Thursday, July 25, 2013

Hitchcock's "Rope" (1948) Apartment: Evil and the Appreciation of Art


This is going to be a brief post, because frankly, there's not to much to say on the matter. But there is something to say, and I'm going to be the one to say it. It concerns the Hitchcock melodrama Rope (1948). Specifically, it concerns the art which hangs in the apartment that serves as the setting of the whole drama that plays out.
Rope is a fascinating, albeit unsettling film. Based on a successful theatrical drama, Rope is often considered to be a loose interpretation of the sensational Leopold and Loeb murder case, which occurred in the 1920s. In Rope, two young "intellectuals," Brandon (played to icy perfection by John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger, who later starred as a hero in another Hitchcock drama, Strangers on a Train) commit the "perfect murder" as an intellectual exercise to prove their intellectual superiority over fellow men. 
The film begins with Brandon and Phillip murdering a young friend, David, with the titular rope. They then hide the body in an antique oak chest and then host a dinner party with their victim's family, friends, and girlfriend. Included in their party is a former teacher, Rupert (James Stewart) who originally introduced Phillip and Brandon to the ideas of Nietzsche, superiority and a detached attitude towards murder. Unfortunately for Phillip and Brandon, they are not as detached as they want to be as they are both greatly mentally unstable (despite their delusions of grandeur), and gradually the truth dawns upon Rupert who is then forced to face a crime that he perhaps inspired. It's fascinating stuff, really, and its relatively short as far as films go, so its worth the time, in my opinion. 
A lovely view of the guests, the coffin, and the magnificent art collection
One thing you notice when you're watching this really fascinating and at times horrifying drama is (besides the obvious fact that Brandon and Phillip are a couple) is that Brandon has a very, I mean very nice apartment. It has a great, open floor-plan, a very devoted and efficient housekeeper, a great living room, and most of all a beautiful, tasteful and varied collection of art. 
Not the Cubist painting in behind Farley Granger
It's by no means as impressive as Ingrid Bergman's art collection in Indiscreet, but it's still worth noting. I personally can't identify any pieces in the collection, but I can tell they're of varied genres and mediums. There's a few I'm going to mention by name and ponder at their significance, and then I'm going to get to the point. 
"a new young American Primitive" 
The first painting I'm going to point out is one that Janet (Joan Chandler) actually points out the prominently hung painting in the midst of the film. Brandon replies that its by a "new young American Primitive." Primitive art is of course, no more than glorified folk art, and is suggestive of earlier, simpler times. Janet, a modern woman, scoffs at the art, making some comment about how her sister could make something better than it. So, here we have a conflict with a modern, but a conventional young woman and a more unconventional man with prehistoric, nonexistent ethics. Brandon, is in fact, the new young American Primitive! Not the painter, but he is a new American primitive. Not a Native American from antiquity. Rather, a morally primitive result of the Atomic age. Granted, this is all pure conjecture, but hear me out. 
Note the pre-Columbian statues in both stills from Rope
This idea of prehistoric ethics that justify unnecessary killing is echoed in the presence of multiple pre-Columbian statuettes throughout the apartment. Perhaps, the inclusion of these statuettes in the apartment is simply to add diversity to the decoration of the apartment. Or perhaps, once again Hitchcock points to the ancient, even barbaric motivations that Brandon and Phillip use to justify their "perfect murder." Interestingly enough, such pre-Columbian statues and artifacts also feature prominently in a later Hitchcock film, Marnie
The supporting women of Rope
There are also three distinct separate works that feature women as subjects. In the hall, there is a tiny modern print of a woman's face. In their magnificent sitting room there is a prominent sketch, perhaps charcoal or pencil, of a woman's face. Finally, in the dining room, there is an abstract, even perhaps cubist painting of a woman. What do these women suggest? To be honest, I don't know!
But more importantly, the presence of all this art is not that surprising at all. Recall what I noted in the North by Northwest post: the Hitchcock villain (or in Hitch's mind, the modern villain) is a sophisticated, oily man, whose charm and breeding are evident in his collection of art. Is such a man trying to force beauty in his life while his soul is devoid of love and grace? Is he trying to compensate for his moral deficiencies? Or is he merely trying to make a statement that he is- get ready for it- superior than the "normal man." I feel this may be the exact point that Hitchcock is making. His villains not only excuse themselves from normal codes of conduct, stooping to some pretty low evils, but are able to mingle in high society (think once more of the James Mason's slick Vandamm). They consider themselves as morally superior, which allows them to commit crimes. More important to their ego, they consider themselves intellectually superior as well, allowing them cultivate and appreciate an art collection. 
The closing scene of Rope
Whatever the point Hitchcock was making, it is clear that he associates art appreciation with evil and superiority, even presumed superiority on the part of the villain. And I must say, for all their moral deficiencies, Brandon and Phillip certainly do have a great eye for art.

2 comments:

  1. This is one of my favorite movies! The change in dynamics between the two lead characters plays out masterfully.

    ReplyDelete
  2. ['Not the Cubist'? caption]
    ['..allowing them cultivate and appreciate an art collection.'?]
    [..allowing them to'?]
    [and the art of the 'continuous shoot']
    [hth]

    ReplyDelete

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