Censorship of ROPE: Conformity vs. Hitchcock by Katie Reid

The world has changed dramatically since 1948, and so have the cultural and social norms. These changes and new approaches to different topics, like people’s sexuality and religion, have also translated into the world of film. What once was unacceptable to speak of on screen may now be normal to hear in movie theaters. For example, the presence of an openly homosexual character in film did not happen until 1968 in the film The Pawnbroker.[1] Since the world is constantly changing, films tend to follow the same pattern of public opinion at the time. Analyzing what was taken out of films particularly allows for a more in depth look into the morals of the general public when the movie was made. Taking out aspects of a film and storyline and “shielding” a potential audience from certain topics is called “censorship.”

In 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was formed as a group to monitor the scripts of future films before they were created, as well as to regulate what was portrayed on screen and how it was depicted. This group later became the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). In 1930, the MPPDA created the Production Code for films that outlines “rules” for what can be shown on screen and how far specific topics can be taken before being deemed too “scandalous” or “wrong.” These suggestions on what filmmakers should change are written through letters with the film censors and filmmakers.[2] When looking at film censorship through the lens of one particular film, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope, there are many examples of how strict, and sometimes unnecessary censorship was. In that time period though, censorship may have been looked at as “saving the film” in a way, by taking out all of the suggestive and provocative storylines within the main plot of the film. I will argue that the censorship in Rope allows us to better understand the standards of film at the time, in relation to the representation of drinking, moral values, and homosexuality.

Rope takes place in New York City in 1948 when two friends, Brandon Shaw (played by John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (played by Farley Granger) decide they want to experience the thrill of murdering a friend of theirs, David Kentley, as the act was glorified by their college professor, Rupert Cadell. Once these two friends complete their murder, Brandon decides to put David’s body in a library chest in the middle of their living room during a dinner party. Phillip is hesitant about this plan, but goes along with Brandon’s idea to keep the peace in their relationship. The film continues as guests arrive for the dinner party and the rest of the plot revolves around the anxieties that arise between the friends as people begin to wonder where David is. The story behind this film comes from a true story circa 1924, as well as a 1929 play written by Patrick Hamilton. Although the overall story and plot of the film is complex and suspenseful, the main characters lack depth and a certain sense of identity. Particularly within the three main characters, the glimpses of their lives and personalities the audience does get revolve around the murder and their fears of getting caught. This is because the censors took out a majority of their characterizations and traits that could have suggested something considered “wrong” during the 1940s. In looking at the production code for Rope, the process began in 1946 when Hitchcock sent over a copy of the play, written by Patrick Hamilton, to a censor for the MPPDA named Joseph Breen. The play met the requirements for the production code on two conditions: deglamorize the concept of murder and stress different moral values and limit the emphasis on liquor and drinking.

The aspect of the film that was the first concern to censors was the act of murder being so prevalent in the film, and having two lead characters that killed just for what they felt like was the art of killing. Breen wanted to minimize the disturbing aspect of the murder happening and to stress out to the audience by deterring from their moral compass throughout the sadistic killing, which is a nearly impossible task. The main reason for this was because throughout the film, “some very specious but well written speeches in which fundamentally moral values are denied and even made to look ridiculous” were present.[3] Breen also mentioned sections where the Ten Commandments were treated harshly and advised those pieces of dialogue to be taken out as they would be a “great offense to motion picture audiences.”[4] In the play, the censors felt these values were rightfully acknowledged, so reading the film version and realizing how much darker it was made the censors question whether or not the script was acceptable to create into a film.

On December 15, 1947, the second set of letters between Breen and Hitchcock were exchanged. Breen and his office expressed even more concerns about how much enjoyment Brandon got from killing David, and the message that would send to the audience. Since this was a Hitchcock film, it is expected that there would be many darker undertones and themes that may have been unsettling for audiences at the time, such as the act of murder itself and the feelings Brandon in particular had toward the act. Hitchcock assured Breen in his letters that, “the emphasis would not be on the emotional reaction of these characters, particularly Brandon, but rather on the intellectual phase of these two young men.”[5] Breen and his office thought if more attention was placed on the story behind their mindsets and why their idea of killing was geared toward how they thought they were intellectually superior, that would show audiences that these men were maniacal and unhinged. If the emphasis was on their emotions, that would humanize them more, leading toward a possibility of the audience sympathizing with them, which is the opposite of what Breen’s office wanted.

