In the late 1940s the writer subsequently chosen by a worldwide panel of performers, writers and producers as the greatest dramatist of the century, Arthur Miller, found himself in an ancient Greek theatre in Siracusa, ruefully turning over thoughts on tragic matters:

I made my way down the stone tiers of that vast, vine-grown, sun-blasted amphitheatre chiselled out of the mountain, and at last stood on the rock stage that ended with a sheer drop to the blue sea just behind it and the arch of sky overhead. I felt something close to shame at how suffocatingly private our theatre had become, how impoverished by a psychology that was no longer involved with the universalities of fate. Was it possible that fourteen thousand people had sat facing the spot on which I stood? Hard to grasp how the tragedies could have been written for such massive crowds when in our time the mass audience all but demanded vulgarization. If the plays were not actually part of religious observances, it is hard to imagine what it was that fenced them off from the ordinary vulgarity of most human diversions. (1)

What indeed could ‘fence them off’, and in irreligious and vulgar times, how might tragedies still be written for, and find, such massive crowds? The question must have perplexed Arthur Miller, and yet within a few years of these reflections he had gone on to write The Death of a Salesman, suggesting that ways could be found to reconcile the competing claims of the muse and the marketplace.

If Miller’s, and ours, is an irreligious age, it is curious that the general notion of tragedy still appears to retain a sense of engagement between the human and the divine, if only because we understand it to tell of suffering so unremitting that it seems to disclose a kind of metaphysical malevolence in the affairs of men and women. No doubt therein lies the power of the story of the Passion of Christ, which reverses this tragic scenario point by point, and perhaps that is why Shakespeare chose to set King Lear, his only English tragedy, in pre-Christian times. In Act IV of that play, in one of the most famous utterances in all of tragic literature, the blinded Gloucester cries: ‘As flies to wantons boy are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’ It is an appallingly bleak vision of the human condition in a play rather notable for such visions: its language echoes with malediction, its action is one of impulsive and catastrophic strife, and it is set against a background of hostile and turbulent nature, warring nations, and violent, internecine families. Its central image is of the mad, the outcast and the blind huddling together on a blasted heath in the midst of a furious thunderstorm, at which point the mad king, looking upon what he takes to be a naked, forsaken and crazy wretch, declares:

Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. (III, iv)

Lear’s vision of ‘unaccommodated man’ – ‘no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal’, utterly defenceless against a fate that resembles the capricious violence of wanton boys torturing insects – seems somehow fundamental to the kind of revelation we expect from the experience of tragedy.

Whether such a chilling vision of the human condition is a good thing or a bad thing for audiences to witness is a question that has exercised moral arbiters at least since Plato. And for the most part societies and, indeed, entire cultures have disapproved of that kind of story which offers an unalleviated picture of human forsakenness. It is entirely unknown outside the Western literary tradition and even in the West there have been few historical moments at which it has flourished unhindered, the Christian ethos alone working strongly against it. For great stretches of time tragedy meant no more than a sad story or one that told of an ironic and sorrowful change of fortune, but these conceptions did not necessarily preclude a favourable change of fortune at the conclusion of the play. Even during the Greek classical period there is strong evidence of contemporaneous resistance to, and outright opposition to, tragedy of the remorseless, catastrophic kind. In The Poetics Aristotle sets out the conventions of classical tragedy and notes, in Chapter 13, that the best kind of tragedy is one in which unremitting horror befalls the hapless protagonist, as occurs in what appears to have been his favourite play, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Yet in Chapter 14 he argues that the best kind of tragedy is one in which the catastrophe is strongly foreshadowed but ultimately avoided through the protagonist’s realisation of error. From classical times, too, we have the phrase ‘deus ex machina’ to describe those dramas in which a hideously direful circumstance is abruptly set to rights through the intercession of some benevolent god or other. A similar ambivalence is evident in the Renaissance sensibility. At about the same time Shakespeare was writing King Lear, Monteverdi was inventing modern opera by putting the finishing touches to his innovative melodic drama, Orfeo; but both Monteverdi and the Mantuan authorities felt that a tale ending in loss and ghastly horror such as the story of Orpheus was inappropriate and potentially offensive to the sensibilities of the local aristocracy, so he altered it to a happy ending: Eurydice wasn’t consigned to the depths of the underworld, Orpheus wasn’t torn apart by Thracian women, and we had the origins of our modern term ‘melodramatic’. The full force of tragedy was thus resisted, and yet at the same time on the other side of the Western world Shakespeare was busily changing the ending of King Lear to make it even more miserable, because according to the chronicles Cordelia survived the civil war and Lear lived with her for a further six years until his death (little wonder that Shakespeare teases the audience with the idea, repeatedly entertained by her frantic father, that she still breathes).

