By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

It has been more than a decade since I started writing about New York City bars for Stay Thirsty Magazine. Unfortunately, bars throughout the state have been closed for almost three months to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Here in the city, it is not likely that they will reopen in full any time soon. This has left me without a subject about which to write.

True, people are beginning to grab “to-go” cocktails and beers from some establishments, and to then meet in small groups to drink them on the street, but this is not the kind of thing in which I’ve participated. Yes, I would like to support these bars and bar workers as they struggle to pay rent; and, yes, I’m certain that one can responsibly social distance while having a drink on the street; and, yes, I understand that reprieves from social isolation are necessary for the mental health of many people, especially for those who are single and have been deprived of any face-to-face contact with friends or relatives or even those people from the neighborhood that you only talk to when you both happen to be hammered at the bar. However, this kind of thing is not something I am going to do myself nor am I going to encourage it. If I were weathering this storm alone, without my fiancée, I might feel differently.

Jay Fox

The idea of writing about bars I’d visited in the past didn’t seem like a bad idea initially, but I was fairly certain that the end result was going to be stale. Moreover, it simply doesn’t seem honest to write about a culture that has been put on an indefinite hiatus. In my opinion, you’re capturing the spirit of a bar, of social engagement, of dynamism, when you set out to write about nightlife. Your goal is to embellish a snapshot of the present like a comic book colorist or to compare multiple things (the present to the past being pretty much the only avenue of contrast in this case) in a manner that illuminates some larger observation about humans or society or the great existential quandaries that seem to be keeping most of America up until three in the morning now days.

Unfortunately, I can’t see past the present right now, which means the best I’d be able to provide would be a one-dimensional elegy for a status quo that very suddenly ended in March, which is not something anyone wants to read about. Furthermore, no one needs another lament from a white guy about the rudderless trajectory of this country towards complete chaos for reasons that go well beyond the coronavirus or the dumbfuckery of Donald Trump or the outrage over George Floyd or the inevitable outrage over the inevitable murder of another black man or black woman by a solider in an occupying army masquerading as a police force between the time this is written and the time it goes to print.

Rather than write something along these lines, the publisher of this wonderful magazine asked if there was something else that I wanted to review besides bars. After a few moments on the phone, we arrived at the idea of film.

Given that my social circle consists of one other person cohabitating a one-bedroom apartment and our options for entertainment are pretty much limited to making elaborate meals, drinking copious amounts of wine and local beer, and streaming movies and television shows, this seemed like a natural fit. Furthermore, people are probably hungry for film recommendations and are sick of aimlessly scrolling through the Netflix or Hulu homepage and becoming increasingly frustrated while their dinner grows cold. If I can prevent that, I’ll consider this a success.

That being said, while I was trying to decide on a film to write about, I ended up watching a lot of older classics. My parents were not ones to make their children watch anything made before 1985 while we were growing up beyond the annual showing of The Sound of Music or Miracle on 34th Street, and I’ve neglected to go back and get to know a lot of the cinematic gems that people would describe as canon. The standouts were: The Conversation (1974), The French Connection (1971), In the Heat of the Night (1967), On the Waterfront (1954), Rope (1948), and Tout Va Bien (1972). Most are available through the Criterion Channel, which will run you $100 for the year ($8.33 per month).

I ended up deciding to focus this essay on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope because it was all shot on a single set meant to be a New York City apartment. This seemed appropriate for rather obvious reasons. Apart from its limited setting, it was also filmed in a manner that gives the illusion that it is one continuous shot (it’s actually 11). Sam Mendes relied on a similar technique for 1917, and this film of course won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography just a few months ago. In both films, the technique allowed the directors to build suspense. In 1917, the suspense concerned the successful survival of a pair of soldiers in a warzone. In Rope, the suspense concerns the successful concealment of a corpse by a pair of murders.

ROPE (1948) - Movie Poster

Rope was an adaptation of a play of the same name by Patrick Hamilton, which premiered in London and on Broadway in 1929. Hamilton loosely based his play on the 1924 murder of Bobby Franks, a 14-year-old boy from a prominent Chicago family who was kidnapped and killed by two University of Chicago students—Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The two thought they had planned the perfect murder, and that such a feat was proof of their superior intellects. Echoing the work of Nietzsche or characters who could have appeared in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the two became enamored with the idea of the superman (Übermensch) and believed that, by virtue of their self-assessed genius, they were endowed with the right to define their own conduct (which is true), as well as the prerogative to ignore any competing moral or legal framework that inconvenienced them (which is less true). In other words, Leopold and Loeb believed that morals and laws and rules were for the inferior masses. They were effectively above them, so they murdered a kid.

Like Leopold and Loeb, the two protagonists in the film adaptation of Rope, Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger), also plan what they believe is the perfect murder of David (Dick Hogan), a former classmate. In fact, they even refer to the plan and its execution as a work of art.

The act of planning, however, is not something the audience observes, as David is murdered at the onset of the film with a piece of rope. The two then place his body in a wooden chest in the center of the living room. They then proceed to prepare for a dinner party that they intend to hold in the same room. This exceptionally brazen act, they believe, will ultimately prove to be their alibi. Should anyone ask where David is, they will be able to say that they’ve been setting up for the party the entire afternoon and that they haven’t seen him. As the gathering is a sendoff for Philip, who is being driven to Connecticut by Brandon, this will afford them the chance to dump the body outside of the city without arousing suspicion. The murder weapon, meanwhile, is used to tie together several books that are then given as a gift to one of the party’s guests—David’s father (Cedric Hardwicke).

