Criticism of Hitchcock’s Rope, D.A. Miller points out, always strives to make Hitchcock’s irregular approach (shots ranging from 3 to 9 minutes) into a string of identical 10 minute shots – the fantasy of the film done in one take, as it were 145. Nevertheless, this is also often considered a gimmick, even by Truffaut and Hitchcock himself, who said it was a “stunt” that violated his own interest in montage. At the same time, Hitchcock insisted later that he “maintained the rule of varying the size of the image in relation to its emotional importance within a given episode” 146. All of his explanations, however, continue to circle around the film’s technique.
In Truffaut’s short plot summary, Miller argues, the word “homosexual” stands out – it is not “furnished on the direct evidence of what we hear or see in the film,” unlike the other facts, so that “in an account that is attempting to reduce the story to its most abbreviated articulation, their homosexuality must seem at once a remarkable and a remarkably pointless piece of information” 147. Truffaut “constructs it into a homosexuality of no importance” 148. But in this culture, “a truly offhand reference to male homosexuality must hardly be credible… The heavy silence surrounding homosezuality requires explanation no less than the featherweight fussing over technique” 148.
“The reason that both questions have been unconsciously but definitively crossed with one another, so that technique acquires all the transgressive fascination of homosexuality, while homosexuality is consigned to the status of a dry technical detail…” 148.
“How do we think we know?” 149. It could not be named or shown because of the code, but the “post-coital nuances of the dialogue between Brandon and Philip after the murder” would be a place to start 149. “How did you feel – during it?” “I don’t remember feeling much of anything – until his body went limp, and I knew it was over, then I felt tremendously exhilarated,” etc. 149. “Connotation will always manifest a certain semiotic insufficiency,” Miller continues 150. “Connotation enjoys, or suffers from, an abiding deniability” 150. In this way, “Rope exploits the particular aptitude of connotation for allowing homosexual meaning to be elided even as it is also being elaborated” 150.
“Until recently, homosexuality offered not just the most prominent – it offered the only subject matter whose representation in American mass culture appertained exclusively to the shadow kingdom of connotation, where insinuations could be at once developed and denied, where… one couldn’t be sure whether [it] was being meant at all… the silence necessary to keep about [the codes] deploy[ing it]” 151.
This engages an accumulative hunt for verification – “a redundancy of notations” 151. If Philip and Brandon are gay, why not the Michaelangelesque David, his friend Kenneth who is often mistaken for him, or their teacher Rupert as well? Hysterical and frigid Janet is there to “grant all three men an ostensible homosexuality” (everyone but Philip has dated her), “it does so by making suspiciously intense the homosocial bond between boyfriends” 152. Rupert’s excuse at the end, that the boys had no right to twist his words into action, restores the male heterosexual subject, and his gunshot is a sort of cathartic ejaculation 153. But the tension never clears in the film.
As the camera holds on them sitting in a triangle to await the police, “the moment… is eerie not just in the sense that one doesn’t know what to make of it, but also in the sense that one rather does… homosexuality provides the marking term, whose presence or absence is wholly determining for what lies on both sides of the virgule” 154.
“At Rope’s end… it is precisely the developed heterosexual subject who is most definitively implicated in a structure of homosexual fixation, a notion that accordingly proves to have perhaps as little to do with gay men as penis envy does with women” 155.
“Connotation, we said, excites the desire for proof, a desire that, so long as it develops within the connotative register, tends to draft every signifier into what nonetheless remains a hopeless task… the dream (impossible to realize, but impossible not to entertain) that connotation would quit its dusky existence for fluorescent literality, would become denotation” 155.
Thus a gay subtext always gives on to the imagined or desired spectacle of gay sex. It is less on the level of language than the image that this occurs in Rope: “able to suggest that Brandon and Philip are actually touching, holding, or leaning against one another, when they are only occupying parallel spatial planes’ 156. They are often “too close,” and their arguments and wrestlings involve hand-holding and visual tropes of the Hollywood embrace 156. Part of the suspense of the film, then, is the almost-painfully prolonged desire for the gay spectacle 157.
As the straight [male] viewer looks to see if the looks of the two men are too lingering, he himself becomes involved in a potentially homosexual gaze. “How might a desire to see what one is afraid to look at ever be gratified?” In the closet, Miller answers. We never see the body in the trunk – we are not forced to look in. (Isn’t it also interesting that the clue is the hat in the closet?) Of the 5 blackouts that do link rolls of film, 4 are of men’s backsides and one is of the trunk lid. “The blackouts come as proof positive that there is nothing to see, unless of course what is laid bare, through the imperfections of the joins, is the structure of the join itself, hence the very operation of the closet” 159.
But what is the gay sex the viewer anticipates? “The cavital darkness” of the anus, and “the cut,” both and one represented by the man’s backside, as Miller has it 160. One “hides the cut” because “it is imagined to be a penetrable hole in the celluloid film body,” but the anus is “hidden here as what remains and reminds of a cut” 160. The binarism of the male body fears castration because the anus reminds the man of the fear projected onto the vagina – the fear of being on the bottom 161. Straight men “need” gay men, Miller argues, to “imagine [themselves] covered front and back” 161. Hence Hitchcock’s relegation of the techniques to normality, rather than perversity. In fact, we see the cuts at Janet, Mrs. Wilson, and Rupert, we see them as blacked-out backsides with the “gay” characters: “Only to the extent that they are seen can the cuts at a man’s backside promote a heterosexualizing castration anxiety” 163.
The fifth and final blackout on the trunk, then, focuses on David’s body as somehow “obscene – and so to be kept offscreen” (literally, re: on/scene and obscene, Linda Williams says) 163. Perhaps the stiff has a stiff or has been abused, Miller suggests: “Far more disconcerting than the evidence of a penetrated anus or an erect penis is the prospect of their copresence on the same male body” 164. The rope itself “now dangles and tautens like a penis and now encircles and tightens like a sphincter” 164. Ultimately, the film is both afraid of castration and its negation, Miller contends. Rupert’s last moment is to look behind him and sit down – to cover his ass, literally 164.