One of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies has always been Rope. It’s the story of two young men who commit the perfect murder, as inspired by their philosophy professor’s ideas about morality as a human construct. They believe the intellectually superior man not only should not only ignore basic moral laws, but kill those of lesser “contributions” to society. To prove it, they murder their friend David, then invite their professor to a dinner party served off David’s coffin, as an unspoken invitation for him to solve the murder and praise them for their genius.
Many people focus on different aspects of the film, but what has always interested me most is the argument that morality does not exist. The professor, Rupert, played by James Stewart, comes to see through their actions that his theory of morality as a construct is a farce. He does not truly believe what he claims to believe, in the sense that his own “deep inner self would never allow me to commit the actions you have committed.” In the end, he discovers he has a moral conscience separate from his logic.
Put in plain terms, the film proves that actions speak louder than words. Though Rupert helped create these two murderers, that was never his intention or within his abilities as a human being. Rupert cannot, it seems, escape his own morality when it comes right down to actual murder.
I know someone a good deal like Rupert, who has argued against morals in the past, using the same argument—morality is a human construct intended to keep human beings in line; there are no morals apart from what humans “decided” was moral, and we should not feel bound to live by them. I have not seen this person behaving in the manner he espouses… yet. His actions do not match his beliefs, though he would find plenty of arguments to get around that fact while maintaining that he’s actually not living within society’s “moral construct.”
That forces me to think about society and how often we “profess” but do not “act” on our professed beliefs. And thank God we do not, because when we do… we wind up with extremists. Think about it. There are those people who claim certain beliefs or a particular faith—choose one, all of them have unappealing elements that we might consider “immoral”—who are good, moral citizens. And then there are the ones who truly believe whatever they say, and act on it. What is the result? They kill people in their god’s name. They blow up buildings. They shoot abortion doctors. They violate underage girls. They blow up laboratories where they test on animals.
Why? Because their actions match their beliefs. It’s terrifying to us when it happens, because we are so used to people not acting on their professed beliefs. If people actually believed what they said, they would act on it. And often, those actions would be extreme. That is why when extremists commit acts of violence, others of that group denounce it. They do not actually believe everything their chosen system says. If they did, they would feel they had no choice but to take similar action. And they don’t. A person who actually believes their loved ones will burn in hell will stop at nothing to prevent that. Someone who actually believes in global warming won’t get on an airplane and thus contribute to the pollution. Yet, for the most part, we say things and live an ordinary, extremist-free life. Most of us, anyway.
Rope also questions whom society should hold responsible for wicked actions—just the people who do them, or the ideology behind it and its creator. Though Philip and Brandon commit the murderers, Rupert inspired them through teaching the boys his ideology. His starry-eyed philosophical discussions about man-made moral constructs, and how the superior man should be able to commit murder, inspired these two demented young men to act on his ideas, and take them literally. Rupert is as guilty as they are, because without him, they might never have thought of this crime.
This seems more timely than ever, in an age that forces us to ponder whether society should hold artists responsible for any “violence” their art creates. I speak of the movie Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix in what will undoubtedly be an Oscar-award-winning performance. I found it an unsettling and thought-provoking exploration of mental illness, but can also agree with the fear-driven criticism that it glamorizes mental illness and justifies the Joker’s negative, violent attitude toward humanity. Most major psychologists agree that shooters share the same hatred for human beings and sense of rejection by them that the Joker feels. Some fear it will inspire new shooters. Recent history has proven that certain topics in film draw mentally unstable people, who then pervert the film as their “inspiration” (look no further than the Columbine shooting, and the perpetrators’ love of The Matrix, or the The Dark Knight shooting).
And therein lies the quandary. Joker would not inspire a sane person to commit violence. Sane people watched it and walked away unsettled, saddened, or even appalled. Sane people might even, like Rupert, theorize about horrific behaviors without having the moral deficiencies required to translate those fantasies into action. But sane people are not the ones we need to worry about. The recent onslaught of mass shootings has shown us we have an epidemic of unstable people to whom Joker might become an inspiration. The movie seems to validate the unreliable narrator’s feelings about how humanity deserves to die, based on its inhumanity. Not one person in Gotham shows him kindness. Not one person in Gotham is worth saving. And so, the Joker turns against the city, against his former “friends” and coworkers, and against his “hero” who mocks him on live television, and becomes a murderer.
As humans, we cannot possibly live out our spoken beliefs and ideals all the time—that’s impossible. And I don’t know that we should restrict “art” from its exploration of human nature, both the good and the evil. But I think we have a moral responsibility to hold our beliefs to a high standard, and to say nothing we are unwilling to see actualized in the world, in the realization that a less sane individual could use our ideas to inspire violence.