Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Men and Supermen: The Nietzsche Syndrome

Artistic License

Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung admired Nietzsche's work and admitted to gaining ideas from him about human nature. Even the philosophies of self-realization in existential psychology owe a debt to Nietzsche's urge to "live dangerously" and become an individual. Novelists, poets, playwrights, and artists, too, drew inspiration from him and produced some edgy works as a result.

The Leopold-Loeb case inspired a play by Patrick Hamilton, which in turn inspired Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film, Rope. It's the tale of a former housemaster, Professor Rupert Cadell, who learns that what may sound good in intellectual discourse may not be so attractive in practice. He has discussed the ideas of Nietzsche in terms of superior vs. inferior beings and those who can commit murder as an art. Two of the prep school students under his influence, Brandon and Philip, decide to apply this to their own lives. They form a plan.

Movie poster: Rope
Movie poster: Rope

Interestingly, Hamilton and Hitchcock were correct about the general make-up of such teams. One is a psychopath who has aggressive fantasies and who relies on the easy manipulation of a more unstable and insecure person. In this case, Brandon manipulates Philip, getting him to go along with the schemes and relying on his acquiescence. Some psychopaths cannot act alone, but once he or she has a partner in crime who can be urged to act, he will propel their activities through his own urge toward violence. "Good and evil, right and wrong," says Brandon, "were invited for the ordinary average man, the inferior man, because he needs them." Brandon apparently believes he's above all of that. Such need is a weakness he does not share.

To prove that they are "superior beings," they kill a classmate via strangulation with a bit of rope and place his body inside a trunk, which remains in their New York apartment. They cover the trunk with a lace tablecloth and throw a party for the deceased's family and fiancée, which Rupert also attends. When the deceased never arrives, Rupert grows suspicious and returns to the apartment after the party for a drink. He insists that he will open the trunk, and while Philip falls apart over the idea of discovery, Brandon is eager to show Rupert that he is the superior being about whom Rupert has spoken. He has made murder an art. To him, committing the perfect murder is an intellectual thrill. But Rupert is confronted with the horror of his influence and the latent evil in certain young minds. He demands to know by what right Brandon proclaims himself among the superior beings, but he has no real ground to defy him. His own teachings about moral relativism undermine him.

And while this play and film were influenced by one murder, they in turn may have influenced another.

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