The conclusion of King Lear was subsequently re-written again, this time with a happy ending, by Nahum Tate in the late 1600s. Tate wrote in accordance with the Neo-Classical doctrine of ‘poetic justice’, an ideological imperative which weighed heavily upon aesthetic principles of plot construction, character figuration, and the fundamental metaphoricity of the text. For it was not simply the horror of tragedy that caused distress; it was also the air of injustice or, at best, of pitiless arbitrariness that threatened not only the emotional composure of the audience but also the social and religious and political composure of the state. When Oedipus sins against the gods by his long incestuous marriage with his mother he is totally unaware of his fault; true, his hubris heightens and accentuates whatever culpability belongs to him, but this is minimal compared to the consequences he, and Thebes, suffer. Similarly, in the midst of his catastrophic decline Lear cries out ‘I am more sinned against than sinning’, and any audience would acknowledge the truth of this.

If tragedy shows the recurrent playing out of such arbitrary and seemingly mischievous or ironically malevolent patterns in human affairs, then it exposes the audience to a view of the human condition that profoundly interrogates the comfortable securities of their personal and social lives. Scholars might variously attempt to aestheticise the sensational and even pathological morbidity of these kinds of narratives, as Aristotle did with the idea of ‘catharsis’ (2), but there have been times when other authorities have deemed it necessary to step in and take these textual matters in hand. The Neo-Classical period was one such time when, as a consequence of moral complaints about the stage from social critics, not philosophers, the doctrine of ‘poetic justice’ was propagated. Certainly this doctrine was decried at the time by some (3), but it held sway sufficiently for Tate’s happily ending King Lear to be performed for 150 years; indeed, when the greatest scholar of the age, Dr Johnson, came to edit his edition of Shakespeare in the mid-18th century he was horrified to learn that Cordelia died in Shakespeare’s original version.

Tragedy, then, is not a universal form; moreover, that form has been modified and transformed over the years from pressures both aesthetic and non-aesthetic; and these pressures have arisen in part from a concern that audiences exposed to this sort of drama will be adversely affected by it. Insofar as this is an institutional concern voiced variously by social or political or religious authorities, this represents an ideological anxiety over the potentially subversive effects of narratives that fail to confirm and give meaning to the organisational fabric of social reality in which the text takes place. Such anxieties are likely to be more intense at certain historical periods than at others, and many commentators have noted the decline of tragedy over the last hundred years, often citing the politicised character of modernity as a reason for this. On the one hand modern social formations – from benevolent panopticonic to disciplinary totalitarian – led to exponential increases in the supervision of the citizenry and the regulation of cultural product. On the other hand the growth of mass politics implied a growing belief in political solutions to human problems, and that belief is fundamentally at odds with the tragic view. In The Death of Tragedy, George Steiner puts it this way:

George Steiner

I believe that any realistic notion of tragic drama must start from the fact of catastrophe. Tragedies end badly. The tragic personage is broken by forces which can neither be fully understood nor overcome by rational prudence. This again is crucial. Where the causes of disaster are temporal, where the conflict can be resolved through technical or social means, we may have serious drama, but not tragedy. More pliant divorce laws could not alter the fate of Agamemmnon; social psychiatry is no answer to Oedipus. But saner economic relations or better plumbing can resolve some of the grave crises in the dramas of Ibsen. The distinction should be borne sharply in mind. Tragedy is irreparable. (4)

To the mind of modern politics nothing can be imagined as irreparable. Yet that, according to Steiner, is the condition of true tragedy, and because it is irreparable tragedy might strike at any time, perhaps from the smallest incident – part of the horror of tragedy is that it might happen again. And when tragic circumstances do occur, or recur, and the destiny of some character is pitilessly swept up into the tragic vortex, then he or she, although sacrificed to the experience – or by virtue of that sacrifice – is seen to attain a certain grandeur. Out of this is born a Romantic reverence for the sublime victim of tragic fate, an attitude summed up best, perhaps, by William Butler Yeats in the ‘Introduction’ to his edition of The Oxford Book of Poetry. Yeats refused to include in his edition any of the great poems written during the First World War, explaining sniffily:

In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems for the … reason that … passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic Chorus danced.

