Monday, August 10, 2009

Frenzy


Alfred Hitchcock's penultimate film, Frenzy, was also his return to his native England after a lengthy absence. The familiar territory seems to have done him some good, as Frenzy is a self-assured, energetically made film. It's certainly an improvement on his previous two pictures, Torn Curtain and Topaz, undeniable low points in which the director seems to have been only sporadically engaged by his own material, demonstrating mere flashes of his previous brilliance. Which is not to say that Frenzy returns Hitch to the top of his form, but it does display his characteristic wit and verve, his morbid humorous streak and eye for striking compositions; despite the subject, one of the suspense master's darkest, Hitch actually seems to be having fun again.

Of course, this fun is problematic, since the film is about a sexual deviant raping and killing women in London. Hitch has a rather perverse idea of fun, and this is perhaps the film that most clearly displays his own deviancy: his ambivalence towards women, his simultaneous repulsion from and fascination with sex, his masochism towards his characters. In many ways, Hitchcock's own perspective on this material is best represented by the early scene in which a group of pub patrons discuss the "necktie murders" and speculate about what's going on. They're clearly excited and particularly interested in the sexual component of the crime. An elderly bar maid seems almost turned on when she asks a customer, "he rapes them first, doesn't he?" A pair of customers, meanwhile, trade quips about the murders before one of them concludes that the whole thing is good for tourism: "Foreigners somehow expect the squares of London to be fog-wreathed, full of hansom cabs and littered with ripped whores, don't you think?" One can sense Hitchcock's dry, morbidly blunt wit in these lines, and in many others like them scattered throughout the film. Not since The Trouble With Harry has Hitch joked so blithely about death.

But this is a much darker film than The Trouble With Harry, in which the titular corpse was merely an inconvenience for a group of easygoing country folk. Frenzy is decidedly more ambivalent about death: Hitchcock's gallows humor rubs uncomfortably up against some of the most startlingly violent sequences in his entire filmography, scenes reminiscent in their grim, realistic violence of the brutal farmhouse assassination at the center of Torn Curtain. The two different approaches to violence are apparent even in the very first scene, in which, after Hitch's roving camera pans majestically down the length of a London river during the credits, he takes up a vantage point looking down at a politician's speech. The speech, about purifying the river of its pollution and garbage, is interrupted when the body of a naked woman comes floating up to shore; the scene is both bitterly ironical and horrifying.

Later, there's certainly no trace of this dark humor in the scene where the necktie killer, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) rapes and then strangles a young woman named Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt). Hitch shoots the scene almost entirely in alternating closeups between the increasingly sweaty, contorted face of the killer and the dispassionate look on Brenda's face as she's raped, quietly reciting prayers and trying to distance herself from what's happening to her. The scene is horrifying, as much for its small details as anything: Hitch inserts closeups of Bob removing his victim's bra and then, later in the scene, another of her discretely covering up again, trying to salvage her dignity even in the midst of a rape. The actual murder is then filmed in tight closeups, cutting briskly between the killer's distorted face and his victim's gasping sputterings, her hands scraping at the tie wrapped around her throat. Hitchcock caps off this horrific sequence with a shot of Brenda's corpse, the tie still wrapped around her throat, her mouth gaping open with her tongue sticking off to the side. It's a cartoonish, grotesque image, following up on the queasy horror of the rape and murder itself, and visually it rhymes with the closeups of Bob during the murder, his tongue protruding slightly from between his lips in his excitement. The whole sequence is one of Hitchcock's most unsettling and explicit, replacing the artful misdirection of many of the master's earlier films — like the famous shower scene in Psycho — and instead forcing his audience to confront this violence directly: face to face, as it were.


In spite of the especially dark and lurid approach to the violence, in other ways the film is familiar territory for Hitchcock. It's a "wrong man" thriller, since the murdered Brenda is in fact the ex-wife of down-and-out former military man Dick Blaney (Jon Finch). Blaney is the focus of the film's opening, as he loses his job as a bartender, flirts with his girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey), and goes to visit his ex-wife, having several very public arguments with her that will, to say the least, look very bad when she's murdered the next day. Naturally, Blaney instantly becomes the top suspect as the necktie killer, and he goes into hiding while trying to figure out how to clear his name and catch the real murderer. Actually, though, in many ways Hitchcock seems to be only going through the motions of his usual wrong man storyline, perhaps because Finch is such a bland actor and Blaney such an uninteresting, unsympathetic everyman hero, a whiny jerk who treats the women in his life rottenly. Hitchcock seems much more interested in the charming but sinister Bob, who occasionally slips subtle misogynist comments into his conversations, indications of the inner darkness that otherwise only appears during his murders; mostly, he's a well-respected businessman, running a fruit stand where he chats amiably with everyone in the neighborhood.

