Trope on a Rope
A few years back, Billy Eichner rather pointedly noted that his gay rom-com, Bros, featured an entirely LGBT cast. Before that, Hulu’s Fire Island and Ryan Murphy’s remake of The Boys in the Band on Netflix did the same on streaming services. But lest we think this is a relatively new idea, Alfred Hitchcock tried (and nearly succeeded) to do the same thing three-quarters of a century ago.
Hitchcock’s Rope, based on the play by Patrick Hamilton, centered on a pair of cold-blooded killers patterned after real-life cold-blooded (and gay) killers, Leopold and Loeb. In both the play and the movie, the killers strangle a former classmate, store his body in an antique chest, then host a dinner party for the corpse’s family and friends, who have no idea that their friend/lover/son/nephew’s dead body is in the room with them.
The play, which premiered on Broadway in 1929, was very obviously about gay people. In addition to the killers, their former teacher is a guest at the party. Rupert is described as foppish, effeminate, and reminiscent of Oscar Wilde.
When Hitchcock decided to make the film in 1948 (with a script by gay playwright Arthur Laurents), he initially wanted three gay actors to play the three gay leads. His original choices included Montgomery Clift and Cary Grant, both of whom turned the project down, probably to protect their careers. The actors who were eventually cast as the killers were gay actor John Dall and bisexual actor Farley Granger. In a concession, Jimmy Stewart was cast as Rupert. Sadly, not a trace of Oscar Wilde can be detected in his straight-as-an-arrow performance.
But if you listen closely, some of Oscar’s wit can be heard in his dialogue. When explaining his theory of moral relativism, a party guest asks if murder might be an excusable offense. Rupert responds affirmatively, saying, “Think of the problems it would solve. Unemployment, poverty, standing in line for theatre tickets.”
Of course, the film was made while Hollywood was still in the grip of the Hays Production Code, so nobody could come right out and say that the couple of killers at the center of the action were, indeed, a couple. Everything had to be hinted at. But if you know the history of the source material and know what to look for, the signs are unmistakable.
The film opens with a tight shot of the killers and their victim just as he’s dying (strangled by, what else, a rope). As soon as the death is confirmed and the body is deposited in the trunk, a series of traditionally post-coital activities take place. One of the men collapses, out of breath, while the other lights a cigarette and opens the drapes, allowing the light to pour in. A little later, when discussing the murder, one of the killers describes the climactic moment as “tremendously exhilarating!” while his voice and body act out the orgasm he’s clearly hinting at. Later still, when one of his party guests asks if there’s a phone in the penthouse the killers share, he says, “In the bedroom.” The single bedroom, in a ritzy penthouse where both men live. Together.
“How cozy,” she responds. So not only are they gay, but everyone knows it. These hints might not seem definitive, but at a time when any depiction of sexuality outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage was absolutely forbidden, these little clues—combined with knowledge of the source material and Hitchcock’s insistence on gay leading men—are practically a peer-reviewed scientific study. These boys were queer.
So, the only question to be answered is how we feel about a couple of gay men who just happen to be sociopaths who kill in cold blood. The “queer killer” storyline, where a murderer’s amorality is validated or proven by their refusal to abide by traditional sex/gender roles, is one of Hollywood’s oldest tropes. A list of films that have received criticism for using it include Dressed to Kill, Pulp Fiction, Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct, and the more recent Bond flick Skyfall.
I can’t help but wonder if a more obviously fey Rupert, who assumes the boys are up to no good and eventually becomes their chief antagonist, might have softened the problematic conflation of “gay” and “morally depraved” that exists in Rope. It helps a little that the plot is based on a true story of gay killers, so one could argue that at least that part of their identity wasn’t erased.
But to be honest, the connotations aren’t great. But to anyone who’s interested in pop culture or LGBT history and it happens to be a rainy afternoon perfect for an old movie, I recommend getting tangled up in Rope. ▼
Eric Peterson is Interim Managing Editor of Amble Press, a novelist (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth), and a diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioner. In his spare time, he hosts a podcast, The Rewind Project.