"Hello, America. I've been watching a part of the world being blown to pieces.... You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and homes. Don't tune me out – hang on – this is a big story – and you're part of it."
Those are the words of Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), the hero of Alfred Hitchcock's World War II film Foreign Correspondent (1940). Utilizing the then-novel technology of global live radio communications, the character -- modeled on celebrated reporter Edward R. Murrow -- brought live eyewitness reporting of the Nazi attack on London right into the living rooms of America. Once again, Hitchcock demonstrated a keen sense of the historical moment: Foreign Correspondent was playing in theaters at roughly the same time as the real events it portrayed were occurring. (I've written more about the Murrow/Foreign Correspondent connection here.)
Alfred Hitchcock understood the transfixing power of deadly spectacle better than just about anyone. And he summoned his best storytelling skills to make it real for his audiences, which included his canny use of current events to imbue his movies with a sense of immediacy. In more recent years, big-budget Hollywood movies take years to come to the screen. Looking back, it seems courageous – if not audacious – that he was able to pull off Foreign Correspondent while the war was yet revving up.1
That's partly why audiences still get an unsettling shock of recognition even from Hitchcock's earliest films. The hairstyles and hemlines may be a bit dated, yet much about these films remains timely. They almost seem prescient.
As a leading member of the avant garde London Film Society, Hitch rubbed elbows with anarchists and surrealists, absorbing their ideas and incorporating them into his films.
Hitchcock the Surrealist Sabotage (1936), for example, opens with a close-up shot of the dictionary entry for that then-new word. "Sabotage," it says, is destruction carried out "with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness." Sounds a lot like terrorism. The movie involves a terrorist who tries – and fails – to incite terror. In his desperation, he sends a young boy on what turns out to be a suicide bombing mission. Finally, terror erupts. What was before a comic failure is now a grim success. Go rent the movie this weekend, and decide which is more in step with current events: this 70-year-old talkie or President Bush's most recent press briefing.
Sabotage is also a classic surrealist film. Images of aquariums melt into drunken visions of imploding buildings, a woman laughs uncontrollably when she is bereaved of her younger brother, and destruction is meted out for its own sake.
Surrealism wasn't just about melting clocks and other weird dreamscapes. It was the language of political extremism and anarchy. The Surrealists of the '20s and '30s sought earnestly to find a connection between violence, art and modern life. As Andre Breton advocated (advocated!) in his Second Surrealist Manifesto, "The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd."
Salvador Dali upped that ante, recommending that a true surrealist should, for example, place a bomb in the third-class car of a train – for to kill the poor is "more of a scandal." In Sabotage, Hitchcock dropped the equivalent of Dali's bomb. In that film, a little boy unknowingly attempts to deliver a ticking time bomb to its destination on the other side of London. When the bus he is riding is delayed in traffic, the bomb explodes, killing the boy, his fellow passengers and a small puppy -- breaking the first rule of cinema, that children and puppies are always to be spared. Did Hitchcock really envision this scene as an act of cinema terrorism? Think of this: the bomb was hidden inside a 35 mm film can.
Throughout his career, Hitchcock returned again and again to surrealistic devices in his movies because he understood that Surrealism's destructive core makes it an art form as essential to the tumultuous 20th century as a final cigarette is to the victim of a firing squad.3
Recent terrorist developments such as 9/11 or last month's multiple bombing of London's transit system would surely have gotten Hitchcock's Surrealist glands pumping. Terrorist acts are often described as ghastly works of art, theater of the absurd on the largest scale imaginable. They are as surreal as anything committed to film or canvas. And their ability to create terror and chaos via pervasive media exposure further blurs the line between "art" and life.
One of the director's most explicit examinations of the surreal ideologies exploited to justify murder is his 1948 film Rope. This film previews the anarchy to which society seems to be trudging.
Rope: In the right hands, murder can be a work of art.
The two villains in Rope, Phillip and Brandon (Farley Granger and John Dall), are like an exotic species of hothouse flower. They live in an insular world of upper-class privilege and rarified intellectual ideas. Their gay relationship further separates them from normal society. And their elegant apartment, with its expansive rear window that resembles a greenhouse, is the ideal climate for the cultivation of exotic ideas about man's natural social order. Freud and Nietzsche are dropped into the conversation as casually as the names of movie stars.