One might want to take issue with Yeats’ view that ‘tragedy is a joy to the man who dies’, since there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of empirical evidence in support of it; but it is this romanticised sense of the tragic which post-modern commentators especially have found most repugnant and which highlights a further obstacle to the creation of tragedy in the modern era. Alain Robbe-Grillet claimed that the effect of tragedy was to raise ‘suffering to the height of a sublime necessity.’ Consequently, he argued,

if it consoles us today, [tragedy] forbids any solider conquest tomorrow. Under the appearance of a perpetual motion, it actually petrifies the universe in a sonorous malediction. There can no longer be any question of seeking some remedy for our misfortune, once tragedy convinces us to love it. (5)

So if, on the one hand, institutional authority is hostile to tragedy as a form – especially in the era of mass politics – that hostility is mirrored in much 20th century literary theory which itself has become highly politicised. For critics such as Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes, tragedy represents a kind of fetishisation of anguish and a false universalising of the ‘human condition’– for them the ‘human’ is understood as a fundamentally social, not a metaphysical, condition, and as such essentially contingent, variable from place to place, time to time, regime to regime. This understanding is predicated upon modern conceptions of human subjectivity which tend to see the individual as a function of material circumstance and thus precluded from the degree of free will and responsibility implicit in the figurations and narrative designs of classical tragedy. By the mid twentieth century, then, it is possible to recognise an historical convergence of intellectual and demotic interests, of politically orthodox and politically avant-garde views, in a climate of thought fundamentally inimical to the tragic sense. And no doubt it was this climate that so disturbed the air of Arthur Miller’s reflections at Siracusa.

Theodore Dreiser

Yet how much more dense that atmosphere must have seemed around smoggy Los Angeles in the 1940s, the hub of the global movie industry. Because the sorts of forces that work to stifle tragedy would become all the more concentrated and purposeful with the arrival of a truly mass medium like cinema, particularly as this arrival coincided with the global rise of those political formations for which the administrative management of the civil subject was a specific concern. And in the land where modern mass politics was effectively invented, the Republic of the United States, dedicated to the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and dedicated to an ideology of social perfectibility through individualism in a world of free enterprise, the tragic vision was likely to be especially suspicious and any reflection upon the tragedy of American life was likely to be read less as a detached aesthetic speculation and more as an instance of political dissent. Indeed, by the end of the 1920s the United States authorities were taking an excessive interest in the affairs of Hollywood and its cultural products, to the extent that a Production Code Authority was established to monitor the acceptability of that product in a wide range of areas. The focal point for this surveillance was certainly sex – Hollywood of the ’20s was perceived by the country at large as a Babylon of exotic and perverse sensuality, evoking responses ranging from conservative repugnance to envious fascination – and as a consequence the Hollywood product was sexually sanitised in the ensuing years (6). But further, the PCA was authorised to monitor the political and social content of films as well, and in particular to impose what was effectively a doctrine of poetic justice on the construction of all movie narratives. In 1931 Theodore Dreiser was sufficiently outraged at the cinematic bowdlerisation of his novel – entitled, appropriately enough, An American Tragedy – to take the producers to court, complaining specifically that the fundamental tragic component of his narrative had been removed. By failing to create ‘the inevitability of circumstances influencing Clyde, a not evil hearted boy,’ Dreiser argued, the producers had ‘reduced the psychology of the book so as to make it a cheap murder story.’ It was the court’s judgment, however, that:

In the preparation of the picture the producer must give consideration to the fact that the great majority of the people composing the audience before which the picture will be presented, will be more interested that justice prevail over wrong-doing than that the inevitability of Clyde’s end clearly appear.

‘Such being the case, that spells the end of art, doesn’t it?’ Dreiser scornfully observed (7).

Today we have moved a long way from the crass authoritarian tactics of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, but it is worth noting that the narrative paradigms of cinema that emerged then still have force today, and that the smart money still avoids the downbeat and chases the happy ending, knowing that the returns on a fairytale like Pretty Woman will far exceed the paltry box office of the harrowing A Woman Under the Influence. So the question arises, what happens to the tragic impulse in such circumstances? Can there be a popular cinema that is also a tragic cinema? The time, and the medium, seem out of joint for such productions. And yet during the period in which the PCA still held sway, and at a time when the mind of the republic was narrowing itself into the ideological rigidities of the Cold War, certain films were produced which seem in one way or another to evoke the tragic spirit, and even specific tragic dramas, through aspects of mood, structure, and, at times, textual citation. In film noir, for example, we have intimations of a cinema that at least has tragic pretensions, and in such moody westerns as Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947) or Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950) tragic patterns from classical times were clearly being explored. But much more interesting from this aspect is a stylised thriller that appears intent not simply on evoking tragic form in general, but evoking one tragic text in particular: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).

