In the history of film, there have been a few films that I call “experimental movies”. Those are movies where the filmmakers said, “Let’s take this idea for a technique and see what it looks like in an entire movie.” For instance, there was a movie in 1947 by Robert Montgomery called “Lady in the Lake”, where the camera acted as the main character for most of the movie—whenever the main character was talking to someone else, that person was literally talking to the camera. (And for the record, it was an interesting idea, but I got tired of it after the first twenty minutes.)
So a film was based almost around a whole technique, as opposed to just a story. The film I’ll be sharing with you today is another “experimental movie”. “Rope”, directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock in 1948, used long camera movement and careful editing to make the movie look like it was only a few really long takes. And besides looking incredibly well-done, “Rope” still conveys a message of justice that I want to share with you today.
The film starts with a young man being strangled by two of his former classmates in their apartment in Manhattan, belonging to Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger, who worked with Hitchcock again three years in “Strangers on a Train”). Determined to commit and get away with a perfect murder, Brandon and Phillip strangle this classmate, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), and place his body in a large chest in the living room. And for whatever reason (if they explain it in the movie, I don’t remember it), Brandon and Phillip then proceed to host a dinner party at their apartment, with the help of their maid (Edith Evanson), using the chest as a table for food. At the party are David’s father (Cedric Hardwicke), his aunt (Constance Collier), his fiancée Janet (Joan Chandler), Janet’s ex-boyfriend Kenneth (Douglas Dick), and finally, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), a prep-school housemaster at Brandon and Phillip’s former school.
So since this is a movie with seven or eight people having dinner, and a movie where the camera decides to follow those people around for ten minutes at a time without cutting, “Rope” is driven by the characters’ dialogue. And eventually, Brandon, being much calmer than Phillip, starts talking to Rupert about his thoughts on murder. (Very subtly, of course—bringing up the subject of murder out of nowhere would be very suspicious.) Rupert, previously at prep school, had expressed his ideas to Brandon and Phillip about “the art of murder”, how murder is an example of someone’s superiority (which helped prompt the two men to strangle David). It is suggested that “the lives of inferior beings are unimportant”.
And eventually, the party starts to get a little tense. No one can get in touch with David. Phillip gets more and more nervous as Rupert talks about murder and even questions him about strangling chickens at Brandon’s farm. Brandon even suggests to Janet and Kenneth that they might get back together. And soon, the party ends, everyone wondering where David might be—except for Brandon and Phillip. And Brandon is about to call it a successful night when Rupert comes back, pretending to have left something but actually suspicious of what the two are up to. And eventually, Rupert gets Brandon to open the chest in the living room. And finding David’s corpse inside, Rupert is stunned.
RUPERT: Brandon, until 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 own words right back in my face, Brandon. …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! …By what right do you dare say that there’s a superior few to which you belong? By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed? Did you think you were God, Brandon?
And with that, Rupert takes a gun he has brought with him and shoots three shots out the window into the night sky, alerting people of what’s going on. And with that, the movie ends.
Aside from the technical aspects of this movie (this really is fascinating to watch, at least from my perspective), this is also a fascinating movie in terms of what it means philosophically. My freshman year of college, I took a philosophy course that I actually enjoyed very much (to my surprise), where the instructor talked about different ideas about superiority and inferiority, as Rupert talks about the film, but also about how people have what seems like a natural-born instinct to say that something is right or wrong. And that raises the question: is that more than an instinct—say, God working in us?
One day, I really want to expand my knowledge on this kind of stuff, so I might have a plausible answer for a non-Christian that asks me about that. But in the meantime, what I know is this: throughout the Bible, we are taught that because of the fall of man at the beginning of time, we have been born into sin. Psalm 51:5 reads, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Romans 5:12 reads, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…” Because of how Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God, we have all been marked by sin. And we all start out with the dark desires similar to what Brandon and Phillip were capable of, dark enough to commit murder.
But the Bible also gives us hope in spite of our sinful nature. Psalm 51:6 reads, “Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.” 1 John 1:9 says that “If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” And my prayer for you this week is that whatever sin you may be struggling with, whatever dark desires that may be tempting you, you would confess it to God, who is able to forgive and purify you.