Hitchcock, Zeal and the Velvet Rope

Diepiriye Kuku

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 “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.

Next Page

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

In this exploration of the Hasidic Orthodox Jewish community in New York, it can be inferred that religion is likened to a spatial cave within a wider world of cultural beliefs, ideas and means of expression.

Menashe (2017) marks Alex Lipschultz's debut as a screenwriter. He shares co-writing credit with director Josh Z. Weinstein for whom the film marks his own narrative directorial feature debut. In as much as it is a film of firsts, Menashe is a reemergence of an historical Jewish language that has been absent from the modern cinematic art form for many decades. For Lipschultz it's certainly the continuation of his storytelling journey, building on his producing credits that include feature films Computer Chess (2013) and Lovesong (2016), as well as Richard Linklater's television series Up to Speed (2012).

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.