Rope was the first film in which Hitchcock had relatively unrestricted creative control and he made good use of that freedom, choosing to experiment in a particular stylistic manner which had the effect of foregrounding certain conventions of classical tragedy, thereby signalling a textual intention to affiliate itself with that form for one reason or another. This stylistic experiment – for which the film is notorious – is the continuous take: that is, most of the shots in the picture run for the full length of the projected reel (approximately ten minutes) and so all of the ‘editing’ of the film, with the exception of five clear cuts, actually takes place through a combination of choreographic movement of the actors and pre-planned, extensive dollies, pans, and zooms by the camera. Occasionally someone’s back gets in the way of a pan and the camera focuses unduly upon it, allowing the operators to change the film in the camera ‘invisibly’, without the audience seeing the cut, and the continuous take proceeds. The effect of this is to heighten the claustrophobic atmosphere of the drama while the camera inquires into the visual space of the scene with the same analytical intent as an astute onlooker, such as the inquisitive protagonist Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart), and so positions the audience in a Rupert-like position with respect to the action. Because the continuous take does not allow for ellipses of any kind screen time becomes equivalent to real time and the action of Rope unfolds breathlessly in the single space of the murderers’ penthouse, an effect wittily underscored by such reflexive devices as having Philip (Farley Granger) play the one tune over and over throughout: Poulenc’s ‘Perpetual Motion #1’. In this way cinematographic style accentuates the conventions of unity of place, time and action which governed classical drama and which were famously elaborated by Aristotle in The Poetics.

These conventions are best exemplified in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, a play which opens at a late moment in a particular narrative sequence which we come to know about retrospectively through characters being called upon to tell what they know of the narrative past – the same sort of retrospective narration which occurs in the dialogue of Rope. The effect of this is to gain maximum dramatic intensity as Sophocles focuses on a single action in a single time in a single place (the steps of the palace) as Oedipus’ life unravels before him and he confronts his tragic destiny. The action of this climactic event is occasioned by Oedipus’ efforts to discover the cause of the plague that besets Thebes but as his inquiry proceeds it becomes more and more clear that he is the unknowing cause, although in his pride he refuses to admit this until catastrophe forces him to recognise the truth about himself.

The story of Oedipus is one that was well known even before Sophocles came to write it down; it has subsequently occupied a central place in the Western imagination, acting as archetypal pattern and gathering into itself the speculative reflections of generations of Western thinkers. Yet it is not its mythic or archetypical character but rather Sophocles’ fashioning of this that gives the Oedipus story its true tragic stature: the well-known story becomes the stuff of tragedy in his hands. Indeed, as Sophocles has written it, Oedipus Rex is the exemplary classical tragedy, all of the essential elements of which are precisely figured within it: within the real time of the drama we see the most high, afflicted with hubris, brought most low; we see dramatic changes of fortune (peripeteia) work upon an anguished Oedipus, drawing him ever closer to the truth; and finally we see the tormented figure of Oedipus come to recognise that truth in a classical moment of anagnorisis. What vivifies these elements, however, is the central operation of a pervasive and fundamental irony. To avoid the prophecy of Apollo Oedipus flees what he believes to be his family home in Corinth and unknowingly fulfils that prophecy by killing his father and marrying his mother. In fierce malediction he curses the murderer of the late king, and so unknowingly damns himself: ‘it is my solemn prayer,’ he says,

That the unknown murderer and his accomplices,
If such there be, may wear the brand of shame
For their shameful act, unfriended, to their life’s end.
Nor do I exempt myself from the imprecation:
If, with my knowledge, house or hearth of mine
Receive the guilty man, upon my head
Lie all the curses I have laid on others.

The ironies multiply as the play proceeds. Oedipus initiates an inquiry to find the man responsible for the pestilence that besets Thebes and unknowingly sets in train his own ruin. He rejects the insight of the blind prophet, Tieresias, and ultimately blinds himself when he realises the truth, because blindness has ironically become the only means of seeing and knowing.


I want to suggest that it is Sophocles’ telling of the Oedipus story that acts as a kind of subtext to Rope and is consistently evoked by Hitchcock’s filmcraft. Doubtless it could be objected that Rope is self-evidently modelled on an earlier play, but not this one. Rather, it is a filming of Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 stage play Rope (also known as Rope’s End). True, but I would want to make two points. First, the filming of a play is not a ‘cinematization’ of it; it is, rather, the creation of another text. This is the case even when twenty eventful years do not separate the two and inflect the content anew, as occurred in this instance and about which I will have more to say later. And second, in working up the film treatment of Hamilton’s play Hitchcock and Hume Cronyn made substantial changes, all of which drew upon and accentuated this inflection, effectively detaching the text from its 1920s Mayfair-thriller origins and writing it again as a text powerfully of its time and place, and yet deeply evocative of Sophocles’ ancient drama. It could further be objected that the Oedipus story exists as an archetype within the Western imagination and that the film thus merely instances another variation of an archetypal story – moreover one which, it has been argued, ‘is the masterplot of all Hollywood narratives’ (8). Maybe, but my point here is not to read the film archetypally or psychoanalytically (9) but rather to make something of Hitchcock’s exorbitant technical experiment – which so clearly appears to evoke classical dramaturgy – and by so doing to speculate upon the place and form of tragedy in popular cinema.

