Published: Dec. 1, 2012 By

[1] When D. A. Miller published “Anal Rope,” an essay about Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope (1948), in 1990, the AIDS crisis was still raging in the United States, no effective treatment for it was available, homophobia was at its height, and George Bush had taken office, extending his predecessor Ronald Reagan’s reign. The intense suspicion of structures of power in Miller’s essay and its palpable, though rhetorically contained, anger are in many ways rational, plausible responses to the infuriating national indifference to mass gay suffering, to say nothing of openly derogatory public statements against members of the queer community, that marked the era. Miller’s essay has long been famed as an early classic of queer theory for its rhetorical forcefulness and finesse. In my view, however, the essay is also representative of the ways in which queer theory treatments of Hitchcock films have tended to frame those films as themselves homophobic rather than as the critiques of homophobia that, in my view, they are. Along similar lines, in his No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman presents Hitchcock as a cold and unfeeling technician-prankster-manipulator, returning us to earlier views of Hitchcock as such. (See especially Edelman’s discussion of Hitchcock’s attitudes toward the audience, to be manipulated at will, 78-82.) In so doing, Edelman distorts and obscures Hitchcock’s directorial investments, some of which, as I will attempt to demonstrate, lie in his identification with his queer subjects and with what I call queer anguish—the emotional torment of the closet and of being forced to live within a culture of homophobia. On balance, Hitchcock’s films are interrogations of a culture of heterosexual presumption. In that Hitchcock not only refuses but also actively critiques heterosexual hegemony, his films also critique homophobia as one of the strategies used to inculcate and reinforce the heterosexual economy of gender and sexuality that his films consistently regard with suspicion. Moreover, as I will show, Hitchcock’s identification with his queer personae, while conflicted and ambivalent, is a powerful, recurring dimension of his work. InRope (1948), Hitchcock limns his most explicitly homoerotic narrative by this point in his career, though such tensions and energies were present in many of his previous films, such as Murder! (1930), and offers his most acute thematization of queer anguish.

[2] I think it behooves us to reexamine not just key Hitchcock films like Rope but also the conventional critical wisdom that such films are homophobic. It behooves us, in other words, to reexamine the critical approaches to such works. To forecast the argument I make in my forthcoming book Psycho-Sexual, on Hitchcock, American masculinity, and the filmmakers of the 1970s, the frequently negative images of femininity and homosexuality in Hitchcock’s work have been taken by some critics as indicative of the director’s phobic response to women and gays. While the questions of representation that continue to be raised over Hitchcock and those whom he influenced remain urgent, the ways in which these questions have been deployed in academic discourse have frequently blunted and distorted what is, in my view, the overall radicalism of Hitchcock’s films. What is a negative image, such works demand us to consider, if not an assaultive counter-mirror held up to the social order—to its essential violence on myriad and often unacknowledged levels, beginning with its program of compulsory heterosexuality? What is a negative image of femininity, exactly, if this image is a critique of the normative sexual order’s construction of “woman”? What is a negative image of queerness, exactly, if this image is a critique of social constructions of masculinity itself?

[3] As a critique of homophobia rather a perpetuation of it, Roperemains resonant. The force of this critique lies in Hitchcock’s characteristic contrasting and doubling of hetero- and homo- modes of masculinity. James Stewart’s Rupert Cadell, ostensibly the figure who brings the gay lovers and killers to justice, emerges not as a paragon of morality but as the ultimate, self-denying hypocrite. For Edelman, Hitchcock’s films synthesize cultural associations between homosexuals and images of nullity and death. I do not share Edelman’s view that homosexuals should actually embrace these cultural mythologies and embody the death-drive. Moreover, I do not believe that Hitchcock’s films synthesize and promote these homophobic associations; rather, they evoke them in order to critique them, a critique that is one aspect of Hitchcock’s larger critical deconstruction of the heterosexual couple and, especially, normative models of American masculinity. While there is much to learn from in Edelman’s erudite work, No Future’s crystallizes some of the less satisfying trends in certain queer theory and psychoanalytic positions over the years. Edelman’s more recent critical positions and Leo Bersani’s theory of gay masochistic self-shattering in his Homosembody, despite these commentators’ considerable brilliance, the high-octane theoretical construction of queer sexuality, particular queer male sexuality, as fundamentally linked to the death-drive.

[4] As the title of Miller’s 1990 essay suggests, its particular concerns are the politics of anality. Miller theorizes that in Rope the anus functions as a zone of phobic repression. Hitchcock’s refusal to make a film with any cuts (though of course several exist) aesthetically registers, in Miller’s view, the director’s fused fears of castration and sodomy, figured as the core, defining practice of gay male sexuality. (I will return to the important issue of the cut below.) Similarly, Lee Edelman’s essay “Rear Window’s Glasshole,” published in 1999, reifies the notion of the indispensability of the anus to gay male sexuality. What critics like Miller and Edelman, in distinct as well as overlapping ways, overlook, or simply refuse to acknowledge, is Hitchcock’s queer critique of heteromasculinity. Further, I argue that the focus on the anus in Rope criticism obscures a more explicitly pursued and no less interesting thematic in the film: orality as a figure of male homosexuality. The association between sodomy and gay sexuality that is such an entrenched aspect of the gay male imaginary has been troublingly reified in critical treatments of Rope. The film’s interest in orality disrupts this popular, and critically reinforced, association.

[5] The connection between figures such as orality and what I call queer anguish needs elucidation. As I will show, orality in the film functions as a multivalent trope; one dimension of its multivalency is its relationship to stereotypes of “the homosexual,” both within the pop-culture version of Freudian psychoanalysis that had long since become the rage by 1948, as Hitchcock’s 1945 Spellbound evinces, and within middlebrow culture, with its compensatory views of impeccable homosexual “taste.” In a critique that links Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs and Freud's psychobiography of Leonardo da Vinci, Diana Fuss has argued that orality as well as anality defines gay male sexuality in the popular imagination (83-107). While I do not share her view of Demme’s film as preponderantly homophobic, I do want to build here on the very important concept she foregrounds in this essay. (Much like Rope,Silence of the Lambs thematizes the hell of the closet, including the transgender closet, while also admittedly trafficking in stereotypes at times.) We would do well to think about the oral politics of Rope—what its fixation with mouths, ingestion, and the indigestible reveal.

