Hitchcock, Zeal and the Velvet Rope

by Diepiriye Kuku

17 June 2010

More than almost any other of the great directors, Hitchcock filled his films with characters that are either explicitly or implicitly coded as gay. And almost always as villainous.

Opening scene: Midday in a comfortable white middle-class urban neighborhood. The stretch Oldsmobile tells us it’s era of prosperity immediately after the war. The scene freezes and a long list of credits plays against the melodic backdrop of a fluttering flute leading an orchestra. The credits finally slow down and stop with “Directed By ALFRED HITCHCOCK” plastered in the center of the screen. The frame then unfreezes, and a new busyness takes off. Slowly, the camera pans off center, to a ledge overlooking the otherwise docile scene. The flute fades and now we pause in front of a large parlor window whose curtains are suspiciously drawn tightly closed. A man yells from inside, and after a brief pause, the scene quickly switches to the inside of this fancy parlor where a handsome young blond man gasps out his last breath. One set of hands wrestles to hold down the victim’s arms, while the other tightens the rope around his neck. All three men wear fine suits, and now we catch a glimpse of the fine apartment, and the curiously large bay window.

The camera pans back. This is the first of many lengthy unbroken shots which characterize this unique Technicolor treat. The man who strangled the blond chap is in shock. The wrestler quickly checks for the dead man’s heartbeat before signaling to the other to open the large trunk in which the corpse lays for the rest of the film. The strangler follows his orders and then bends over to lift the dead man by his feet. They fold the dead man to fit. After briskly slamming the trunk shut, the strangler quickly plops himself down. Both murderers let out great sighs, chests pumping for relief. The wrestler stands erect, lets out an indisputably orgasmic sigh, and then switches on the light. He is done and ready to move on. “Don’t,” protests the strangler, “not just yet. Let’s stay this way for a minute,” he says beneath his exhilarating heaving. The wrestler takes out a pack of cigarettes from an inside pocket, removes one, taps it twice on the box, stuffs it in his mouth, and buries the pack back in his jacket pocket. Almost in one action, he then removes a shiny lighter from an outside pocket, fires up his stick, and sucks as if he were gorging on sweet nectar. Still wearing his thick leather gloves, he puffs on the cigarette, takes it out and gives it a look of satisfaction. 

Quiet on the set. Action: Brandon, the more macho partner, takes out a cigarette and leisurely smokes as if indifferent to the needs of his feminine counterpart. The more feminine partner ‘acts’ hysterical, emasculated, and subordinated by the masculine partner. Though more subtle than the established jester archetype, Phillip is nonetheless the sissy. “Homosexuals had changed from victim to victimizer,” narrates Lily Tomlin in the 1995 docu-film The Celluloid Closet. As the words “The Celluloid Closet” might suggest, this book and eponymous film necessarily critiques mainstream Hollywood films with ostensibly queer characters to construct a before/after Stonewall ‘69 narrative. After another scene of another writer lamenting about “the way things were,” The Celluloid Closet cuts to a tragic scene from an old movie presented here as “footage” within this reportage exhibiting just how bad things were for white gays, of a man being tortured in an antiquated mental health facility. A slim nurse and mature doctor—both white in skin and uniform—prepare a struggling patient for electroshock therapy. The man is held down against his will by three strong sailors standing by in uniforms so tight that their buttocks protruded into center screen. Each one submits and gains legitimacy. Only the one who resists is in trouble. The electroshock is the Norman Bates of the Hitchcock world, and we are the sailors, nurses, and doctors just following orders. Moreover, against all the cutting and editing in other films, Rope is particularly cut smooth.

The asphyxiation described above is the opening scene of 1948’s Rope. The two murderers are exasperated after the strangulation, the scene itself opening in darkness with heavy breathing or panting, and their elation has been variously described by fans and film critics like Robin Wood in one popularist magazine as “orgasmic” when discussing the murder the two men’s’ “voices rise to orgasmic tones.” Before decorating the dead man’s makeshift tomb with ornate candelabras, Brandon reveals to Philip: “I don’t remember feeling very much of anything until his body went limp, and I knew it was over.” The homoeroticism here is unmistakable if not well-coded.  On a fan-driven movie review site, Vince Leo writes:

“One element of Rope that is never stated but frequently assumed is that Brandon and Phillip are a gay couple. You do get the feeling the men live together, and they talk of going away on a trip together. There is a casual reference that Brandon has once courted Janet… but given that many gay men have heterosexual relationships (some even marry) before entering homosexual ones, and given that Brandon hardly seems jealous or interested in receiving Janet’s affections any longer (in fact, he practically pushes her on Kenneth), one can still make assumptions as to the sexuality of the men.”