Taking a cue from cinematic style, then, it is worth noting the degree of Sophoclean irony that permeates the film. “I tried to do verbally what Hitch wanted to do visually,” said screenwriter Arthur Laurents,

which is to inject words or word pictures that would make the audience aware of the double meaning to almost everything that was going on. (10)

Irony implies a knowing and an unknowing: in ironic speech two things are said simultaneously, one explicitly, the other implicitly. If the statement is taken in its literal sense the irony is lost; if it is taken in its ironic sense, both meanings function. When Oedipus curses the murderer of the late king he understands only the literal sense of his words; we the audience understand both senses and are thus put in a position of knowing with respect to the unknowing Oedipus. The central feature of tragic irony is that, at least within the world of the play, the implied knower exists only at the level of divinity or fate (the play flatters us in this respect because it positions us at that level since we know the story before it unfolds) – for mortals to arrive at such knowledge involves unendurable suffering, which the audience is obliged to witness in payment for its knowledge. Such pervasive irony operates throughout Hitchcock’s film from the opening moments when we are provided with a knowledge that will be withheld from all of the other characters (except for the murderers themselves). This was a knowledge which Arthur Laurents, for one, did not want the audience to have; he felt that viewers should have the option of suspecting that the trunk was empty. Hitchcock, however, insisted upon a knowing audience, opening with the scene of murder itself and thus heightening the ironies of dialogue and situation that surround the murderers themselves and the body in the trunk. At times such ironies become positively Attic, as when Mrs Atwater (Constance Collier), in sibylline style, predicts of Philip: ‘These hands will bring you great fame.’ (11)

This knowingness of Hitchcock’s audience is compounded by a historical knowledge which further distances this play from its drawing-room origins and positions its audience in a way that recalls that of Greek classical tragedy. Claiming to have been uninfluenced by the notorious Leopold-Loeb thrill-killing, Hamilton wrote in a preface to the play:

It has been said that I have founded ‘Rope’ on a murder which was committed in America some years ago. But this is not so since I cannot recall this crime having ever properly reached my consciousness until after ‘Rope’ was written and people began to tell me of it. But then, I am not interested in crime. (12)

Hitchcock, on the other hand, was deeply interested in crime and the criminal sensibility, which he explores here with marked cinematic fascination. And by relocating the film in a wealthy American milieu he is able to draw on an equivalent audience fascination with criminality – the sort of appetite that would bring them to thrillers of this kind – ensuring the connection would be drawn between the murder here and the upper-class scandal of the 1920s. The effect of this is to confer an ‘Americanness’ on the crime that will be crucial to the overall significance of the text.

A similar irony figures in the character of Rupert Cadell because he assumes a knowingness that he refuses to grant others. He is a bookish man, an ivory tower sort, a confirmed bachelor who mixes with the hoi polloi on his terms – that is, to the extent that he takes a self-serving pleasure from it. He is also, like Oedipus, a solver of riddles. He relishes talking about the art of murder and the elimination of the inferior, obviously taking a perverse pleasure in scandalising the company; but when asked if he is being ironic about his murderous theories he replies, with further irony, that he isn’t. He then smiles wryly as Brandon (John Dall) literalises this irony, removes from it all of the ambiguity which Rupert privately enjoys, and forges it into a blunt conceptual instrument. When challenged that these are the sorts of views associated with the brutal eugenic literalism of a Hitler, Brandon replies that he would have killed him first, when, of course, under Hitler, Brandon would have been the first to have a literal brand on, that is, the triangular badge of homosexuality, just as the man he killed, David, the Jewish name for ‘beloved’, would in all probability have worn the star that bears his name, and both would have been eliminated (13).


If incest is the unspeakable sin in Oedipus Rex, the sin in Rope is ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. The ‘boys’, Brandon and Philip, have a picture of Oscar Wilde on their wall as if to remind them to keep silent. Like Oedipus, Rupert has had a corrupting effect on his milieu, expressed on the one hand as the infection of a murderous irony which Brandon and Philip literalise, expressed on the other hand as a decadent homosociality – he was the boy’s master at their privileged private school, he has tutored them in his theories of superiority and inferiority, and, it is implied, he has unknowingly corrupted the boys into what is represented here as the pathology of homosexuality. Together, these effects have so worked on them that they commit homoeroticised murder. And this is the most significant of all of Hitchcock’s subtle changes to the original play, for in Hamilton’s text Rupert was an old school friend of Brandon’s who, despite an air of moral decadence, bears no responsibility for the crime; Hitchock’s Rupert, on the other hand, has blood on his hands, a fact the film bluntly metaphorises during Rupert’s final struggle with Philip.