The party guests are a microcosm of postwar America. Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) the housekeeper represents the working class. Janet Walker (Joan Chandler), the victim's fiancée, writes for a middlebrow women's magazine. Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick), Janet's former lover, is in college, preparing to step into the bustle of America's new postwar frontier. And Mr. Kentley (Cedric Hardwicke) is the guardian of old-world values and civilization that makes possible the carefree life of parties, plays and movies for which the elderly dowager Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier) lives.4
To understand Rope, it is important to understand the context in which it was made. World War II had ended a mere three years earlierv, and Hitler's Nietzsche-inspired plan to create a master Aryan race was still fresh in the public mind. To everyone's relief, "good" (democracy) had vanquished "evil" (Nazism and fascism). That noble end supposedly justified horrific means, such as the firebombing campaigns that immolated Hamburg and Dresden, killing mostly civilians.
Immigrant German novelist W. G. Sebald remarked that even the Germans themselves regarded the firebombing of those cities as "a just punishment, even an act of retribution on the part of a higher power with whom there could be no dispute."6 Publicly, the Allies concurred.
Winston Churchill declared that the Germans, having "loosed these horrors upon mankind, will now in their homes and persons feel the shattering strokes of just retribution."
Privately, however, Allied decision makers expressed ambivalence. Sebald continued: "As accounts and pictures of the effects of area bombing began to appear in England, there was a growing sense of revulsion against the damage that had been ... indiscriminately inflicted."
The shame of war As a decorated World War II bomber pilot who flew some 20 missions, James Stewart – who played the film's Rupert Cadell – was plagued with guilt over his complicity in this action. Returning to Hollywood after the war, he briefly considered retiring from the screen because it seemed somehow indecent to go from dropping bombs on people to entertaining them. Although he did return to making movies, as Amy Lawrence observes, "nearly all of Stewart's postwar roles are haunted by an undercurrent of confusion, guilt, and shame."7
Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the modernist who knew too much.
Having moved the United States in 1939, Hitchcock lived a safe distance from the war. Nevertheless, he was touched personally by events across the Atlantic. His mother remained in London when the war began, and though he tried – and failed – to bring her to the United States where it would be safer, he was only able to convince her to move to his moderately safer home in rural Shamley Green.
Hitchcock contributed personally to the war effort, directing a number of propaganda films and quietly lending his expertise, connections and financial support to other pro-Ally causes. Whenever possible, he voiced his feelings – almost always mixed – about the war through his films.8 Rope is just one example.9
Phillip and Brandon were the cream of American youth: good-looking, Ivy League educated, well-heeled. Over-reaching, they tried to assert their place in a Nietzschean pantheon to whom it was granted the right to commit murder.
Like the Surrealists, Brandon viewed his murder as a work of art. "I've always wished for more artistic talent," he gushed. "Well, murder can be an art, too. The power to kill can be just as exciting as the power to create."
What would Nietzsche have said had he watched Hitler twist his ideas into justification for slaughter? What would he have said about the Allied retaliation and subsequent Anglo-American hegemony? Rupert Cadell, publisher of books with "big words, small type and no sales," represents that posthumous philosopher's voice. Initially, Rupert glibly recommended murder as "an art; not one of the seven lively perhaps, but an art, nevertheless. And as such, the privilege of committing it should be reserved for those few who are really superior individuals."
Later, however, upon seeing the logical outcome of his ideas – an innocent murder victim – strangled and hidden in a wooden chest, Rupert recoiled in horror. "You've given my words a meaning I never dreamed of," he says, "and you've tried to twist them into a cold and logical excuse for your ugly murder." Those words indict both those who killed in Auschwitz and in Hiroshima. As T.S. Eliot's Prufrock stammered, "That is not it at all/that is not what I meant at all."10
By the time Rope was in theaters, America led the world in political and military power. Today, of course, it is an all-but-uncontested authority. The hubris of Brandon and Phillip's claim to being among the "superior few" is doubly noteworthy now.
Author Stanley Hoffman notes that the United States' "self-perception of a unique and benevolent [empire]... irritates allies and adversaries alike. And the oft-expressed contempt for international institutions [such as the United Nations]... has alienated and exasperated many of our best friends."11
Throughout the course of Rope, Brandon intimidated, manipulated and bullied everyone at that dinner party play the role he assigned them. By 1948, America had already begun doing the same thing, engaging in the Cold War pushing match with the Soviets and launching covert CIA operations in Latin America. And now, with the Bush Administration, even the pretense of multilateralism has been dropped. Colin Powell pointedly told members of the House Armed Services Committee, "I want to be the bully on the block."12
Writing for Harper's Magazine, David Armstrong pointed to the irony of such a statement. "This country once denounced those who try to rule the world. [Finally] we rid ourselves and the world of that Evil Empire. Having done so, we now pursue the very thing for which we opposed it. And now that the Soviet Union is gone, there appears no one left to stop us. Perhaps, however, there is.... Those threatened with preemption may themselves launch preemptory strikes.... Pursuing such strategies may, paradoxically, result in greater factionalism and rivalry." What he predicts, then, is anarchy.13
The dinner party in Rope ended in chaos. By the time the guests had left, Phillip and Brandon were on the verge of blows. Fed up with Brandon's controlling behavior, Phillip shouted, "Don't you ever again tell me what to do and what not to do!... I'd just as soon kill you!"14
And then Rupert entered the room. No longer the cool, smirking intellectual, he was simply tired and wanted to put a few things right before going home. When he discovered their crime, Rupert, disgusted as much with himself as with his former students, shouted, "Did you think you were God?"