Hitchcock regularly teases fans with his heroes’ indifference towards the advances of beautiful women. Vince Leo goes on to describe the back story to Rope that reminded me of the cult ‘60s sitcom Bewitched—totally straight on camera, but half the cast was queer. It’s like a cherry wedding cake with pomegranate and cream-cheese icing. Smothered between each buttery lavender colored layer of cake was a sweet, creamy lavender froth that made shapes like tulips that bent the light. And decades later, marriage in America is still quite precisely NOT gay. Vince Leo untangles the lavender twine: “the actors that portrayed the men, Dall and Granger, were gay, as were the murderous men to whom Hamilton’s play is inspired by, Leopold and Loeb. It should also be noted that Hamilton’s play is much more overt in its homoeroticism, most of which was stripped away due to censorship issues in the film industry at the time.”

In The Celluloid Closet, West Side Story screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, who co-wrote the screenplay to Rope along with Hume Cronyn, confirms the intensity of heterosexual-chauvinist, patriarchal stereotypes that played out on the bodies of queer characters during that period: “You must pay. You must suffer. If you’re a woman who commits adultery, you’re only put out in the storm. If you’re a woman who has another woman, you better go hang yourself. It’s a question of degree and certainly if you’re gay, you have to do real penance—die!”

Of Carpet-burns and Carpet-munchers

“The infuriating nastiness of Hitchcock’s most homophobic films,” writes John Hepworth in his essay “Hitchcock’s Homophobia, “lies in his willingness—even eagerness—to strike low blows and hold up crowd-pleasing scapegoats” (Out in Culture:  Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture, ed. Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty.  Continuum, 1995: 188). Indeed, it is a “low blow” to assume a voice infused with difference, yet consume difference and regurgitate tools of oppression. Hepworth riffs on: “Whenever Hitchcock reaches for his pet theme of ‘psychological disorder’ you can almost invariably expect him to deal with sexual disorders, and this turn usually means crazy—and I mean crazy—dykes and faggots, like creepy Judith Anderson burning down dear old Manderley in Rebecca or heartless Robert Walker, gutless Anthony Perkins, and sneaky Barry Foster murdering people at the drop of a hat in Strangers on a Train, Psycho, and Frenzy [respectively]” (188).

Hitchcock aficionados realize that Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is the template for the moviemaker’s self-defeating psycho-homos. Notably, critic Ken Mogg claims that Dorian’s malicious joy “ironically anticipates his own fall; it also helps anchor the novel in our fundamental experience.” Many critics would agree with Mogg’s reading of the parallels between Dorian’s schadenfreude—“malicious joy”—and Hitchcock’s narratives. “The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create,” says the wrestler before popping his cork to celebrate the murder. Just as the hijras (emasculated eunuchs) of India have the power to confer fertility on heterosexual couples, the murderous psycho-homo pair in Rope inverts the creation/destruction axis to usurp the power to legitimate their lack of cojones. What About the velvet rope? “Oppressing me/Will oppress you” Janet Jackson sings in “The Velvet Rope” (whereas another song on that same album nails sexual violence even harder).

Riffing off John Munder Ross’ The Sadomasochism of Everyday Life: Why We Hurt Ourselves—And Others—And How to Stop, Ken Mogg writes on the lush film blog Sensensofcinema.com: “First, the aims of sadomasochism are paradoxical. On the one hand, ‘sadomasochists try to plunge back into [our] boundless beginning’ [Ross], attempting to ‘diffuse the lines between self and other’. On the other hand, sadomasochists ‘are like babies who pound and push at their mothers in order to define their bodies and themselves.’” This self-mutilation was a ripe trope upon which Hitchcock could trace out his tormented closeted characters. In Rope and throughout Hitchcock’s psycho-homo flairs, the sexual, psychological violent penetration is used to blur “the lines between self and others,” to invert the other’s power with our powerlessness. Unlike modern practices of S&M, there are no rules to ensure mutuality. There is malice. This extends from the psycho-homo Jefferies in 1954’s Rear Window, penetrating men with his phallic camera lens, to the overt psycho-homo epitomized by Norman Bates. For Mogg, “Jefferies’ repressed homosexual desires will not let him have another man physically, he would prefer to engage in the act of self-gratification or masturbation rather than in heterosexual sexual relations with another woman.” Hitchcock uses his injury to effeminate him vis-à-vis his comrade with whom he shared a homosocial attraction. He also uses that same effeminacy to distance himself from the adorable regular humps-n-lumps in pumps.

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