[6] With such a rich, disturbing film—which, after many years of dedicated Hitchcock viewing, I have come to regard as one of Hitchcock’s finest works—the discussion of only one theme inevitably obscures much that is important in it. But it is a testament to Rope’s complexity that it lends itself to so many disparate readings. The questions of orality and the film’s representation of homosexuality—itself a difficult, controversial question—allow us to consider a wider range of the film’s interests in complicating what we mean by such concepts as desire, gender, and sexuality, to say nothing of their configurations in a Hitchcock film. Thinking about the film’s chief site of sexual anxiety as the mouth rather than the anus—which, admittedly, is to insist upon a starker theoretical/organic split than one might wish for—forces us to rethink the influential Freudian hierarchalization of erotogenic zones, most comprehensively explicated in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, which posits first the oral, then the anal, and then the phallic as a progressive series of stages in childhood psychosexual development as well as the familiar, easy elision between male homosexuality and the anus. The film’s oral politics are organized less around the issue of anal penetration than they are around oral incorporation. The male body does not primarily exist to be penetrated, but rather to be ingested: and the specific body offered for our collective, perverse delectation is not the queer body but the normative, heterosexual male body. (To bite into something or someone is, of course, as much an act of penetration as it is a prelude to incorporation. Slippages abound.)

[7] A brief description of Rope’s plot will be helpful to a close analysis of it. Two young men who had been in the same prep school, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger), now Manhattan socialites in a swanky apartment, kill a former classmate of theirs, David Kentley (Dick Hogan). With their obscure fantasies that they are Nietzschean supermen, Brandon and Philip believe that David is inferior to them and that they can murder him without repercussions. They kill him right before the lavish dinner party they have planned begins. In Brandon’s fiendish master stroke, they decide to serve the meal on the long, rectangular chest in which David’s dead body lies rather than on the table that has already been set by the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson). The guests include David’s father, the quietly anxious Mr. Kentley (Sir Cedric Hardwicke); Janet Walker (Joan Chandler), an acerbically witty young woman who is, in addition to being Brandon and Philip’s “chum,” David’s fiancée; Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick), once Janet’s fiancé and David’s former best friend and his schoolmate along with Brandon and Phillip; Mrs. Atwater (the marvellously gravel-voiced and stylized Constance Collier), David’s slightly daffy aunt; and Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the prep school master to all of the young men, the one who schooled them in Nietzschean philosophy. Over the course of the evening, it becomes increasingly obvious to Rupert that his hosts are hiding something and under duress. In the end, he exposes their crime, returning to their apartment after the other guests have left, flinging opening the chest-coffin, seeing, to his horror, David’s body there, condemning the killers, and, by shooting a gun outside of a window, alerting the authorities.

[8] Inert in the chest but the fecund source of all of the film’s queasy tensions, David Kentley’s body transforms, in a not altogether metaphorical form of cannibalistic frenzy, into a ritualistically consumed sacrificial object. Brandon and Philip make a meal of straight manhood. Given the resonances of this cannibalism/homosexuality trope in American culture—its presence, literal and symbolic, in key works of classic American literature (ranging from Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket to Melville’s 1890 Billy Budd, Sailor)—Rope’s thematization of the male body as cannibal sacrifice is especially salient and provocative, especially given what it suggests about the ways in which Hitchcock retooled the Catholic themes that famously inform his work (male bodies becoming host bodies). Still, in many ways, while fascinating in its own right, orality, like anality, is just one more trope among many that signal the chief interest of the film: to evoke, present, and subtly suggest popular understandings of the figure of the homosexual, and to interrogate and even to undermine these understandings, linked to a secret yet explosive world of insider knowledge that trenches upon the female subject position, as I will discuss below, as much as it does on the knife-edged tensions between straight and homosexual masculinities, the potential collapse of both strictly maintained modes everywhere anticipated.

[9] Raymond Bellour does not afford Rope more than the briefest mention in his influential work The Analysis of Film. Nevertheless, we can rework his important but resolutely heterosexist paradigms and understand Rope as a film in which the audience is encouraged to identify (rather than objectify, as D.A. Miller would have it) with the murderous couple and their role as “enunciators” who structure—or attempt to structure—the desires of the film. Brandon takes the lead in this process, emerging as a grisly—yet ultimately pitiable—stand-in for Hitchcock. (On enunciation and directorial stand-ins for Hitchcock in films such as Marnie, see especially Bellour 219, 236.) While James Stewart is presented as the star of the film, his Rupert Cadell is really a supporting character who grows into prominence in the final third of the narrative. As such, Rupert almost allegorically represents the forces of normalization, repression, and containment that abolish the polymorphously perverse energies of both the murderous couple and this languidly, diabolically pleasure-focused film.

[10] Rope’s chief suspense mechanism is the dinner party in which the guests eat over, near, and around what is essentially David’s coffin. The various trays of hors-d’oeuvres and chicken and cake hover precariously over the barely concealed crime; each guest serving him or herself threatens to uncover the secret. In terms of sexual metaphor, David’s body within the chest can be read variously. To consider two major possibilities, this is the violated, savaged body of normative manhood; but alternatively, this body metaphorizes the secretive queer male. David is entombed within the closet. Eating habitually functions, as I have argued elsewhere, in Hitchcock films as an economy of desire and repression (Greven 2004). Here, eating threatens to strip away the very fabric of the social order, to strip bare the artifices that provide fragile defenses against the eyes, hands, mouths, needs, demands, and desires of others.

