A Gothic Approach to "Rope"

Alfred Hitchcock's universe offers more than a three dimensional spectacle to many viewers, myself included. As a true magician, his extensive knowledge on human perception leads us to the intended illusion. The more we watch a movie, the more we are able to glimpse different facets calling our attention, as elements of a larger and fascinating framework. At least, that is what happened to me, as I enjoyed "Rope" (1948), for the zillionth time. A traditional English ghost story, which also features an old chest, is referenced in the film. That allusion prompted me to write a post on a Gothic perspective, in order to embroil ourselves in one of Hitchcock's most notable literary influences.

The Gothic novel

His films are influenced to a greater or lesser extent, by the tone and set of themes of Gothic fiction. This type of literature emerged in the late eighteenth century and rapidly became very popular, mostly in England and Germany. Madness, passion and the supernatural were some of the prime ingredients to such lurid narrations. The public was eager for stories that escaped reason(1) and was far more interested in the chaos of irrationality. The emphasis was on the setting for it not only evoked an atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrayed a certain retrogradation. An ongoing fascination for the beauty of decay was highly appreciated. Furthermore, those atmospheric effects helped towards recreating the convulsion of the human mind –our greatest mystery–.

Its numerous characteristics have several traits in common and the large presence of violent juxtapositions. Conflicts between past and present, power and weakness or natural and supernatural, are the most representative examples. The human being is in the centre of such unequal balance of forces.

Other aspects stress the sense of isolation and fear, as well as the presence of disturbing obsessions, evil manifestations and uncanny events. Dark claustrophobic spaces, just as castles in ruins or crumbling abbeys, which would translate into somber mansions on the screen. Each character can be easily classified into one archetype or another. Doomed by their sinister nature or a sense of unease, we find the charismatic Gothic villain –true protagonists–, the hero, the damsel in distress and multiple supernatural creatures, such as ghosts, werewolves or vampires.

Over time, authors like Bram StokerMary Shelley or Edgar Allan Poe shed new light on the genre. Frequently revised due to its strong attachment to Anglo-saxon culture, it is no wonder that Gothic fiction has had a tremendous impact on many creators. Throughout Alfred Hitchcock's filmography, we have discovered his significative Gothic influence. He explored its themes and imagery in practically all his movies, some of them were more evident than others. "Rebecca" (1940), based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, is the paradigm of female Gothic narrative and "Psycho" explores the power of Gothic motifs, such as a haunted mansion and madness. Aside from those more obvious examples, we can recognize certain aspects on many other films, not so overtly influenced by the genre. Rope can unquestionably certify this assertion.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) first edition.
Image via: The British Library

The Mistletoe Bough

The Mistletoe Bough –also known as The Ballad of the Mistletoe Bride–, is a ghost story which became a Christmas tradition. "The tale probably originated in Italy and was written down by Samuel Rogers in 1823. It appeared in many other forms – poems, ballads and short stories, and as a song in the 1830s entitled The Mistletoe Bough written by T. H. Bayley and Sir Henry Bishop(2)."

Illustration of the ballad The Mistletoe Bough.

The tale is mentioned in Rope shortly after James Stewart appears on the scene as snarky professor Rupert Cadell. He is the first to notice the unexpected use of an old chest as a buffet table for the morbid purposes of Phillip (Farley Granger) and Brandon (John Dall), the hosts. He immediately makes the connection between such an atypical dinner arrangement and Brandon's appreciation of horror bed-time stories, whose favorite one was The Mistletoe Bough. As explained by Rupert himself and Mr. Kentley (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), the story is about a young bride-to-be who playfully hid herself in a chest on her wedding day. Unfortunately, the chest had a spring-lock so years later they found her skeleton.

To further account for this Gothic narration, we must detail it a little bit more. The longer version of The Mistletoe Bough,  tells us about Lord Lovell and his bride on their wedding celebration. As a means of entertainment, the bride calls for a game of "Hide and Seek" and disappears into one of the rooms where she hides in an old oak chest. The young groom, her father and the guests attempt to find her in vain. Many years later, the now elderly Lord Lovell, has a vision of the ghost of her missing bride as she emerges from the chest. Grief-stricken and horrified, he opens the chest and finds her corpse in a wedding dress. 

The popularity of the story inspired some directors who turned it into short films. One of the oldest cinematographic versions dates back to 1904Recently restored and released by the experts at the BFI National Archive, this story that gripped Victorian England can be seen once again. Incidentally,  reference should be made to the use of Pepper's Ghost Illusion(3) in this early film. Nearly 150 years old, this technique involve optical gimmicks in order to produce ethereal images similar to holograms. An oldie but goldie trick that will delight every guest. Nothing compares to an evening topped with a Pepper ghost.

A frame of The Mistletoe Bough (1904, Percy Stow),
showing Pepper's Ghost technique.
Image via: ©BFI

Let us not get carried away here. In the movie, Hitchcock approaches Gothic motifs and brings them to life. Once legends, now every-day events that might take place in our homes. In fact, Rope's crime was said to be inspired by a real-life murder.

“The crime of the century”

Thus was touted back in 1924(3), the homicide of Bobby Franks, perpetrated by Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. These two wealthy young students from Chicago were deeply fascinated by Nietzsche's concept of “supermen”, hence the interpretation of committing "the perfect murder" and getting away with it by killing an "inferior" human being. The media coverage of the crime hit Chicago like a thunderstorm. The murder circumstances and the subsequent trial became a national and, eventually, an international, phenomenon.