In its opening shot the film begins by looking down at the demos, the people, in which a benevolent institutional authority presides: a policeman assists young children in their potentially dangerous passage across the road (a metaphor for any journey, physical, psychological, or spiritual that any citizen of this world might take). The camera then pans up to the regal heights of the penthouse, a lofty place of privilege and, as it turns out, perversion, because any departure from the norm in late ’40s America would have been read as deviant pathology. Thus homosexuality will be immediately correlated with homicide, but to discover this we have to draw the curtain – which Hitchcock literally enacts before us as the window curtain is pulled back – and let the drama unfold, beginning with the abrupt climax of David’s murder followed by a dialogue laden with post-coital punning as Brandon and Philip smoke in the afterglow of the event. It is this correlation of homoeroticism, homicide, homosociality, and aristocratic privilege, that sets the scene for the Oedipal narrative that is about to take place in the claustrophobic and darkening space of Brandon’s penthouse. Reading this text through Oedipus Rex, however, the essential point of incidence between the two is that the inquisitive protagonist is unknowingly responsible for the wrong he sets out to right, so Rupert Cadell becomes a kind of Oedipal detective, a process which culminates in his shocked recognition – his anagnorisis – at the end of the film when he declares:

Rupert: Brandon, till this very moment this world and the people in it have always been dark and incomprehensible to me and I’ve tried to clear my way with logic and superior intellect. And you’ve thrown my words right back in my face, Brandon. You were right to, if nothing else a man should stand by his words. But you’ve given my words a meaning that I never dreamed of, and you’ve tried to twist them into a cold, logical excuse for your ugly murder! Well, they never were that, Brandon, and you can’t make them that … tonight you’ve made me ashamed of every concept I ever had of superior or inferior beings. But I thank you for that shame, because now I know that we’re each of us a separate human being, Brandon, with the right to live and work and think as individuals, but with an obligation to the society that we live in.

Such a recognition can only be shocking to Rupert because of the hubris which previously blinded him; and what it blinded him to was precisely itself – it was, so to speak, a self-disguising characteristic because the one thing Rupert’s starkly superior sense of self refuses to recognise is precisely the human failing, the pride, in which it consists.

And yet Rupert’s real transgression is his Oedipal failure to know himself and his place in a supposedly egalitarian, democratic society (14). Moreover his aristocratic removal from the earthly level of the street to the empyrean heights of wealthy abstraction and ivory towerdom reveals a deep tear in the democratic fabric of the nation, which in Rupert’s case has been clumsily stitched over by his participation in the defence of the realm (WW2) against the very totalitarian values which he here ironically espouses. But the irony in any case does not cut too deep, because there is no doubt that – even if he could not bring himself to murder those he perceives as inferior – Rupert Cadell nevertheless clearly does consider himself a cut above; even above those whom he initiates into his own value system through the long, decadent nights of the private school boys’ club over which he presided.

Rope came out at a time when questions of ‘unAmericanism’ were becoming deeply concerning to the moguls of Hollywood as the whole political question of what was and wasn’t ‘American’, by which was meant a moral value, was being put to the nation as a whole (explicitly, of course, through the institutional forum of the House Unamerican Activities Committee). Within the overall ideological schema of this text what protects Rupert from recognising the deep ‘unAmericanism’ of his thinking and feeling is the very thing that allows him to blithely disavow complicity in anything unAmerican: that is, his participation in the recent war against the ‘unAmerican’ – the Fascists, the Nazis. Having fought against totalitarian theories of social inequality and policies of the final solution, Rupert is unable to recognise what he shares with them since he defines himself against them (15). For this reason Rupert’s war wound acquires an ironic significance: he was wounded in the leg and this wound functions as the badge of honour which represents his maturing into an acceptable homosocial world, the army, which fights for American values; but insofar as it functions in this way this same wound is also the cover for Rupert’s deeply unAmerican values and in this sense it bears the mark of Oedipus (a name which literally means swollen-footed, because Oedipus was wounded in the feet as a baby). As such, the leg wound confirms Rupert’s connection to – and even patriarchal responsibility for – the unacceptable homosocial world of Brandon and Philip, a world of perverse sexuality, of aristocratic ideology, and totalitarian eugenics (16).

In literalising his hubristic theories on the art of murder Rupert claims Brandon gave his words ‘a meaning I never dreamed of’. One doesn’t dream the obvious, but how could Rupert fail to see it? The answer is that only someone fixated on the ironic could fail to see the literal. In the same way, it could be said that only a country fixated on its Americanness could fail to see its own unAmericanness, only a country aglow in its victory over political evil and fixated by its moral superiority could fail to see its own inequities, its own complicity with the very values it thought it had battled against – which in Brandon’s penthouse are specifically identified with inequities of wealth and gender (17). And if that is the case – if this film can be read as an exposure of the dynamics of inequity in a social system based supposedly upon the constitutive principles of democratic equality – then this classically organised and extravagantly artful thriller might come to be seen as much more darkly ironic than it had originally appeared.