[11] I believe that in Rope Hitchcock explores the foundational cultural stereotype of gay males as connoisseurs and consumers.Rope is an early critique—perhaps an anticipation—of the popular construction of the gay male as signal arbiter of aesthetic standards and the exemplary consumer. As Pauline Kael once wrote (in a pan of Blake Edwards’ 1982 film Victor/Victoria), “when homosexuals were despised, there was a compensatory myth that they had better taste than anyone else” (335). Certainly, Rope was made in an era in which homosexuals were “despised,” and perhaps even more onerously, culturally silenced, although, at the same time, the film verges on a new cultural moment of increased public discussion of the threat of homosexuality. As scholars such as Robert Corber and others have shown, the Cold War 1950s was an era that would make homosexuality as well as homophobia shockingly visible and discursively prominent. Rope uncannily anticipates a significant aspect of the shifting 1950s response to Cold War anxieties and programs as well as the increasing visibility of a range of queer sexual identities: the normative American male’s intensifying fears of a loss of self. As K. A. Cuordileone argues, as “mid-century critics and experts scrutinized the male psyche, man became a victim as never before, his psyche malleable and unstable”; this gender crisis was “now a problem inseparable from national defense” (136). While a proper discussion of these cultural conflicts exceeds the scope of this essay, it is worth noting that a loss of the male self as well as the defense of the integrity and “wholeness” of this male self were very much tied to the national construction of manhood and, indeed, to national identity itself. As I will show, Rope prefigures the confluence of these anxieties in their 1950s incarnation.

[12] Exemplifying his now-well-documented attraction-repulsion to homosexuality as well as consistent thematic use of images of food and eating, Hitchcock stages homoerotic desire as a perverse meal. (Both Donald Spoto and Robin Wood have amply discussed this attraction-repulsion, manifested on the set through Hitchcock’s penchant for practical jokes, which seem to have been frequently directed at beautiful young queer male Hitchcock stars such as Ivor Novello in The Lodger [1927] and Montgomery Clift in I Confess[1953]). Inspired by the infamous Leopold and Loeb case, about two thrill-killing homosexuals who murdered a young man, and an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 British play Rope's End, Hitchcock’s film is certainly a negative image of homosexuality, associated here principally with murder, but also sadism, grandiose narcissism, and polymorphous perversity, exemplified by the lover-killers’ excruciating dinner party. (Hume Cronyn, an actor as well as writer, is credited with the adaptation; the gay playwright Arthur Laurents wrote the screenplay.) Homosexuality is also linked here to theories of the Nietzschean superman as these theories were deployed by German fascism during the Third Reich; in keeping with these associations, its lover-killers also suggest cultural images of Nazi decadence that will only grow more potent over the years. Films as distinct as Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964) and Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969)—notable films made by notable gay directors—will render Rope’s inchoate homo-fascist aesthetic much more explicit, even as Hitchcock’s film verges on their later explicitness.

[13] It is important to note that the lovers’ grotesque misapplication of Nietzsche flows from their obsession with Rupert Cadell, who schooled them in his version of Nietzschean theory and whose own moral positions are treated quite critically. Their former teacher, Rupert will investigate Brandon and Philip’s crimes, discover the truth of what they have done, denounce them as morally degenerate, and “help,” as he himself puts it, to bring them to justice. He does so while also entirely exculpating himself from any complicity in their crime, despite having been their pedagogical inspiration for murder. The film crystallizes longstanding associations with degenerate homosexual aestheticism and the scene of pedagogy as a dangerous zone of homoerotic intrigue. “In the late nineteenth century, ‘degenerate’ was consistently code for perversion and shorthand for homosexual,” writes Camilla Fojas, “and the classical pedagogical model meant being an aesthete or a decadent, where the rarified literary and aesthetic tastes borne by men of culture were passed on from man to boy” (120). Certainly, Rope draws on such associations, but it registers the emotional and psychic costs of such affiliations, the lived experience of a self-conscious homo-aestheticism within a larger homophobic culture. This lived experience trenches upon Rupert’s characterization no less urgently than on that of the frightening and frightened young men. As I will show, Rupert’s modus operandi throughout is massively defensive, an attempt to stave off what Cuordileone calls the “wholesale loss of self” that threatened the mid-century male subject (136).

[14] Brandon and Philip believe that they are superior to the social order. But it is crucial to note, without morally exculpating them or their descent into murderous violence, that this social order also imprisons and delimits them. While hideously destructive, their sense of superiority is, at least on some level, an expression of mourning and rage that is most likely related to their sexuality. Further, what they principally chafe against may be not only the homophobia but also the stifling silences around the issue in their culture. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has so powerfully shown, homosexuality has been a crucial node in an epistemological cultural network that regulates knowledge and determines who is or isn’t “in the know.” The staging of the perverse dinner party thematizes homosexuality as a knowing game, a series of simultaneously unacknowledgeable and diffusely available intelligences. The invisible/nearly visible body of the victim can be seen as a sign of the killers’ own hidden yet increasingly, threateningly visible homosexuality.

[15] As I will be further suggesting, the lover-killers mete out punishment to the heterosexual male who has abandoned their queer circle. In this regard, it is crucial that their vengeful violence extends not only to David Kentley but also to his quiet, reserved father as well as his aunt, fiancée, and absent mother. Indeed, it is the entire heterosexual gendered economy with its oedipal basis in the family and in marriage that is submitted to the young men’s scornful critique. Brandon and Philip mount their most violent attack against oedipal normativity by making David’s father partake in the meal of his own son. The murderous queer sons feed their normative brethren back to the father, evoking the Greek myth precedent of the House of Atreus as well as the fraternal rage incited by the biblical Joseph, whose brothers brutalize him and sell him off, presenting his animal blood-soaked garments to their father Jacob in order to convince him that his favored child Joseph has been killed. (I read the dreamy, narcissistic Joseph as an early queer figure and his abuse at the hands of his brothers an allegory for the fate of the gender-nonconforming within homosocial realms. Rope therefore revises the Joseph story, chiastically making the straight “brother” the victim, the queer kin the vengeful aggressors.) Poignantly, Mr. Kentley, as Hardwicke gently plays him, is a diminished, wearied, pitiable paterfamilias; we experience Rupert’s chiding of him and Brandon’s intensification of this chiding as repellently insensitive and then truly sadistic—a sadism only metonymic of the larger sadism of the entire plan.

