The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after censor/stick-in-the-mud Will Hays, regulated film content for nearly 40 years, restricting, among other things, depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.
Though far from Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest cinematic achievement, Rope remains one of my favorites…I don’t know, there’s something about two queens killing for kicks that has always struck my fancy.
Based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case, and the subsequent play by Patrick Hamilton, Hitch decided to make Rope as controversial as possible for 1948. He shot it in a then-radical style — consecutive 10-minute takes — and pushed the boundaries of the Hays Code with his references to the obvious romantic relationship between its two murderous protagonists.
Sure he may have squeaked by the censors, but Hitch wasn’t fooling everyone and several American cities banned the film due to the protagonists’ implied homosexuality.
Rope had a gay pedigree from the very beginning. Nathan Leopold and Robert Loeb were brilliant, handsome and rich. And they were also lovers.
In 1924 they killed a 14-year-old boy just to prove that they could get away with it. They couldn’t, but that didn’t stop their sensational trial from making headlines and inspiring a play, Rope’s End, by Hamilton in 1929.
Leopold believed himself akin to the Nietzschean superman and Loeb, as the dominant figure or “top” in their relationship, used sex as a way of repaying Leopold for going along with the whole thing, or even coercing him into following through. Leopold would later write that his motive, “to the extent that I had one, was to please Dick."
Been there, done that, bought the titty-tank, gurlfriend.
Hamilton’s play referenced the homosexual relationship between Leopold and Loeb, but to get around the pesky Production Code, certain changes had to be made. Arthur Laurents, legendary queen and Broadway baby behind such classics as West Side Story and Gypsy, was brought in to write the screenplay. He scrubbed the script of the affair one of the murderers had with their professor, Rupert Cadell — who’s younger and less of a father figure and more of a “daddy” in the play.
Adding to all this gorgeous gayness were the two leads: Farley Granger (as the meek, Leopold-esque Phillip) and John Dall (as the more dominant, Loeb-like Brandon) were both gay.
Hitch, never one to shy away from explicit content or gay subtext, wanted to play up the plot’s homosexual undertones — even the piece Phillip routinely plays on the piano is by an openly gay composer. He originally wanted to cast noted gay Montgomery Clift as Brandon and Cary Grant, whom Laurents claimed was “at best bisexual”, as Cadell. They both turned down the roles, perhaps out of fear of being outed or stigmatized, leaving Jimmy Stewart, who felt he was woefully miscast.
Still, shades of a gay-December romance remain — albeit not as shady as if Hitchcock had gotten his way with Grant and Clift.
“We knew they were gay, sure, but nobody said anything about it,” Granger said of his and Dall’s characters in the 1995 documentary, The Celluloid Closet, based on the Vito Russo book of the same name. “That was one of the points of the film, in a way.”
During filming, everyone allegedly referred to homosexuality as “it”. Even with all the tip-toeing around “it”, Rope is steeped in gay innuendo, from the very first scene where Brandon and Phillip murder their classmate, David Kentley.
The strangulation is sexual in and of itself, as is the instrument of choice, and after the fact, the two appear to be in a state of post-coital bliss/confusion.
Having hidden the body in a trunk, in otherwise plain view of the guests they’ll soon receive at a party in honor of their victim, the entire film acts as a metaphor for homosexuality.
They share a secret — David’s body — that they hope won’t, yet somehow will, get exposed. Brandon, especially, believes that he and Phillip are different, better than the rest of society by virtue of their intellect and cultural breeding. That, of course, is just code for homosexuality. During the reign of the Hays office, artists, aesthetes and intellectuals were often used as gay surrogates. Based on the belief of their inherent superiority, Phillip and Brandon assume the rules of society don’t apply to them.
Interestingly enough, the film almost exalts homosexuality before demonizing it. Brandon and Phillip purportedly learned these ideologies from their former headmaster, Cadell, whom they invite as part of their little game of cat and mouse. Cadell was thus responsible for leading the boys astray, as it were.
He rectifies his mistake by uncovering Brandon and Phillip’s secret, but the damage is already done. The homicidal homosexuals will pay for their crime, but if the last image of the film is any indication, they don’t regret what they’ve done or who they are.
The police sirens in the distance, Phillip revives his piano piece and Brandon knocks another one back. These gays may be anti-heroes — villains, really, as gays were often depicted — but at least they survived to the final frame.
So take that, Spokane.