If Rope is a tragedy, then I think the authorities were right to be concerned, for this film confirms that the medium of tragedy can be a powerful vehicle for political dissent. But this is not tragedy as we have come to understand it in the literary tradition. Most notably, although it appropriates tragic stylings, Rope refuses to offer a traditional tragic protagonist and thus refuses to offer the sublimity of sacrifice, but by so doing it raises the pitch of irony to an almost intolerable level. Unlike Oedipus wandering blindly into exile Rupert Cadell remains on screen, a contradictory figure, both tragic transgressor and instrument of justice, and through him and the violence that surrounds him we read the tragic fate not of the individual but of the social. This is particularly marked in Rupert’s final appeal to the state and its laws in order to judge and damn Brandon and Philip – a disquieting act of personal exculpation in which he identifies himself with the republic – which Stewart delivers with a peculiarly shrill glee:

Brandon: What are you going to do?
Rupert: It’s not what I’m going to do, Brandon, it’s what society’s going to do. I don’t know what that’ll be, but I can guess, and I can help! You’re going to die, Brandon! Both of you! You’re going to die.


We are – or should be – deeply disappointed in and suspicious of this hubristic Nietzschean orator who takes refuge in the values of the community he had earlier scorned, refusing to see the blood on his hands (which Rupert literally receives in a skirmish over a gun immediately prior to this speech). A wilful blindness providing no insight brings this drama to its disturbing conclusion, but Rupert’s hysterical refusal to acknowledge his implication in any crime is a reflection of the pride of a culture which refuses to acknowledge its own contradictions. So the personal is the cultural, the cultural is the personal.

Yet perhaps the deepest irony of the film is that the audience is seemingly invited to share this ignorance with Rupert as his denial of complicity is coordinated with a narrative trajectory that fashions him as hero. A distinguishing feature of many of Hitchcock’s more interesting films is the way in which he explores the limits of audience empathy with characters narratively, but falsely, placed within the situation of criminality. While this might be light-hearted in the double-chase structured films – The 39 Steps (1935), Saboteur (1942), North By Northwest (1959) – where empathy is created for the central character at the expense of respect for institutional authority, in darker movies such as The Wrong Man (1956) this is taken to an almost dangerous pitch. It is a short leap to creating empathy for the actual criminal, as in this film where the moral and aesthetic sensibilities of the audience are played off against one another, most intensely in the notorious trunk-clearing scene. Here audience interest is focused, like the camera, on the inert object of the trunk while off-screen dialogue continues and the maid methodically clears away the remains of the dinner party, threatening to disclose the secret within. Desire for the narrative to continue baffles the moral necessity for evil to be punished, and we find ourselves poised between moral and aesthetic alternatives in the suspense of the narrative moment. This is simply the most intense example of this kind of dissociated response which Hitchcock seems capable of drawing effortlessly from audiences, but by the end of this film its effect has been stretched to breaking point. At the conclusion – as Rupert flings open the window, apparently letting the cool, clean air of a robust society into the pale and cloistered atmosphere of the penthouse – the moral sense of the audience, released from a sense of complicity (even if only aesthetic) with the actual murderers, may relax into collusion with Rupert’s self-denial and be reassured by the false resolution, thus rehearsing cinematically a habit of mind which would assume far more dangerous proportions outside the theatre.

Between the 1920s Mayfair thriller and the 1948 cinematic experiment falls the shadow of genocide – the tragedy of an era; and all of Hitchcock’s efforts here seem directed towards exploring with unprecedented cinematic intensity the rationale of the totalitarian temper that might precipitate such a horror within the interactions and sensibilities of these representative characters. By wilfully incorporating classical elements into its textual design and by seemingly citing that text which stands as exemplary of and model for ancient tragic drama, Hitchcock’s Rope might even be signalling an intent to fashion a new kind of tragedy – a republican tragedy, for want of a better term, a deeply ironic form appropriate to a mass medium in an age of mass politics. When destiny is fashioned not only by individual choice but also by cultural environment – a cultural environment which has itself been fashioned by collective human choice through the action of democracy – then the plight of the individual becomes less a representation of the human condition than it is a reflection of the state of the union. In this sense it is not the protagonist about whom the tragedy revolves but the citizen, and what is revealed is not the divine but the social. Rope takes its point of departure from irrational springs of violence within human personality, but these are seen to be nurtured by the privileges a materialistic society produces, by the masculinist values it propagates, and by the hubris that attaches not only to the individual but to the culture itself. Moreover, the tragic effects of such instinctive violence and pride will recur because the fallibility of the institutional structure of the state is rooted in recurrent human fallibility.

