The phrase “Worldviews have consequences” has become something of a mantra for Christian apologists, but perhaps Alfred Hitchcock understood that principle better than most Christians.
Rope is not nearly as well-known as Hitchcock’s other films, such as Psycho or Birds. That’s really a shame, because it’s possibly his most ambitious and experimental work. It is adapted from a play that tells the story of two men who, inspired by a philosopher who pontificates on the moral murder of inferior men by superior men, kill a man, hide him in a trunk, and then proceed to have a dinner party surrounding the dead body in the trunk. The presence of this one prop is the centerpiece of continuing tension, and Hitchcock decided to embody this in a film by attempting to make the film as close to one continuous take as possible. Before Alejandro Inarritu ever got the idea for Birdman, Alfred Hitchcock filmed Rope.
That ambition overextends itself at times. Because of the limits of technology at the time, Hitchcock had to record the movie on ten minute pieces of film, which meant he had to switch them out in the middle of takes. At times this shows during the movie, as the camera makes an award movement behind a chair or an actor so that the blackout isn’t as obvious. This, and the dragging of the film’s second act (the dinner party) are the notable weak points of the film.
But it’s the underlying philosophy and worldview that merits a great deal of discussion. There is no subtext in this film, there is only text – Brandon, the film’s psychopathic mastermind, tells us almost immediately what his grand motivation is. It’s philosophy! Having been inspired by a former teacher’s theories, he has come to believe that beings of superior intellect can morally kill beings of inferior intellect. It would, according to these theories, solve many of the world’s problems, including poverty and, well, traffic.
That’s an important one, that is.
The opening act is so full of Brandon’s pride at pulling off the perfect murder, and his flaunting it with an ironic dinner party, that it’s bound to make viewers highly uncomfortable; horrified, in fact. That’s purposeful. Brandon is, to put it quite simply, a psychopath, who thinks of nothing but himself (something his reluctant partner Phillip brings up later in the film), and takes a great deal of pride in his superiority. When the philosopher himself, Rupert (Jimmy Stewart) shows up to the dinner party, they begin talking in these kinds of theories again, and we find that he still holds to the same horrendous theories – and yet he seems strangely bothered by Brandon’s ferocity in debating the topic.
It’s implicit – though never stated until the film’s climax – that Rupert doesn’t really believe these things in practice. He enjoys having theories that those in his social circles will find shocking, and presents them in a tongue-in-cheek, almost comical way (even though he insists all the while that he is serious), indicating to us that he probably has not thought through what it would look like if someone started actually acting his theories out. But the audience has already, and, as previously noted, the audience is in fact horrified.
(Spoilers are ahead)
But because Rupert is an intelligent man, he senses that something is amiss. He pokes and prods, much to the horror of Phillip, and the delight of Brandon. And when the big reveal finally happens, Rupert does not say “Finally someone understands my theories!” Instead, he says “You’ve made me regret every theory I’ve ever had!” In fact, he recants his theories right there on the spot, and alerts the police. And once he alerts the police, he does not take his station by the door to tell the authorities what has happened. No, instead, he sits in a chair next to the dead body, taking his place among the other two characters as a third perpetrator of the crime, even though he never laid a finger on the poor victim.
Why would he do that? He never killed the man! But the truth is, there is a sense in which he did. His philosophy, the worldview that it created, had consequences. The consequences were murder – the loss of innocent life. The film’s ending is brilliant not only because of Jimmy Stewart’s emotional performance, but also because of how it ties everything together tonally and thematically. The horror that we felt at the beginning of the film is paid off – Brandon’s philosophy is denounced and debunked all at once. The application is unspoken but clear – take care which philosophies you adopt as your own.
The brief overview of Rupert’s way of thinking can hardly be thought a fully-formed philosophy, and for that reason, it is hard to draw connections with real-life counterparts. Certainly the idea of superior versus inferior calls to mind the sort of Darwinistic thought that led to the euthanasia of many groups including the Nazis (who are referenced in the film). But I think we would be making a mistake by assuming the film to be creating a particular condemnation of a particular philosophy. Instead, the point is more broad – examine your own worldview, and consider the consequences. Are they consequences you can live with?
That’s a question that is asked for too seldom in modern secular culture. And it’s a question that Christians ought to be bringing up more. Stories in this vein are exactly the way to go about it.