space of a place – that being the upper-class Manhattan apartment of two privileged graduates – while also creating space for subtextual queerness through this formal element. There is no doubt while watching that one can see the intimate glares between Brandon and Phillip, the domineering control of Phillip by Brandon, the intense hello between Rupert and Brandon, and the messiness of Brandon to invite Rupert in the first place.

Rope 2In a post-WWII, Hayes Code-run hegemony of restrictions in the film industry, against a wider context of increased violence and hostility towards homosexuality, Hitchcock, with a screenplay supported by Arthur Laurents, created an early queer story. It is one unsavory in context, yet so queer in character development and, at the time, non-normative formal camera work. With that, as you watch, it’ll be clear to see these queer undertones existing throughout the whole film, one created in a manner connected to seeing queerness in its 20th century context. In 1990, D.A. Miller released an early and critical work in queer theory pointedly during the growing AIDS epidemic, entitled “Anal Rope,” which, in a very short glimpse, develops an important understanding of the idea of connoting a specific meaning from a story with no clear denotative association through looking at the queerness subtext in Rope in both the homosocial relationships and camera work. This paper by Miller has been an early article dedicated to a “too-close” of a reading in movies, which allows Rope and many other stories that do not have any direct queer characters to blossom through film’s subtextual possibilities.

Rope is a story of committing the perfect, most artful crime, an acidic story of murder for murder’s sake, yet it is also a compelling object of queer film history, an important historical addition to the celluloid closet. It is at once a story of a disastrous love triangle (that Phillip may not be into), a partnership of desire and lust (for both each other and murder), while also being historically non-normative in its formal innovations in a filmic industry seeped in the spectacles of montages and many connected cuts between characters and locations. Hitchcock flips these industry standards over, estranging them in favor of illusionary long shots and imaginative cuts between takes. What is done here is that within this formal element of contained and limits cuts allows a form of queer potentiality through the formal experimentation and juxtapositions of its sought-after normative counterparts within the film industry. In a Hollywood Quarterly article released during the summer of 1948, Irving Pichel says, “Not only is the action confined to a single apartment; it covers, moreover, exactly the period of time required to unreel the film.”

This film is of course a narrative between a privileged homosexual couple and the murder they just committed, although one could argue the formal experimentation is a crucial element, the queering of normative formal camera work itself. It is both queer in its subtextual story between glares, closeness, and character lines while also one between the formal elements of long takes and minimal cuts. In a Medium article titled “Worth Another Look: An Interesting Take on the Gay Subtext in Hitchcock’s Rope” user Paulfahey talks about an interview he did with Jack Shouse, director of a play based on the film version of Rope, and brings up his friendship with Pat Hitchcock. According to Paul, the conversation went as follows: Jack asked Pat, “They’re all gay, aren’t they Pat?”, to which she replied, “Of course they are”.

Rope screens Thursday, June 6th.
Thursday, Jun 6th – 8:15pm


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