Following Breen’s office expressing their overall concerns, on December 22, 1947, they pointed out specific aspects of the script that worried them. On page one, Breen stated the opening strangulation scene should either be taken out completely, or be executed in a less detailed fashion. Following the strangulation, there is a moment where Brandon is wiping off a glass, which suggests that he is wiping off David’s fingerprints. In a book called Hitchcock and the Censors, John Billheimer wrote, “the ‘unacceptable’ action of Brandon wiping a glass free of fingerprints [could] potentially serve as instruction for would-be murders by the movie audience.”[6] Another overall suggestion that was made was that any hint toward a psychopathic or perverted positive emotional reaction from Brandon or Phillip should be taken out of the script or re-written.[7]

In terms of sending a bad image to the audiences, Brandon’s psychopathic behavior was surprisingly not the biggest concern between the two leading men; it was Phillip’s drinking. In the first letters sent between Breen and Hitchcock, the initial concerns were about the amount of dialogue and emphasis on Phillip’s drinking. In the play, there is a substantial amount of attention on drinking, which was not allowed to transition onto the screen. One suggestion that was made from Breen was restraining the use of liquor, “requesting that it be kept down to a degree necessary for characterization or plot motivation.”[8] Since a big aspect of Phillip’s character is his drinking of champagne as guests arrive at the dinner party in an attempt to calm his anxieties about the crime he just committed, Breen’s office later understood how the use of alcohol was pivotal to the plot. Following this realization, Breen’s office asked Hitchcock and his writers to cut down on the excessive emphasis on drinking, and went on to list ten pages of the script where they felt there was unnecessary significance on alcohol.[9]

The last concern of the censors, and one that had the most traction in the history of the true story behind the film, the characters, and the actors, were hints of a homosexual relationship between the two leading men, Brandon and Phillip. The main aspect of the film, which slid under the radar of the censors for the first months of script development, was the true story behind the plot. The movie is based on the Leopold and Loeb case from 1924 in Chicago, when two teen boys in a homosexual relationship killed their friend in an attempt to commit the perfect crime. Billheimer mentioned this case and how it posed a problem to Hitchcock and the censors in his book by writing, “In Hollywood in the 1940s, both prevailing morality and the Production Code made it impossible to make a film about gay men. This made the filming of a movie based on Patrick Hamilton’s play Rope, which mirrored the notorious Leopold-Loeb murder case in 1924 Chicago, a particularly tricky endeavor.”[10]

Throughout the first letters between Hitchcock and Breen, the concern of a homosexual relationship was never mentioned. The subtext of this relationship was so hidden that the censors looked right past it. It was not until December 15, 1947, when the first mention of a relationship between Brandon and Phillip was brought to Hitchcock’s attention when Breen stated, “We also got a possible flavor in some of the dialogue that a homosexual relationship existed between Brandon and Phillip. This was heightened somewhat by the fact that there is some degree of similarity between these two characters and Leopold and Loeb… such a treatment could not be acceptable under the terms of the Production Code.”[11] This concern followed throughout the letters surrounding the script for the next month, as Breen then went on to point out specific moments of dialogue in the script where a romantic relationship was proposed.