Before the guests or their housekeeper (Edith Evanson) arrive to help them set up, however, Brandon decides to add an extra dash of excitement to the evening. Instead of serving dinner on the table in the dining room, he decides to use the chest in which David’s body is hidden as a buffet table. The characters are, in effect, eating off David’s coffin.

This is a particularly arrogant and macabre touch, especially when one considers the guestlist: David’s father, his aunt (Constance Collier), his fiancée Janet (Joan Chandler), and Kenneth (Douglas Dick), Janet’s former lover and David’s former best friend. They have even invited their favorite professor, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), who is revered because he was the one who introduced Brandon and Philip to the very philosophy that they used as a justification for murder.

It doesn’t take long for David’s family to become concerned about his absence. This has a clear effect on Philip, who begins downing whiskey like a seasoned alcoholic. Brandon, meanwhile, remains calm and tries to engage his former professor in a conversation about the “art of murder.” Rupert partakes, but observes that Brandon and Philip are both acting suspicious and seem to be quick to lead away anyone hanging around the chest for too long.

Alfred Hitchcock

Yes, this is not exactly the Oceans 11 of murder mysteries. However, the pacing of the film, combined with Hitchcock’s ability to find clever ways to conceal many of the edits over the course of the film’s 80-minute runtime, allows for a steady ratcheting up of tensions between different partygoers—particularly between Brandon and Philip and between the two and Rupert, who is played by a surprisingly sharp Stewart.

Despite being of the psychological thriller genre, and the success of the suspense being reliant upon the cat and mouse game between Stewart and Brandon (and to a lesser extent Philip), the film seems to also be deeply concerned with the philosophical position that allows murder—particularly the sense of exceptionalism that undergirds Brandon’s belief structure.

Exceptionalism is, of course, not always so toxic that it results in murder. It has long been used to justify the privileges of pretty much all ruling classes throughout history, and this continues well into the present. It is certainly more surreptitious now than it was in, say, feudalism, but it persists even if most members of the global ruling class earnestly believe they are participating in a meritocracy. (Fun fact: “merit” comes from the Latin mereō, which means both ‘to deserve’ and ‘to purchase’.)

Again, engaging in behavior that allows one to take advantage of exceptions that are not available to others is not akin to murder, but they are demonstrations of contempt for the two most basic tenets of even the most primitive social contract: That there is a “we” and that “we” have taboos—i.e., things we accept that we don’t do. When one places themselves above that contract, they act in bad faith and seem to affirm the existence of a separate contract to which they are privileged. Consider the casual example below. It is from the era of the Franks murder—Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel, Babbitt (1922)—and the exchange is between two well-to-do men on a train bound for the East Coast:

“I don’t know how you fellows feel about prohibition, but the way it strikes me is that it’s a mighty beneficial thing for the poor zob that hasn’t got any will-power but for fellows like us, it’s an infringement of personal liberty.”

“That’s a fact. Congress has got no right to interfere with a fellow’s personal liberty.”

Rather than traveling down a rabbit hole to 2020, we can go back even earlier to the era in which Rupert, Brandon and Philip’s professor, would have come of age—the end of the nineteenth century or the fin de siècle. Like these two gentlemen, Rupert would have likely considered himself a man of distinction and taste and sophistication, but he was also a Romanticist intellectual and a bit of a provocateur. He would have been brought up on classics and in a formal manner, but he would have also read Nietzsche and Byron and De Quincey, he would have likely believed that he made his own rules, and would have not only considered himself an immoralist (as acolytes of Nietzsche still do), but someone who would have abided by the Nietzschean imperative to “live dangerously.” When speaking with David’s father, Rupert even claims to believe that superior individuals like himself should have the privilege of murdering inferior people. Despite saying that he sincerely believes this, it’s clear that it is a facetious position.

The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset ridiculed not only this motto of “live dangerously” in a lecture given in 1939 (“The Self and the Other”), but also this kind of play acting. Having lived through the first World War and seeing the world spiral towards a second, he did not have much patience for this kind of affectation. “In every period there are ideas which I would call ‘fishing’ ideas,” Ortega y Gasset wrote, “ideas which are expressed and proclaimed precisely because it is known that they will not come to pass; which are thought of only as a game, as foolishness—some years ago, for example, there was a rage in England for wolf stories, because England is a country where the last wolf was killed in 1663 and hence has no authentic experience of wolves. In a period which has no strong experience of insecurity, like the fin de siècle period, they play at the dangerous life.”

For Rupert, the idea of murdering someone was clearly a “fishing idea.” Like Nietzsche, he is a provocateur and not a radical who fully commits to the idea of exceptionalism. He may not abide by all the mores of society, but there are things that are just not permissible. For Brandon and Philip, this is not true. For them, all things are permissible—even murder.

The lingering question at the end of the film, however, is why? Is it simply because they happen to be two sociopathic individuals who used Rupert’s teachings as an excuse to murder or is their behavior evidence of a larger problem?


Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.