Superman and Hitchcock’s Rope

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope”

I recently came across an early Alfred Hitchcock film I hadn’t heard of before. It’s called Rope. In the opening scene two upper class college boys–Brandon Shaw and Philip Morgan– strangle a classmate and hide him in a chest. The leader of the two has then invited various friends to a party and the dinner is served using the chest as a table.

The premise for the murder is the same as Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment –that there are certain intellectually superior people who are above the normal mundane rules and regulations by which society is ruled. This springs from Nietzsche’s idea of the “superman” or “ubermensch”. Because morality is no more than a social construct or a socially useful agreed set of behaviors, the one who is intellectually superior can devise the rules according to their own set of utilitarian values. So Raskolnikov believes that he can murder the wicked old pawnbroker and take her money to distribute among the poor. She was dying anyway. She was wicked and the poor need the money. So he justifies his deed and believes he can do this because he is one of the superior ones.

Brandon Shaw takes it one step further and murders without any good motive to simply prove that he is one of the superior and gifted ones.

The film’s climax is when their old schoolmaster (James Stewart) suspects what has happened. After his horror at discovering the truth he gives a profound speech in which he asks Brandon Shaw, (and I paraphrase) “Did you really believe that you were so superior that you could murder another person? Did you really think the rules did not apply to you and that you could make your own rules? If you did, then you think you are God. You think you are above the rules and you are superior to both the rules and the rule giver.”

Suddenly I saw that Nietzsche’s teaching on the superman is the driving force behind all the forces of evil that are prevalent everywhere in our society. Take most any of the moral issues today. Whether it is fat cat bankers legally stealing from poor widows or homosexualists who are trying to create their own version of marriage based on sodomy or whether it is abusive husbands who cheat on, and then divorce their wives or horrible wives who plan for years how to divorce their husband and take everything he has before running off with his best friend, or whether it is simply a person who steals at work, cheats at school or kills babies by abortion–from the mundane to the murderous–these sins are justified by multitudes in our modern world…and why?

Because they regard themselves as above the law. They do not believe in God’s law, they believe the law is only a human social construct so they can re-make the law according to their wishes. They therefore believe they are above the law and above society and they will prove it by making sure they change law and society rather than being changed by the law and society.

In his final passionate speech James Stewart says to Brandon and Philip, “You will die! You will die!”

He might as well give the same despairing cry to the multitudes in today’s society who place themselves above God’s law, above natural law and above the laws of the state. We can only cry with panic and frustration, “You will die! You will die!” and we might add, “You will die eternally!”

In the curious ending of the film, as the police sirens wail, Brandon casually pours himself a drink and Philip sits down and plays the piano.

Their nihilism is complete. They have killed and now they will die….and they don’t really care. They have already entered their hell and they seem to know it and accept it.

Rope is a fascinating film. Not only worth watching, but re-watching. Hitchcock’s underlying Catholic values and philosophy percolate throughout the film and it stands, in my opinion, as one of his most provoking and suspenseful works.