Although Breen and the censors wanted to dismiss any implications of a homosexual relationship in the film, Hitchcock did not. Hitchcock wanted to add a level of secrecy and drama to his films, and make his characters have deeper personalities under the surface. Hitchcock was infatuated with the idea of two gay killers because it deepened their identity. The screenwriter for Rope, Arthur Laurents, said in regard to this, “Hitchcock was so wary of stereotypes that he treated the characters as people. What he liked was not that they were homosexual, but that they were homosexual murderers.”[12] Since the concept of a homosexual relationship within Rope was so important to Hitchcock, and mesmerized him so much, he worked hard to keep any connotations of this theme under the surface of the script. Laurents stated that while working with Hitchcock on the script, he made it clear he wanted “homosexual implications,” such as having Brandon’s character wear cologne and be “mother fixated,” which were stereotypes of gay men in the 1940s.[13] This idea delighted Hitchcock so much that he even went out of his way to hire a homosexual screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, and two gay actors to play his leading men, John Dall and Farley Granger. Adding to Hitchcock’s delight of hiding a secret gay love affair within his film, one was also being hidden outside of the film. Arthur Laurents and Farley Granger were in a relationship for the years surrounding the filming of Rope, and after. Laurents commented that it made Hitchcock excited, saying, “It tickled him that Farley was playing a homosexual in a movie written by me, another homosexual; that we were lovers; that we had a secret he knew; that I knew he knew…All titillating to him, not out of malice or a feeling of power but because they added a slightly kinky touch, and kink was quality devoutly to be desired.”[14] Since there were many connections to homosexuality within the film and surrounding the creation of the film, Hitchcock had to focus hard on making sure those hints of romance did not seep into the script, or else his film and beloved characters would be cut out at the hands of Breen and his censors. Farley Granger commented on Hitchcock’s frustration with the censors in his memoir: “Hitch was incredibly patient. Though, it is obvious that he loved the various challenges. I’d bet that he, too, was getting weary of the restrictions he had to work. The storytelling implications of not being able to be honest about the true relationship between Phillip and Brandon only made it feel more constricted.”[15]

Ultimately, Breen and his office caught onto this inkling of a homosexual relationship and would not let it slide. At one point, Barney Baladan, the New York-based president of Paramount Pictures, wrote to Jack Warner, the president of Warner Brothers at the time, insisting that he distance himself from Rope due to the homosexual nature of the characters and their relationship that compared to the Leopold and Loeb case.[16] Since this aspect of the film was especially controversial, the production company urged Hitchcock to send them each reel after they finished filming. Since Hitchcock filmed Rope in an obscure way through ten-minute takes, Breen and his office were worried if something stood out to be taken out of the movie as they watched the final picture, it would be too expensive and too late to fix it. So, as a way to control the filming process to the best of their ability, they were sent each ten to twelve minutes after each section of the movie was filmed.[17]

On January 23, 1948, Rope was finally approved for production. After sixteen months of sending letters and notes back and forth, Hitchcock and Breen’s office came to final agreements on the film. Ultimately, the fears surrounding Rope were all rooted in moral values and what the public at that time deemed “right.” Murder and psychopathic behavior will always be wrong, but the representation of that in this film made the censors extremely worrisome. Although this is the main premise of the film, extending Brandon’s character into a murderous criminal with no redeeming qualities or value of human life was not going to be allowed by Breen. Drinking was also viewed as being wrong, but since the public at the time was partaking in partying and the occasional drink with friends, this was less of a worry for the censors. The biggest worry was the homosexual relationship in the film. This topic has come a long way from the 1940s, and through these letters we can fully see just how “severe” of a problem it was looked at as being. The fear of the public’s values not lining up with this film dictated the censor’s choices in what to take out, or put less emphasis on. So by analyzing these notes, we now have a clear picture of what the MPPDA was most worried about: psychopathic drunk gay men.


[1] Max Reinhardt and August Strindberg. n.d. “Great Directors: Sidney Lumet.” CUNY Academic Works. Accessed December 6, 2022. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1081&context=qb_pubs.

[2] Lea Jacobs, “The Censorship of ‘Blonde Venus’: Textual Analysis and Historical Method.” Cinema Journal 27, no. 3 (1988): 21–31.

[3] History of Cinema. Selected Files from the Motion Picture Association of America Production Code Administration Collection, (Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 2006), reel 24.

[4] History of Cinema, reel 24.

[5] History of Cinema, reel 24.

[6] John W. Billheimer, Hitchcock and the Censors (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2019), 143.

[7] Billheimer, 5.

[8] History of Cinema, reel 24.

[9] History of Cinema, reel 24.

[10] Billheimer, Hitchcock and the Censors, 141.

[11] History of Cinema, reel 24.

[12] Arthur Laurents, as quoted in Billheimer, Hitchcock and the Censors, 148.

[13] Billheimer, Hitchcock and the Censors, 142.

[14] Arthur Laurents, as quoted in Billheimer, Hitchcock and the Censors, 142.

[15] Farley Granger and Robert Calhoun. Include Me Out: My Life from Goldwyn to Broadway. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 71.

[16] Billheimer, Hitchcock and the Censors, 146.

[17] Billheimer, Hitchcock and the Censors, 143-144.