[16] As Strangers on a Train (1951) and Psycho (1960), especially, will take up, and later films like Wiiliam Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) will re-examine, the theme of the indistinguishability of normative manhood and queer manhood in Hitchcock informs Rope. (All of these films ransack the image repertoire of gay men in American culture, which is to say, the historically evolving arsenal of gay male stereotypes.) In Psycho-Sexual, I discuss Sam Loomis (John Gavin) as the knowing, hostile “straight interlocutor” to the queer Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). If Psycho provocatively collapses straight and queer masculinities, Rope has already more than done so. It has already demonstrated that being the straight interlocutor—“he knows, he knows,” as Philip desperately says of Rupert at the climax of the film—who persecutes the homosexual depends upon an undeniable intimacy with, which is to say, complicity with, that same dread sexual disposition.

[17] If David Kentley is a closeted gay man—and as such, only a quieter, more successful heterosexual “passer” than the more obviously gay Brandon and Philip—Rupert Cadell represents not just a persecutorial heterosexual masculinity newly energized by the incipient Cold War, but also an understanding of closeted homosexuality as the deepest form of hypocrisy, a hypocrisy verging on the murderous. When, at the climax, Rupert shrieks in a rage at Brandon and Philip over their heinous crime, he does not make, through the words of Arthur Laurents’ screenplay, too fine a point of what David represented for them: “He lived and loved in a way you never could!” Rupert’s hypocritical inability to take any responsibility for his own complicity in their crime is made especially apparent in his diabolically unfunny comic asides during dinner about the art of murder. (Complaining about long lines for the theater, he encourages “Cut a Throat Week.” The grisly humor here bespeaks a desire to cut off the body from the very conduit of orality.) No sooner does he indulge in such morbid humor than he chastises Brandon for his harassment of David’s father, visibly discomfited and then openly appalled by Brandon’s spouting of mock-Nietzschean rhetoric about “superior beings” and his right to do as he wishes, and to anyone, because he is one. Rupert’s role in the crime his own messianic dictates inspired emerges as an allegory for closeted homosexuality and defensive denials of it. “There was something deep inside you that let you do this thing,” he theorizes to Brandon, “just as there was something inside me that would never let me do it.” The film depends entirely on this question of something “inside” men—or, paradoxically, not inside them at all, something they lack. It is little wonder that Rupert fires a gun out of the window at the climax. This theatrical gesture is a frantically public display of his own male potency, an attempt to display his lack of lack. As Amy Lawrence observes in an excellent analysis, “The vehemence with which Stewart denounces Brandon and Philip indicates the importance of projecting the bloody guilt outward, his inquisitorial zeal necessitated by the fear that guilt lies within. … To save himself he must sell [Brandon and Philip] out” (71). Lawrence helpfully links Stewart’s star-persona, particularly post-war, as a man capable of great reserves of feeling—even dangerous levels of emotionalism—to Hitchcock’s use of him here, which ultimately results in Hitchcock’s “unthinkable” suggestion that “James Stewart is a killer” (71).

[18] It happens very quickly, but the murder of David Kentley at the start of the film provides one of the most explicit scenes of homoerotic exchange in classical Hollywood film. Feeling for a heartbeat in the now dead body of David, Brandon and Philip massage his fleshly chest before putting him in the coffin-like wooden chest. The gloves the killers wear lend their perusal of David’s body for any lingering signs of life a fetishistic kinkiness. The desired male body, David Kentley’s, seen only briefly at the start of the film, becomes the tantalizing meal that can never be consumed, lying always out of reach. The miserable, tense dinner party, in which food takes on a rank character and the ritual of eating is as joyless and jangly as a family dinner on the HBO series The Sopranos, harrowingly parodies the collective wishes of the guests—to varying degrees of intensity and with different agendas—for joyful communion with David’s body. Rope makes the chilling, unusual suggestion that it is normative American manhood that inspires, rather than embodies, rapacious, cannibalistic appetites. This is not bell hooks’ model of “eating the other,” but quite the reverse.

[19] One could argue that if the film places more emphasis on orality than anality as metaphorical of homosexuality, its homophobia simply takes a different form than critical treatments such as Miller’s have suggested. Yet by establishing orality as its chief symbolic preoccupation, and by linking all of the characters in the film to orality—to drinking, eating, speaking, consuming—the film suggests that its queer killers are not rogue outliers distinct from the normative social order but, instead, well-integrated in it. Given the recurring associations in Hitchcock films between food, eating, sex, and violence, a welter that reaches its nauseating aesthetic height inFrenzy (1972), the presence in Rope of a cohesive theme of orality and eating pertains less to queer sexuality specifically than to its function as the register through which sexuality can be explored and desires expressed, which in this case happen to be queer sexuality and desire. What links orality in the film back to queer sexuality is orality’s relationship to the hierarchy of sexual stages. A regressive return to the “primitivism” of the oral stage certainly smacks of reactionary judgment and dovetails with the theorizations of queerness as a form of arrested development that would infiltrate the Freudian 1950s, especially given the misapplication of Freud’s far more complex and unstable theoretical positions throughout this decade and beyond, as Henry Abelove has so brilliantly shown. But another dimension exists here in which queer orality is not necessarily primitivistically homophobic but something quite distinct—a sign of a return to a state of polymorphous perversity before oedipal socialization and its attendant forces of repression and proper heterosexualization occurred. (My reading of Freud here has been influenced by Jonathan Dollimore and his brilliant analysis of the centrality of perversity to Freud’s work.) Queer orality as well queer fetishism—embodied by those gloved, transgressively roving hands—signal a return to perversity that has implications for sexuality generally. Threatening to rock the stability of not only film text but also defensive, apprehensive nation, this explosive perversity heralds both a larger sexual crisis and a potentially potent form of sexual liberation, albeit one ineluctably tinged here with a tragic sense of the loss of possibilities of any kind.

[20] For D. A. Miller, the effect of Hitchcock’s intensely self-conscious use of the cut in this film is to obliterate the possibilities of queer desire. Yet, I would argue, the cut as used here also lends itself to the evocation of queer desire. In other words, the cut that Miller reads as the interruption and erasure of queer sex potentially functions as precisely its sign. Hitchcock made this film during the studio era, dominated by the Production Code, in which homosexuality, or “sex perversion,” could never be explicitly mentioned and in which even implicit signals were suspect, as Robin Wood has shown (350-1). (Wood is particularly effective in his treatment of the cultural silences that made Rope’s articulation of its homosexual themes so difficult.) As Arthur Laurents in his autobiography Original Story and Farley Granger in his autobiographyInclude Me Out both attest, homosexuality was never discussed by Hitchcock or others on the set. Nevertheless, Rope finds numerous ways of allegorizing homoeroticism in a culture of silence about its potentiality.

[21] Given the centrality of the issue of the cut in Miller’s essay as well as the critical fascination generally with Hitchcock’s experimentation with the ten-minute take in Rope, it behooves us to pay close attention to the issue. When Rope was filmed, ten minutes was the maximum amount of time of a reel of film; Hitchcock attempted to make a film devoid of any obvious cuts. The cuts are usually camouflaged through the focus on a character’s dark backside, from which view the next shot begins as well. Robin Wood summarizes and clarifies common misunderstandings of the technical issues in the film. I quote Wood at length because he provides ample evidence that the very issue of the camouflaged cut—what sets Ropeapart from Hitchcock’s films and lends it its particular identity as a film text—is itself often misunderstood and also mischaracterized:

Repeatedly, one hears that Rope was shot entirely in ten-minute takes. As the film is approximately eighty minutes long, this entails the presumption that it consists of eight shots. Including the credit shot (roughly three minutes; it has to be included because it is clearly “within the diegesis,” establishing the environment and culminating in the camera’s pan to the left to show the closed curtains from behind which issues David Kentley’s death-scream), there are eleven shots. Only three of these (Nos. 2, 6, and 9) are over nine minutes long; one (No. 10, culminating in the flinging open of the chest lid by Rupert Cadell/James Stewart) is under five minutes; the last is six. The remainder are all between seven and eight minutes (349-50).

[22] In a discussion of the film’s first four black-outs, Miller, in his characteristically ominous manner, theorizes Rope’s anal-fetish/phobia this way:

What is gay male sex, according to the film? …. When the camera closes in on the backside of a man’s suit only to reward thus intensified expectation with blank darkness, one is invited to imagine that the camera’s itinerary has been blocked, or what comes to the same thing, would otherwise have continued—…from the cleft of the buttocks all the way to the perforation of the anus itself, whose cavital darkness would in any case make no difference between an interrupted itinerary and one that had reached its proper destination? Under cover of these blackouts, two things get “hidden.” One is the popularly privileged site of gay male sex, the orifice whose sexual use general opinion considers…the least dispensable element in defining the true homosexual. The other is the cut, for whose pure technicity a claim could hardly be sustained at so overwhelmingly hallucinatory a moment… …. [These two things] configure one and the same thing: the anus is a cut, and vice versa. The most immediate reason for wanting to hide the cut, then, is that it is imagined to be a penetrable hole in the celluloid film body; and though there are countless obvious and ordinary reasons for wanting to hide the anus, it is hidden here as what remains and reminds of a cut” (134, emphasis in the original).

Rope “braids” both the fear of castration and the negation of castration, both of which work to produce, according to Miller, normative male heterosexuality in the film viewer.


[23] That Hitchcock made a film that ostensibly suppresses the mark of the editorial cut is of undeniable relevance. When the cuts do come in Rope, however, they are so dramatically obvious as cuts that this film about the erasure of the cut becomes paradoxically about nothing but. By making a movie that, far from suppressing the cut, makes a drama out of its very manifestation, Hitchcock calls attention to and radically disrupts one of the cinema’s crucial mythologies: that it represents reality. (While exceeding the scope of my discussion here, the contested relationship between Hitchcock and cinematic reality—as theorized by Bazin, Kracauer, and so forth—needs to be revisited. In particular, Bazin’s antipathy toward Hitchcock for his lack of realism needs further analysis in light of the sheer self-consciousness with which Hitchcock presents his stylized, artifice-laden film worlds.) By calling attention to the cut, Hitchcock alerts us to the fact that film is made, something constructed out of random elements forced into coherent alignment, a Frankenstein’s monster of assembled parts. In terms of homosexuality, the shattering of the illusion that film represents reality is crucial: far from seeing the story of these homo-lovers or of their sexually charged shared murder of another young man, Hitchcock openly declares that we see—can only see—parts of this story, that the story has been, at all points, cut.

[24] The monstrously emphasized and visible cut in Rope challenges the viewer’s sense of total mastery over the visual scene by exposing such a sense of mastery as entirely dependent on neverseeing the cut, never noticing the sheer artificiality of film, immersing oneself so totally in the filmic experience that we never realize that we have been, at all points, manipulated and conditioned by technicians skilled in the arts of performance and masquerade, which the lovers of this film, with a woeful lack of self-perception, believe themselves to be as well, one aspect of their status as Hitchcock stand-ins or enunciators. (Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo [1958] will chiefly thematize these very dynamics.) By straining to create a film in which no cuts occur, Hitchcock paradoxically makes a film in which the moments of cutting take on a prominence unparalleled in any other work. Much like the gruesome game that Brandon and Philip play with their guests, Rope challenges us to ignore the hidden-but-prominent, the secret that is right there if you only bother to look a bit more closely.

[25] Prominent critics such as Linda Williams, Lee Edelman, and Miller present us with a Hitchcock whose heartless technological manipulation of his audience, of which the filmmaker was quite proud, was his chief agenda. If the sadistic prankster-aspect of Hitchcock’s sensibility is undeniable, so is the pain in Rope, the frustration and increasing despair. These equally palpable aspects of Hitchcock’s films belie overly stark conceptions of Hitchcock as principally a cunning master technician. Miller overlooks a great deal of what is at stake in Hitchcock films, especially a Hitchcock film like Rope. He overlooks, for example, the sympathetic treatment that Hitchcock gives the lovers at certain points, especially Farley Granger’s dark, troubled young man Philip, tremulously sensitive and physically beautiful. When Mrs. Atwater holds this talented young pianist’s hands in her own and proclaims “Your hands will bring you great fame,” Hitchcock pauses on the moment and on Philip’s reaction to her ironically devastating words. I believe that he does so to allow us to see how disturbed, how rueful, Philip looks; in order for us to take in the full gravity of what he and Brandon have done and register the sheer waste of their lives as well as David’s.

