Character Study: Rupert Cadell (‘Rope’, 1948)
I recently read an article in which the author questioned whether a psychopath could be a good person. Scientists have studied psychopathic behaviors enough that they’ve come full-circle, considering that psychotic people should be viewed with empathy and even admiration. After all, they are focused, not driven by emotions, but by reason, and they can be motivated to do what is “right” without being swayed by feelings in the moment of truth. They are eerily useful to society. The psychotic mind is calculated, motivated, and not all bad, as it turns out.
Psychopaths lead and others follow them, partly out of intimidation and partly in awe of their strength. As I read this piece, I considered whether or not Rupert Cadell, played so with such tenderness by James Stewart, was a true psychopath. This is an important question for me, because the twisted-up morality streak I’ve noted so far in Hitchcock’s films would be broken if the philosopher was actually a psycho. If Cadell was a murderer, for example, there would be no point in making the movie. If that were the reality, as it was true that, in 1929, two boys killed their classmate as part of a plot to commit the perfect crime, then this would not be anything more than a case of repulsive behavior, not worth more than a few dollars… cheap horror.
Cadell isn’t a psychotic murderer. He isn’t psychotic at all. He is the rare character who dares to shoot the gun, but at no one, and on purpose, for the effect of the sound of violence. He brings righteousness, not ruthlessness. He isn’t even crude in his sarcastic dinner party humor. In a film with scenes of gross morbidity, Cadell is the only living being who risks his life searching for a murderer, and it is not only a quest to save anyone, but to uphold his own understanding of society. He is noble. He is unsteady, but quickly gains his footing as he uncovers Richard and Brandon’s crime. He turns first on his former students for doing something terrible, then on himself for having discussed similar ideas in a philosophical breath, the he turns on his visions and they come crashing down around him. Bang! Bang! Bang! He shoots. A bullet for each murderer. But there were only two psychotic killers, the ones who held the rope. Cadell is a hero, because he changed his mind. He is good, but not a good psychopath, because he never had the dark urge in him to begin with. He is not the useful psychopath, and that’s a relief.