The point Rope makes is that wars may end, but human nature doesn't. Nazism and its Master Race may have been eradicated, but the willfulness and hubris that led all participants to engage in the war remain. And they're still with us.
Likewise, Salvador Dali and the other giggling Surrealists of his era are gone now, but the world is inching closer to the chaos that they foresaw. With a wink and a cold, hard look at human nature, Hitchcock saw it coming, too. So do others, and it's no longer a laughing matter.
1Hollywood has yet to produce a dramatization of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Producers claim that audiences aren't ready for that kind of realism. I'm not so sure about that. In the days following 9/11, images of the Twin Towers' destruction metastasized from video feed to media fetish to icon. Obviously, audiences can't get enough of those scenes.
On a side note, let's not forget the interviews with eyewitnesses to the towers' destruction who, while combing charred bits of concrete from their hair, declared to news cameras, "It was like watching a movie." Hitchcock, auteur of the greatest spectator art in history, would have laughed.
3If, as Marx claimed, "religion is the opiate of the masses," surrealism could be the opiate-induced hallucination of a dying civilization.
4There are similarities between Rope and Hitchcock's earlier World War II film, Lifeboat (1943). Both are single-set pieces (though one is set in a claustrophobic apartment, whereas the other takes place on the high seas). Both feature a carefully selected cast of characters that represents a microcosm of American life. Lifeboat raised moral questions about the then-current war effort; Rope asked moral questions about postwar ideals. Both feature a journalist, an intellectual, a wealthy businessman, and a hired servant. The Nazi who espouses Nietzsche's "privileged elite" theories is killed in Lifeboat – and is resurrected in Rope as Brandon, Phillip, and, perhaps, Rupert.
5This makes Rope another film that explores then-current or recent world crises. The director was even occasionally ahead of the game. Notorious (1946) includes a subplot involving uranium dust that the Nazis had been obtaining in order to produce an atomic bomb. The script was developed well before the Manhattan Project was public knowledge; for his prescience, Hitchcock came under a Federal investigation.
6On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald, Random House, 2003.
7Ms. Lawrence's superb description of the ambivalence prevalent in postwar America regarding the massive destruction brought about to win the war can be found in her essay, "American Shame: Rope, James Stewart, and the Postwar Crisis in American Masculinity," included in Hitchcock's America (1999), ed. Jonathan Freedman and Richard Millington.
8As a British subject who made some of his earliest films in Germany and later immigrated to the United States, Hitchcock was truly a citizen of the world. He had a special regard for the German spirit that produced such giants as Wagner, Schopenhauer, and Fritz Lang – and he paid homage to it in his movies. Yet, he must have watched in horror as that spirit turned its genius toward the factory-ization of death in the concentration camps, etc.
9And many of them are decidedly ambivalent. His WWII era Saboteur (1942) and Lifeboat (1944) raise the question of who our real enemies are. Made at the height of the war, these films caused his loyalties to come under scrutiny. That he wasn't later blacklisted during the McCarthy era is a testament to his diplomatic genius. Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969) are a study in the grey zone that went largely unaccounted for in the East-West struggles of the Cold War. North by Northwest (1959), another Cold War film, speaks to Hitchcock's perspective when Thornhill (Cary Grant), disgusted by the conflict's cost to humanity, complains to a U.S. government agent that "we should try losing a few cold wars."
10From "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," T. S. Eliot, 1917.
11American Prospect, Sept. 23, 2002, "America Alone in the World."
12This is Colin Powell's now-famous declaration to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee from early 1992 as he elucidated what has come to be called the Powell Doctrine, which called for "pre-emptive strikes." Quoted in the Harper's article below.
13Harper's, October 2002, "Dick Cheney's Song of America."
14I can't help seeing a further parallel between Brandon and Phillip and the relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain. Just as Brandon dominates the relationship between these two men, America plays a dominant role in global politics, with Britain taking a submissive position. But that's just me. However, recent demonstrations in Britain suggest that they, like Phillip, may not put up with that situation for much longer.
If you're interested, here's my TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED blog post about 9/11: