241. Development (VII)
Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope is a significant attempt to revise Nietzsche for a post-war world. Modelled on a real case—where two upper-class students strangled a young man to demonstrate that they had the will to do it—Rope is a contained piece set in a single apartment. The two main protagonists—Philip and Brandon—are lovers, although, given the sensitivity of the time, this is merely implied. It was usual for Hollywood at the time to cast homosexuals in sinister roles, in this case as two young aesthetes who decide to commit an artistic murder. Brandon is the operation’s mastermind, a thinner and more subtle mind; his lover, Philip, is a pianist on the way up—he does not really have the stomach for murder.
The film opens with the victim—a Harvard chum—choked between the two men; his body falls into a chest. The chest will become central to the story, for Brandon decides to serve dinner—buffet style—from their victim’s grave. The young overmen have planned a dinner party immediately after their act: it is the perfect completion; the guests include their victim’s father and aunt, along with his fiancée and her ex-lover. They will all dine off their loved one’s grave, an artistic final touch to the performance.
Hitchcock maintains the action within a single apartment, so the dramatic tension is carried by dialogue and the possibility that someone might…just might…open the chest beneath the tablecloth and find the body. Hitchcock arranged it so that the entire film appears as a continuous shot, with a few pauses to change reel when doors swing closed. Within the dialogue, we see Nietzsche considered post-war. Brandon has invited his old prep school master—a Nietzschean elitist and provocateur—played by James Stewart to dinner. Stewart is recognisable as a troll: he suggests to the assembled guests that we should simply “bump off” lower types when they get in our way; say, for example, if we want a particular apartment or reservation at an exclusive restaurant.
Stewart is an anti-social elitist who publishes philosophy books: “Big words, no sales,” observes the fiancée, herself a beauty columnist—the mass feminine vulgarian to Stewart’s masculine elitist. Stewart suggests elitist murder to épater la bourgeoisie; he does not realise until the film’s end—when he, after the guests have left, uncovers the murder—that his most apt pupil, Brandon, took him seriously. Stewart’s troll, as with Nietzsche’s provocations, were not taken as a radical aid to thought—not by the National Socialists, or by the queer crime couple—but were seen as a blueprint for action.
The National Socialists are mentioned explicitly and condemned by the victim’s father during Stewart’s repartee as regards his scheme for elitist murder. “The Nazis were stupid boors! I’d hang the lot of them,” says Brandon, “but I’d kill them first for being stupid!” Nietzschean attitude: Hitler is wrong, not for cruelty but for stupidity—he killed intelligent and sensitive people, and he lost as well; no pity for the loser. At the film’s end, Stewart stands in for Nietzsche—Nietzsche as he would be conceptualised after the war—and says to his pupil: “You’ve taken my words and twisted them! You’ve given them a complexion I could never imagine!” This is a commentary on Nietzsche after Nazism; it is also how he would be rehabilitated, in a revisionist way, after the war: Nietzsche was a provocateur, not to be taken seriously, and what is imagined as elitist cruelty in him was a malevolent misinterpretation by his pupils.
We began to make Nietzsche “safe” as soon as the war was over. It was only perverted homosexuals—the Nazis and Hitchcock’s killers are united in their homoeroticism—who took Nietzsche literally; in post-war America homosexuality was still taken to be comorbid with other perverse attitudes, even in philosophy. Decent Midwestern college professors—such as James Stewart, surely Hollywood’s archetype of decency—understood better. Rope was Hitchcock’s contribution to this revisionist reading of Nietzsche.