[26] More analysis of Hitchcock’s identification with his queer characters, an identification fraught with ambivalence, is needed. For now, however, I want to focus on Rope as a daring analysis of the codes and structures of queer desire, knowledge, and repudiation in a simultaneously restrictive and subversive era of homophobic control and homoerotic fascinations. Surely the fact that Farley Granger and the screenwriter Arthur Laurents were lovers during the time the film was made, of which Hitchcock became aware, as Laurents reports in his autobiography, has some relevance to the queer world of knowledge, disavowal, code, and silence thematized in the film and that provides a context both for its fictional narrative and that of the film’s production. It is also significant that a woman plays a key role in this system of knowledge and disavowal, repression and the incitement-to-know.

[27] Patricia White has valuably called our attention to the strangely unself-conscious ease with which prominent gay male critics such as Miller and Edelman discuss Hitchcock films with an exclusive emphasis on issues of queer male sexuality, ignoring the roles of women in the films and larger feminist issues and also sustaining Hitchcock’s own defensively dismissive attitudes toward the “woman’s film genre” with which so many of his most significant works inevitably align. “Miller is not obliged,” writes Patricia White, “to offer a feminist analysis of Hitchcock’s film [in this case, Rope].”

Yet Miller’s metaphor of (male) anus as cut cuts feminist film theory and its considerable insights out of the picture as well. Homosexuality is reserved for the same sex, the male. Implicitly, the woman can represent only difference, that is, heterosexuality. The anus deconstructs sexual difference (the opposition phallus/lack), but access to this supplement is reserved for male members. …. [Comparing Lacanian queer theorist Lee Edelman’s similar arguments to Miller’s, we can deduce that the] two theorists have found the ultimate master of “anality” in Hitchcock himself (215-217).

The focus on anality and the anus as a site of sexual anxiety synechodochically represent the preoccupations of these critical arguments. As White says of Miller, he “is not obliged to offer a feminist analysis of Hitchcock's film.” But to ignore the role the women characters play in this film is to obscure its queer politics. In agreement with White, I want to shift gears and focus now on the character of David Kentley’s fiancée Janet Walker, so well-played by the witty Joan Chandler, a character who deserves a critical study all her own. Recalling Gayle Rubin’s “traffic in women,” the basis, along with the theories of René Girard, of Eve Sedgwick’s famous theory of triangulated desire, Janet is passed around by the young men in the film. As the character of Janet exemplifies, women play a crucial role in the representation of male queerness in Hitchcock’s American films especially. In them, male homosexuality is organized around the observant gaze and uncanny perspicuity of a woman, whose paranoid knowledge extends, parodies, and mirrors the simultaneously held and disavowed knowledge the men possess about the complexities of their own desires. Janet is shown to be “on” to the weirdness of her young hosts’ behavior, and calls them on it in a way that suggests her knowledge of the various potentialities of what their behavior can signify. Rupert Cadell “solves” the homoerotic crime, but in many ways he merely follows up on Janet’s earlier suspicions.


[28] Janet uses the male public school term “chum” on more than one occasion. She says to her ex-boyfriend Kenneth, regarding her sorrow over their break-up, “I just couldn't be the gay girl anymore.” Is it possible that this line was another covert signifier, such as Cary Grant’s in Bringing Up Baby (“I suddenly went gay all of a sudden!” his exasperated screwball stooge explains while wearing Katharine Hepburn’s frilly nightgown in Howard Hawks’ 1938 genre-classic)? Further linking Janet to the lovers, she says to Brandon at one point, “I could strangle you.” In his screenplay, Laurents simultaneously obscured the gay references in its source material (Hamilton’s play) and added strategic ones of its own. Exemplifying the differences between his vision and that of the source material, he added the very character of Janet, creating her role for Hitchcock’s film.

[29] Every line in this film has a double-edged, knowing significance. Laurents not only supplied the gay witticisms that Hitchcock wanted but also responses such as Brandon's “We all do strange things in our childhood” to Mrs. Atwater's “When I was a girl I used to read quite a lot.” As Laurents reports in his autobiography, the only worry Hitchcock expressed regarding the homosexuality angle was that audiences would perceive Mrs. Atwater as a lesbian, given the low-toned voice of the actress playing her, Constance Collier. (It is worth mentioning that Collier and the actor Ivor Novello were both extremely close friends and artistic collaborators. Novello, whose homosexuality was common knowledge, starred in Hitchcock’s 1926 The Lodger and 1927 Downhill, both films with deep queer resonances.) According to Laurents, Hitchcock was not openly worried about the themes of homosexuality in the play, which, as Granger also confirms in his autobiography, no one on the set discussed. On the DVD featurette ofRope, Laurents uses the term “It” to describe the subject that was taboo on the screen in 1948. The entire film is organized around the unmentionable It, never referred to explicitly yet implicitly signified in the frequent moments that foreground unmentionability and the unnameable. Moments such as the one in which Mrs. Atwater, Janet, and, especially, Rupert all discuss the Broadway musical that they can’t name, the name being just on the tip of their tongue, as well as the name of the Ingrid Bergman film the women have seen, called “something, something” (which would appear to be Hitchcock’s 1946Notorious), and even the intensity of their panegyrics to Bergman, whom they call “divine,” all add to the premonitory atmosphere of a nearly accessible knowledge on the verge of explication.

