Hitchcock, Zeal and the Velvet Rope

[17 June 2010]

By Diepiriye Kuku

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.

Hitchcock’s psycho-homo characters fall in the tradition of Dorian Gray

Hitchcock’s psycho-homo characters fall in the tradition of Dorian Gray, and also in author Flannery O’Connor’s satirical tradition of an ensemble of egotistically-grandiose characters. All of their characters are somehow, fatally humanly flawed. Hitchcock’s characters are darker than O’Connor’s—they are aware of their egos. So why would one argue that Hitchcock has a particular bone to pick with homosexuals, when virtually all Hitchcock’s main characters somehow veil their true identities and intentions? One tasty case in point pairs Hitchcock with one of America’s favorite moms. Lamb to Slaughter, is a 1958 Hitchcock-directed, Emmy-nominated episode of the half-hour show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in which Barbara Bel Geddes (1922-2005), plays a cheating policeman’s pregnant wife. Indeed, J.R.’s momma long before she moved to South Fork.

As compared to the deep swells of laugher one gets when reading O’Connor’s accounts of the pathology of racism in everyday life in the south, Hitchcock’s storytelling always seems to queer laughter. So, at the end of Lamb to Slaughter, the murderess wife explodes with such a laugh. In the background we hear the police chorus moaning is gastronomic glee. Hitchcock presents us with the wife sitting waiting patiently as her murdered husband’s colleagues eat up the evidence. “It could be sitting right here under our noses,” one cops says off screen as the frame freezes on the wife. She listens and looks on intently, and bursts out laughing at her murdered-husband’s colleagues’ buffoonery. A pretty face, a smile, a simple looking blond pregnant wife, a belly full of meat, and the boys were on their way. That girl is poison. She is diabolical. We neither laugh with her, nor enjoy the glee in the other room as the officers feast on the murder weapon. We may not sympathize with the husband she murdered. He, too, is diabolical, abruptly demanding a divorce from this hapless homemaker.

Though many of Hitchcock’s characters like Bel Geddes appear whimsical in their madness, Hitchcock’s homosexual characters are uniquely pathological. It isn’t only that fans watch as those psycho-homo characters experience ecstasy in the demise of others. On the contrary, audiences are ultimately induced to take pleasure in the demise of the lurid homosexual.

Other characters in this zealot’s projections of normal society may be more richly hued, or rendered more simple and abstract. Yet, the “homo is psycho,” is a favorite pet—the beast to ride to success. The self-identified gay comes to represent the antithesis of the status quo, where all else goes where at least the façade of heterosexuality is preserved.

Power Inversion: Then

Around the time of films like Rope particular sorts of social upheavals such as explicit racism and white-vigilante terrorism that plagued American life had not yet gained mass political resistance. The net weight of that social upheaval was projected by many artists of the time, not least of which were those associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Indeed, while Hitchcock was going on projecting mad whiteness on screen, he did not operate within a vacuum of indignant, vibrant countercultural production. Certainly, the era’s prominent Black artists had come to realize that self-love is the most radical tool to resistance to white-supremacy. In addition to exploring the flawed human condition (e.g., Zora Neal Hurston and later James Baldwin), the emerging black aesthetic valued self-determination and celebrated creative ways of disidentifying with normative power. This was not just mocking “the other.” In fact, all the rage that had swelled in places like Harlem had provided the space to spit in the face of Jim and Jane Crow. Yet, even those characters did not match Hitchcock’s darkness. One has to wonder what sorts of feedback Hitchcock received from his comrades and colleagues, particularly those who were in fact queer. Dealing with the sort of dissimulation that plagues Wilde’s infamous character had become a basic aspect of black identity in the new world. Similarly, Hitchcock’s characters are terribly dissimulated, torn between survival and desire.

Power Inversion: Now

During this period of American Apartheid, there were even “black-n-tan” sissy parties. These trans-fests attracted the daring white elite men who could delve into the jungle way away from the prying eyes of their wives, professions and ‘class’ mates. It is eerie how reminiscent the black-n-tan scene seems given the recent pictures circulating proving that Christian Right leader George Rekers has a virtual identity on RentBoy.com. Rekers advocated on behalf of an overtly anti-gay ministry. He is a deeply closeted homosexual. By this, Rekers literally embodies the psycho-homo. Imagine the lives ruined by men like him in the process of producing themselves as a psycho-homo. S&M is the axis most often used to invert power in these zealots’ fantasies. This ranges from Hitchcock’s silver screens, to the fantastical world purported by Christian evangelists like Ted Haggard, and the same world that Senator Larry Craig projected in his political life.

The sensationalist coming out of staunch homophobes like Senator Larry Craig and religious zealot Reverend Haggard has made real for mainstream audiences how “repressed homosexuality” gets translated into rampant homophobia. People who are OK with themselves tend to be OK with “others”. Back in popular film, Hitchcock’s psycho-homo still lives, albeit in marginalization. This is epitomized in the penultimate scene in 1999’s American Beauty, which provided a fresh template for the self-hating soldier of god or country, who is really a repressed homosexual. Those repressed feelings left that new-neighbor/harsh-military-dad character as fragmented. He was not OK with himself and therefore punished produced a toxic environment for himself and his family. As became clear in the penultimate scene, he was either going to punish or penetrate a homosexual to usurp his own legitimacy. The line is THAT thin.

For the zealots, hating homosexuals emerged as a public means to denounce their own cravings. It is a form of homophobia, rendered particularly insidious by the self-inferiorization. Where some adopt slang to signify their identification with their fantasy of counterculture (where blackness is a common marker of counterculture), these zealots use psycho-homos to signify their disidentification with their fantasy of gay culture. The trouble is that Hitchcock’s fantasies of gay culture were perhaps reduced to his own inner, or psycho-logical demons.

Now imagine the S&M sex play between the three men in the opening scene of Rope, where the murdered body served as the pornographic fodder facilitating that the two murderers reach orgasm together. Like Jefferies’ long black lens in Rear Window, the dead body is a tool for their self-gratification of the psycho-homos in Rope. Through inverting axes of public/private, legitimate/illegal, power/powerless, fear/courage, the two also inverted the heterosexual/homosexual through the psycho-homo experience they produce through their murderous plan and execution.

In spite of their homosocial relationship between the murderers, their normative gender roles leave the hetero-chauvinism intact. Together, they pant and sweat. The feminine one needs comfort and reassurance. The masculine one strikes a match and lights his fag; he feels exhilarated by his show of power—strangling the life out of an unlikely target. Isn’t this Andrew Cunanan, the serial murderer who struck out for rich white gay men!?! Like the characters in Rope, they used murder to demonstrate their own power to penetrate their own powerlessness. He struck platinum by murdering Gianni Versace at the doorsteps of his mansion right on Miami Beach. And that’s where you notice—Hitchcock is like Cunanan, the serial murderer who wanted to stamp out normative society by crushing that with which he wished to identify, yet was too weak. Instead of dealing with his own demons, he mutilates his icons. Welcome to the dungeon. There are whips, chains, slings, slaves, traps, masters, and mistresses. All of this goes on under the cloak of darkness, and beneath the cloak of normalcy. Someone might even get shat on.

Diepiriye Kuku is a Nigerian-American sociologist and choreographer based in New Delhi, India. As a jazz, soul, funk, disco, hip-hop and pop aficionado, Diepiriye is most critical of the gender, race and class hierarchies projected onto large and small screens.

Diepiriye Kuku is a New Delhi based Nigerian-American sociologist, public educationist, writer and choreographer from Kentucky.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/126891-hitchcock-zeal-and-the-velvet-rope/