Hitchcock also gets a lot of fun out of the Scotland Yard detective investigating the case, Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowan). This fine chap doesn't seem to do much actual policework, mostly just hanging around thinking and waiting for the solution to fall into his lap, which eventually of course it does. In the meantime, Hitchcock takes great delight in the inspector's domestic dilemma: Oxford's wife (Vivien Merchant) has developed a passion for gourmet cooking, and has stopped making the simple, substantial meals he enjoys, opting instead for bizarre delicacies like a grotesque-looking soup with huge chunks of black and tentacled seafood floating in its murky broth, or pigs' feet served in a creamy white sauce, or tiny little roast birds with virtually no meat on them. Hitchcock lingers over these odd, unappetizing meals, and the inspector's teeth-gritted reaction as he struggles to choke them down (or dispose of them otherwise) without indicating his displeasure to his wife. The food is baroque and ugly, and as he eats the inspector invariably discusses the particulars of his case, adding to the nauseating quality of these scenes.

Food and murder are also mixed memorably in an outlandish sequence in which Bob, after murdering a woman, realizes that she had grabbed a potentially incriminating tie pin off his jacket and still held it in her rigor mortis death grip. The trouble was, he'd just thrown her in a sack of potatoes and left her in the back of a truck, and when he goes back out to retrieve the pin, the truck driver heads off onto the road with Bob and the body still in the back. The scene is staged as an almost comic suspense sequence, which is interesting since it places the audience in the position of rooting for the killer to hide the evidence of his horrible crime. The driving score suggests suspense, but the action of the scene itself is absurd, as Bob digs through a bag of potatoes, trying to uncover the body, getting the stiff feet rammed into his face, scrambling among rolling potatoes, and finally finding that the girl's hand is wrapped so tightly around the pin that he has to actually break her fingers one by one to retrieve the evidence. It's just another example of how unusual Hitchcock's perspective on death is here: he certainly has no respect for the dead, no discretion, and his portrayals of death are messy and ugly and brutal, as well as somewhat silly. Maybe that's the point, that there's no dignity in death, no sense in appealing to "good taste" when it comes to such horrid things. Instead, he wallows in the ridiculous and horrifying aspects of these crimes, never flinching away no matter what happens.

18 comments:

Tower Farm said...

I really like this movie, and it always surprises me that I enjoy it as much as I do. But you're right...Hitchcock seemed invested in this movie, as opposed to previous films like "Torn Curtain" and others. He was clearly having fun and stimulated by the script.
-Billy

Juliette. said...

"Of course, this fun is problematic, since the film is about a sexual deviant raping and killing women in London."

Problematic indeed. That line is perfection.

I actually enjoy this one more than a lot of his later stuff. Probably my favorite from 1960 on, though I've yet to see Family Plot.

Ed Howard said...

Billy, yeah, I think it's always very obvious when Hitchcock is and isn't having fun, when he really cared about a film. You can see him engaged in patches of Torn Curtain and Topaz, in isolated set pieces, but here he's really making a Hitchcockian film all the way through.

Juliette, thanks, I'm glad my ironic understatement got across. Hitchcock's approach to sexuality and violence here is troubling and fascinating. I've got Family Plot lined up next, looking forward to it; then I'll just have to circle back and catch up on some of his British period.

Juliette. said...

Indeed. Golly, now I'm in the mood to watch one of his earlier things...I think I'll go with Blackmail. :)

Sam Juliano said...

Wow. For some reason this review here caught me by surprise. This is one of those late Hitchcocks that is often forgotten. It's far from a great film, but methinks you right focus on the various joys that survive the conventions, namely the black humor and those fabulous supporting characters.

Ed, you are a bit touch on the old guy here:

"Of course, this fun is problematic, since the film is about a sexual deviant raping and killing women in London. Hitch has a rather perverse idea of fun, and this is perhaps the film that most clearly displays his own deviancy: his ambivalence towards women, his simultaneous repulsion from and fascination with sex, his masochism towards his characters."

I personally thought the gallows humor was a hoot. Again, not remotely among his best films, but still rather unique in its successful blendingof divergent elements.