[30] Janet notices that the telephone is in the bedroom and, presumably, that there is only one. In Robin Wood’s words, “Janet/Joan Chandler's response, ‘How cozy,’ can certainly be taken as the film's most loaded comment on the issue),” the issue being the lovers’ relationship. But the film, as Wood points out, was made in a homophobic era that policed any explicit acknowledgement of homosexuality. As he further points out, “later, however, we hear of a second bedroom (neither is ever shown)” (351). In any event, Janet seems to be in on the secrets that simmer beneath the socially polished surface of this film’s cramped and coded world.

[31] Insofar as she is a triangulated or trafficked woman, Janet is notable for being a woman who is circulated amongst a male group that almost entirely consists of men who may be said to be gay, closeted and otherwise, given the film’s and the screenplay’s repeated suggestions that what binds all of the young men to each other and to Rupert is their homoerotic fixation on their old headmaster. Had original casting choices like Cary Grant or James Mason been cast in the role of Rupert Cadell, no doubt the queerness of his character would have been much more vividly registered. Having the hyper-all-American James Stewart in the role lessens the queer associations of the character, but at the same time it is important to consider the numerous ways in which Rupert’s homoerotic complicity is suggested, thematized, and put into ironic relief by the very incongruity of Stewart’s casting. His diabolical jokes about murder; his having been the person responsible for teaching Nietzschean philosophy to the boys; his having been present as Philip “strangled a chicken,” a motif in the film with colloquial and cultural connotations with homosexual practice (chickens, or young men, and chicken hawks, older men who sexually prey upon them), all link him to the killers and the welter of associations that signal, again just on the point of explicit signification, homosexual identity in this narrative.

[32] It behooves us to consider for a moment the significance of the character of Kenneth Lawrence (played by the slight and unmemorable Douglas Dick). Kenneth was Janet’s boyfriend before she became involved with David, and David was his best friend. Now, he and David are no longer good friends, much to Janet’s chagrin. Brandon takes particular delight in having set up a situation in which both Janet and Kenneth must interact again, much to their surprise and quite awkwardly, as they await David. Sardonically ruminating on her erotic history, Brandon remarks to Janet, “After me, came Kenneth, then David…” It is worth mentioning, in this film obsessed with doubles, that Mrs. Atwater initially mistakes Kenneth for David. Though in some ways both men differ physically, more importantly they resemble one another: both wear the same brown suit and have blonde hair and seem, compared to Brandon, Philip, and Rupert, fairly short. David was a member of a circle that includes Brandon, Philip, Kenneth, and Rupert. It is strongly suggested that this circle was a homosexual one that David, through his relationship with and engagement to Janet, was attempting to escape. One must, along these lines, wonder if somehow Janet is an honorary gay man. Certainly, she is depicted as one of the boys, included, in ways that also discomfit her, in their abusive games, especially Brandon’s. Understandably vexed by these, Janet says to Brandon, “I could strangle you.” Ribbing her about her love-life and sardonically insinuating that it is too lively to be effortlessly summarized, Brandon say to her, "After me, came Kenneth, then David…” He then devises a scenario in which Janet and Kenneth will be forced to be alone together—and we must remember that Mrs Atwater initially mistakes Kenneth for her nephew David. Swirling about in this film is an incipient sense of the gay clone that derives, at least in part, from classical psychoanalytic theories of homosexual male narcissism. Janet may, indeed, get around in more senses than one, adding the constrictions placed on female sexuality in the period to the concatenation of constraints in this enclosed world. What is especially significant about the film’s representation of the traffic in women is that it is presented here as an economy exclusive to gay men, who bandy Janet about as a quite pliable beard. When the increasingly agitated Philip—who, it is revealed, once strangled a chicken as both Brandon and Rupert watched—tells Janet that he never eats poultry, Janet’s response is, “How queer.” Is Janet’s line decodable as a challenge, as her attempt to call out Philip on his protestations that he never touches the stuff, stuff being one node in a large network of taboo sexual subjects ranging from queer chicken for predatory hawks to Psycho’s stuffed birds, metaphorical of its victimized women? (In the immortal words of Stanley Kowalski on a similarly transgressive taste—from a not at all irrelevant intertext—“Some people never touch the stuff but it touches them often.”) As Amy Lawrence points out in her essay on Rope, a 1922 Department of Labor manual used the term "queer" to refer to an effeminate male; as she further argues, it is precisely the fear of “unusually fine,” effeminate men, such as Brandon and Philip, that enables Rupert not only to distance himself from them at the end but to align himself with the retributive forces of their destruction (72-3). In the line Rupert speaks following his return spoken in the climactic portion of the film, “You often pick words for sounds rather than meaning.” Even though most audiences may not have been familiar with the term, other would pick up on the distinctive sound of terms like “queer” (Williams). If David is a covert gay man, then he, like every other male in this film, has not entirely succeeded; every line, every gesture, every unspoken meaning fissures the function of the closet. “You give yourself away” could be the shared mantra of this movie’s males.

[33] If we venture beyond the limits of Miller’s argument in “Anal Rope,” we find a subversive world that encompasses virtually everyone, including Mr. Kentley, who appears as dominated by his wife as Norman is by “Mother” and therefore feminized on some level. Like Mrs. Bates, Mrs. Kentley is an unseen but controlling, maddening presence. Mr. Kentley has tried to free his son from mother’s control, but has been unable to free himself from his wife’s. If David is a closeted gay man dominated by his mother, along the lines of the classical Freudian paradigms that will be most dramatically evoked in Psycho, Brandon and Philip’s murder of him is a desperate, horrifying form of outing. Their “ugly,” in Rupert’s words, erotically charged murder of David forces him to acknowledge their shared erotic past and predilections while allowing the three to be physically intimate once more, however gruesomely this intimacy is established.

[34] At the same time, their murder is also a homoerotic tribute toRupert as well as a goad and challenge to him. “Go ahead and look,” Brandon says to Rupert at the climax. “I hope you like what you see.” Rupert finally renders the implicit explicit by flinging open the chest and discovering, to his horror, the murdered David within it and incontrovertible evidence that Brandon and Philip are murderers. He rails against the young men, morally denouncing them and vowing to “help” as society punishes them, Old Testament-style, with their own deaths. He manages to wrest from the gun from Philip’s hands, flings open the windows, and fires into the nighttime air.