Front page of the Chronicle and News newspaper published on September 10th 1924,
covering the infamous Leopold and Loeb trial.
Image via: ©Timothy Hughes Rare and Early Newspapers

Concurrently, the film industry seized the opportunity to give their own account and perspective of the incident. Aside from Rope, there are two other versions of the Leopold and Loeb crime. One of them is"Compulsion" by Richard Fleischer, released in 1959 and based on the homonymous novel by Meyer Levin, published in 1956. A predecessor for other 'non-fiction novels' such as In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1959), the novel delves into the psychological motivations and personalities of the two perpetrators as well as the trial, approached as a fictionalized case. A gritty film brilliantly played by Orson WellesDean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman.

Dean StockwellBradford Dillman and Orson Welles in a still from "Compulsion".

"Swoon" (1992, Tom Kalin) is the most recent and, perhaps, less influential of those two other versions. However, this film is the only one that portrayed Leopold and Loeb by their own names and fully explores their sexual relationship and passion. That is the prime focus of the movie which, unlike its two predecessors, has no particular interest in the intellectual motivations of the murder.

A key component

Across the Atlantic, Patrick Hamilton, an English playwright and novelist, was about to finish the play that would turn out to be a howling success. In 1929, he published Rope (Rope's End in the US) and it was his first theatrical hit. Needless to say, the play was inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case. Hamilton, who was additionally the author of Gas Light(4)(also turned into a film), set the action in London, in an upper-class residence in the exclusive Mayfair district. He also added a major ingredient to the mix: the old chest on which a macabre feast will be served. Both a key component in terms of suspense and a significant testimony of the Gothic influence of the plot, this piece of furniture plays an important part in Rope. Present in numerous Gothic novels, its symbology is linked to the ideas of confinement, darkness and seclusion. 

It takes only one element to change the tone of a story. A powerful iconography is a characteristic that Gothic fiction shares with film noir. Alfred Hitchcock's films are quite distinctive by the importance of objects of symbolic value within the plot. Not just any objects, though. Most of them had already been present in Gothic fiction, quite ubiquitously really. Keys, stairs, windows, just to name a few. The old chest (also referenced as a cassone in the film) transcends that category, for it not only aludes to its Gothic heritage and to the past, but it is also a totem of death and evil. So much for Pandora's box.

Rope's stage rehearsals with Alfred Hitchcock, Farley GrangerJohn Dall and the chest. 

I have often wondered why a perfectly creepy old chest would be located in the living room of a stylish New York apartment in the early 50s. My guess is that we are up against a vestige of the original play, set in London in 1929 where chests and cassones were the next best thing in terms of home décor. Jokes aside, I have also found some similarities between Rope and The Tell-Tale Heart(5by Edgar Allan Poe concerning the murder characteristics and the fact that in both stories a corpse is hidden. Probably that perspective is the reason that I even consider an alternative to the chest in the first place.

The play was first adapted by Hume Cronyn, alongside Alfred Hitchcock, to produce what was called 'a treatment'. The result was then handed over to Arthur Laurents who would pen the final adaptation. According to Cronyn himself, as can be seen in the film's Making Off, "[...] that was the general tendency he had. He would have a treatment written and he worked very closely with whoever was designing it. Then, he would hire someone to take that treatment and do the general dialogue." As it turned out, the play was a lot more intricate to adapt than Laurents had anticipated. Certain British terms, their society's class structure and the homosexual subtext of the source was very difficult to translate into the American context. Moreover, Hitchcock and Laurents held different points of view regarding the prime element of suspense. The screenwriter suggested that the crime itself should never be shown, so that the audience would always wonder whether in fact there was a corpse in the chest or not. The whole idea was dismissed by the master of suspense, who was more interested in the implications of crime and the characters. He wanted the spectators to feel the tension of the perpetrators and the impending repercussions of their behaviour.

Arthur Laurents working on a script.
Image via Dolores Delargo Towers.

In my case, Rope has always been one of my Hitchcock's favorites. The film would unfailingly exert an inexplicable fascination in me. The same fascination that keeps me glued to the seat every time I watch it. I always admired this well-executed experiment and the moral questions it raises. Along with "Notorious" (1946) or "Psycho" (1960)for other reasons, I consider Rope to be one of the finest Hitchcock's films. I have also often felt that this movie was far more personal for the director than some others, in a sense that the megalomaniac concepts that are present on the screen would speak unswervingly about his own craft. Sort of a self reminder and a lucid tongue-in-cheek self-criticism. For... We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?


(1) The Age of Enlightenment was an era  than ran from the 17th century to the French Revolution (1789) and emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism. In reaction to this school of thought, Gothic fiction emerged as on the banners of the Romanticism, a movement that focus on emotions.

(2) Pepper's Ghost. An ancient illusion technique used primarily in theaters and popularized by John Henry Pepper (1821-1900) in the 19th century. A British scientist and inventor made a fame demonstration of the technique in 1862 by creating a large-scale version of it for the representation of The Haunted Man by Charles Dickens. An ethereal image is produced using a sheet of glass and light resulting in perfect recreations of otherworldly spirits and creatures - See more at: Entertainment Designer 

"The crime of the century". Also known as "the Leopold and Loeb case", which took place in Chicago in 1924. Two wealthy young college students kidnapped and murdered young Bobby Franks, in order to prove their intelectual superiority. Clarence Darrow was their defense attorney and would gain even more notoriety with his next case: the Scopes "Monkey" Trial. An American legal case in 1925 in which a substitute high school teacher, John Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee's Butler Act by teaching Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

(4) Gas Light. A 1938 stage play by Patrick Hamilton. A Gothic piece that had a resounding success on stage and was later adapted to film in 1944 by George Cukor. It also generated the term 'gaslighting' to designate a form of psychological abuse in which the victim is set to doubt of his/her own perception.

(5) The Tell-Tale Heart. A short story by Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1843. It is a first-person narration of a maniac who kills a man and afterward hears his victim's relentless heartbeat under the plank, on the floor where his corpse lies.

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