Sam Juliano said...

tough instead of touch.

**cheap dollar-store reading glasses**

AFB said...

"Almost" nothing, the potato truck scene is the funniest sequence in any Hitchcock film!

Greg said...

Hitchcock always played with his fetishes right there on the screen. There's nary a Hitchcock film that does not at some point or another direct focus to the dominance of the woman and the violent insecurity of the man but his later films did so more lightheartedly and fetishistically, such as Barbara Harris stepping on Bruce Dern's face, hard, in Family Plot.

The potato truck scene was a way of combining body parts, death and sado/masochism into one perverse stew of suspense comedy alchemy. I think if Hitchcock had been born 30 or more years later his films would have had a decidedly more violent and perverse tone, one that might have stripped away at the artistry of his vision. I think that's why, in the end, his later work fails for me, this one included. While he was never a director of subtlety there was a restraint in his work that created taut plots and tense atmospheres that disappeared from his work in the sixties and seventies once the restrictions were lifted.

Ed Howard said...

Why the surprise, Sam? Hitchcock's pretty much always at least interesting to me, even in supposedly "lesser" films. It's a weird and fun(ny) film with a lot to recommend it. Maybe I was being too hard on Hitch. Don't get me wrong, I get a kick out of the pitch-black humor here, but at the same time it's hardly without its problems.

AFB, I do agree it's a funny scene; and a disturbing one too. Hitchcock puts the audience in the position of sympathizing with the killer, laughing at his problems with this uncooperative corpse. It's hilarious and unsettling.

Ed Howard said...

Greg, that's very perceptive. I think you're right that the loosening of restrictions in the late 60s and 70s allowed Hitchcock, in his final films, to explore his darker tendencies in more unvarnished ways. That's why I say this is the film that most clearly displays Hitchcock's somewhat ambivalent, misanthropic attitudes, especially in its rather abrasive dark humor. In the earlier films, it was possible to simply enjoy the suspense and the more symbolic, formalistic playing out of Hitchcock's fetishes and fantasies. Here, there's less civilizing veneer between the audience and the director's glib wisecracking. That makes Hitchcock's later films much more unpleasant than his earlier ones. But I for one think this is interesting, and though I certainly think Hitch's best work was well behind him by this point, these films are fascinating in their own way.

Ryan Kelly said...

Maybe I'm alone on the love for this one, which wouldn't surprise me. But I think if you look at his earlier works and think of them more as satires of British class and mores than suspense thrillers, I think that helps illuminate why this movie's sense of humor comes off as tasteless --- but I find his observations funny and humorous. Like, when the couple takes in an accused serial murderer/rapist because it would be rude not to! Even when he's being grotesque, I enjoy it because you feel that he's getting a kick out of the naughtiness. And he acknowledges that murder and rape are indeed chilling, and not funny at all. The sequence where the main character's ex-wife is raped is chilling, and that long take going down the stairs and out the door when his coworker is murdered is simply harrowing. Also one of the best shots in Hitchcock's oeuvre I think.

Juliette. said...

Ryan-- I didn't really get the impression that anyonethought the humor in Frenzy was tasteless. It's one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, actually.

Ed Howard said...

Ryan, I don't think you're alone at all. Other than Greg, everyone here's expressed some admiration for this movie. The humor here is dark and illustrative of Hitchcock's more morbid tendencies, but that doesn't mean I don't get a kick out of it.

I'm glad you mentioned that backwards pan after the killer takes Babs inside his apartment, too. That's definitely a really chilling shot. There's this sense of helplessness to it, dragging the audience away as this girl gets murdered, unseen and unheard, with no one to help her. It really drives home the horror of it.

AFB said...

I recently spoke at a conference with a fellow scholar who was knee-deep in writing a tome on this film, and the book's working title was something like "Hithcock's Final Masterpiece"-- It has it fans, alright!

Tommy Salami said...

I enjoy this one a lot, Hitch makes us implicit in a lot of it and glories in the public's thirst for true crime tales.

J. Nyhuis said...

Not a big fan of Frenzy, but I adore Family Plot, Ed. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on that one.

And not to rain on your upcoming parade, but I see that Jonathan Rosenbaum, coincidentally, just published published his 1976 review of FP at his website, which is quite enjoyable and covers some of (but not all of) what I love about the film.

J. Nyhuis said...

Oh, here's the link:

http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=16375

Rick Olson said...

I kind of agree with Greg, actually ... I think "Frenzy" is, for me, his most disagreeable film.