[35] I must disagree with Robin Wood about the effect produced by this moment. Wood reads it as a moral liberation—the gun fired into the open air cuts through the miasmic deceit and violence of the atmosphere, and we identify with Rupert’s attempts to restore justice. Moreover, it is Rupert’s very complicity with the crime that makes his attempt to expose it all the more “powerful and ratifies the film’s moral authority” (356-7). But in my view, Rupert’s reclamation of and use of the gun, which replaces the rope with a deadlier emblem of phallic male force, represents his alignment with social order and the law, an alignment that is corrupt and shameful precisely because of his complicity with Brandon and Philip. His firing of the gun confirms his effort to renounce his former homoerotic ties with the killers and, possibly, sexual relationship. Wresting the gun away from the fumbling, hysterical homosexual male Philip, Rupert re-establishes patriarchal, heterosexual, gendered order while also re-entering it himself.

[36] The emotional urgency in Hitchcock films like Rope is a significant dimension of them. And it is this urgency that makesRope, ultimately, a queer film rather than a homophobic film about queers. When Brandon, having failed to prevent Rupert from opening up the chest, says “I hope you like what you see,” his voice almost audibly cracks from the strain. This moment is a telling rupture in John Dall’s otherwise steadfastly maintained arch, mordant tone, and I believe that it is through just such a rupture that Hitchcock’s own sensibility seeps through. This film is about many things, but one of its subjects is the anguish of the closet. I would argue that it is not so much itself a negative image of homosexuality as it is a film that explores homosexuals’ negative images about their own identities. The David of this film, the murdered body of a young man on the verge of heterosexual marriage and his escape from a miasmic queer subculture, is a grotesque art exhibit, a self-portrait of the artists’ own self-loathing that can be seen by only one museumgoer, the fellow connoisseur Rupert.

[37] To return to Rope, the view of the “coldness” of Hitchcock’s technique is well-worth re-examining in broader terms. In Original Story, Arthur Laurents reveals what was, in his view, Hitchcock’s “true obsession”: the camera. Essentially, Laurents writes, Hitchcock “was a voyeur; Rear Window could have been his epitaph. He was consumed with his camera and the infinite possibilities in intricate maneuvers: how differently he was going to use it this time; what tricky, difficult shot he was going to pull off.” Laurents criticizes Hitchcock for being so concerned with camerawork that, at times, it “got in the way of the story,” which Laurents feels happened withRope (124-25).

[38] As Laurents observed of the director, it was plain that “he didn’t give a hoot in hell whether I was gay”; what mainly interested Hitchcock was sex generally. “Sex was always on his mind, not ordinary sex, not plain homosexuality any more than plain heterosexuality. Perverse sex, kinky sex, that fascinated him. InRope, not just homosexuals and not just murder but a murder committed by homosexuals for a bizarre reason. He himself didn’t strike me as ever having much sex or even wanting sex. Those cool blonds he was supposedly so mad for—I doubted he wanted them for himself. I thought he wanted to put them with a man sufficiently ambiguous to provoke a perverse situation” [124-25]. In Rope, Hitchcock investigates homosexuality’s allegorical relationship to normative heterosexuality, allegorical because homosexuality, in Hitchcock films, always stands in contrast to sexual normativity as its doppelganger, its distorted mirror image. Pointedly, Hitchcock deploys homosexuality as a reminder to straight culture of its own precarious relationship to a larger perversity that it must always deny, obscure, repress, or otherwise work to circumvent. Perversity in Hitchcock is not merely a matter of “kinky sex,” but rather a realm of desires, affiliations, fears, and energies that have been actively curtailed by culture. In the perversity-minded, endlessly curious realm of the Hitchcock film, homosexuality is afforded a visible and active role within the director’s representation of the ceaseless human efforts to achieve and discover intimacy and sexual connection and release, as well as the methods sought and used, often murderously violent, to assuage the pain incurred by the frequent failure of these efforts.

[39] In his masterly study Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony, Richard Allen has made the best recent case of which I am aware for the non-homophobic quality of Hitchcock’s approach to queer themes. If the model of the heterosexual couple is crucial to Hitchcock’s cinema, “what defines Hitchcock’s presentation of heterosexual romance as an ideal is the manner in which it is entwined with its opposite—human perversity” (11). He contextualizes Hitchcock’s famously perverse humor, his “prankster sensibility and fondness for obscene jokes,” as part of Hitchcock’s playful visual style that functions as “punning displacement of sadistic sexual content that is at once asserted and denied,” “a masculine aesthetic” that illuminates both Hitchcock’s “relationship to male sexual aggression” and to his consistent fascination with homosexuality, which Allen links to the intersection between Hitchcock’s film’s and the cultural afterlife of the Victorian dandy and Oscar Wilde’s indelible real-life performance of this role (65). Allen, in a view that corresponds to my own, makes it clear that Hitchcock is not homophobic. Rather, he seeks to displace perversity into form. “Hitchcock,” Allen writes, “is not concerned to demonize homosexuality. His interest in these characters lies in staging the performance of a gentlemanliness beneath which the darkest secrets are harbored in a manner that renders them alluring and often sympathetic” (128).

[40] In conclusion, Rope clarifies the range of available types that can fall under the title “Hitchcock gentleman.” Anything but gentle though certainly cultivated, Rupert is a new kind of monster, the educated American as moral hypocrite, and an anticipation of a more contemporary kind of menace, the “attack queer” who scores points by vehemently impugning the morals of his or her fellow queers. Ropefurther deepens the theme of queer anguish that runs throughout Hitchcock’s films from The Lodger to the 1964 Marnie (and perhaps beyond). It is this anguish and its connection to the closing off of all queer possibilities—the double determination of Brandon and Philip’s self-annihilation and murder, their self-annihilation through murder, and the social order’s own intentions to annihilate them—that makesRope, ultimately, so plangently queer a film.


I warmly thank Tony Williams for sharing his keen insights regarding Rope with me.

Works Cited

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