Presumably it was the irony that allowed this disquieting and sardonic film to pass itself off as a routine thriller, getting it past the authorities at precisely the time the mind-numbing Right was establishing its ideological dominance in early Cold War America. For the effect of this irony was to disclose the self-deluding nature of the relation then being forged between a narrowing sense of Americanness and a blinkered sense of righteousness, within which the flawed Rupert Cadell effectively takes refuge at the end of the film. It is the excessive and problematic nature of this irony that suggests that it is unlikely that tragedy, in the sense in which we have come to understand it within the literary tradition, will flourish at the movies. Yet Hitchcock’s great achievement in Rope is to show that the popular cinema can explore tragic form and content by stealth, by what Martin Scorsese has called ‘smuggling’ (18), and by so doing can enable us to escape ‘the ordinary vulgarity of most human diversions’ in a medium which Arthur Miller feared was capable only of miring us the more deeply in it.

This article was refereed.


  1. Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life (London, 1987), p. 175
  2. See Sheila Murnaghan, ‘Sucking the Juice Without Biting the Rind: Aristotle and Tragic Mimesis.’ New Literary History, 26.4 (1995), pp.755-773
  3. The critic and tragedian Addison, for example, in The Spectator of April, 1711, wrote:

    English writers of tragedy are possessed with a notion, that when they represent a virtuous or innocent person in distress, they ought not to leave him till they have delivered him out of his troubles, or made him triumph over his enemies. This error they have been led into by a ridiculous doctrine in modern criticism, that they are obliged to an equal distribution of rewards and punishments, and an impartial execution of poetical justice. Who were the first to establish this rule I know not; but I am sure it has no foundation in nature, in reason, or in the practice of the ancients.

  4. Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel, trans. Richard Howard (New York, 1965) p.61
  5. This was the period that saw the introduction of twin beds into the American bedroom as young marrieds aped the decor of Hollywood-style domesticity in which birth was a blessed event but sex clearly never took place. One can imagine the difficulty an eager young producer like Joe Sophocles might have had getting his story of incest, corruption, suicide and mutilation filmed in this sort of climate.
  6. See Ian Hamilton, Writers in Hollywood 1915-1951 (New York, 1990), p. 55
  7. Raymond Bellour; cited in Gabbard, Krin and Glen O. Gabbard, M.D. “Play It Again, Sigmund: Psychoanalysis and the Classical Hollywood Text.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 18 (1990): 7
  8. Those with a keener psychoanalytic bent should refer to D.A.Miller’s lively article ‘Anal Rape’ in Diana Fuss (ed.), Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (New York, London: 1991), pp. 119-141
  9. Spoken to camera in Laurent Bouzereau’s Rope Unleashed (2000). Arthur Laurents wrote the dialogue only, having been given the treatment, and appropriate instructions, from Hitchcock and Cronyn.
  10. Mrs Atwater and her soothsaying powers are a wonderful invention for the film, the stage equivalent, Mrs Debenham, being a largely wordless non-entity.
  11. Patrick Hamilton, Rope: A Play; with a Preface on Thrillers (London; 1929), p. ix
  12. It is appropriate to note that while the Brandon of Hamilton’s play refers to Nietzsche in extenuation of his crime, the invocation of Nietzsche – and Hitler – here, in 1948, have an utterly different significance, which is underscored by Hitchcock’s altering the victim’s name from ‘Ronald’ to ‘David’. The metaphorical significance of the name ‘Brandon’ was purely serendipitous – little wonder Hitchcock didn’t change it, as he did for Philip (Granillo), Mr Kentley (Sir Johnstone), Mrs Atwater (Mrs Debenham), Kenneth (Raglan), Janet (Leila), and even Mrs Wilson (originally a French butler, Sabot).
  13. A meaningless transgression, it need hardly be noted, in the approved aristocratic atmosphere of Patrick Hamilton’s play.
  14. The casting of Jimmy Stewart – accessing a screen persona that included both Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) as well as a personal history that included distinguished service in WW2 – is especially arch in this respect. Hitchcock, of course, would return to explore Stewart’s screen persona with equal intensity in such films as Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958).
  15. Rupert inherits the wound from his stage predecessor, but there it functions in an utterly different way – confirming, in fact, that Rupert’s essential goodness beneath his air of decadence. His lameness is made much of in the play and indeed he requires a cane, but this conceals the sword (a swordstick) which he will eventually wield on behalf of outraged and righteous British justice. Hitchcock’s stratagem of Rupert using the murderers’ own gun for the purpose simply underscores his complicity with them.
  16. To emphasise this Hitchcock alters the character of the French butler, Sabot, to that of a maid, clarifying the gender inequalities of homosocial penthouse life.
  17. Scorsese discusses directorial ‘smuggling’ in his fascinating memoir of American movies, A Personal Journey (1995).

About The Author

Dr David Kelly is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, Sydney University. He is the author of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1994) and the co-editor of Futur*Fall: Excursions into Post-Modernity (1986). His essays have appeared in books including The Illusion of Life (1991) and The Error of My Ways (1996) and in journals including Art & Text, mETAphor and Sydney Studies in English.

Related Posts