TIME (19/Jun/1972) - Still the Master
- article: Still the Master
- author(s): Jay Cocks & Gerald Clarke
- journal: TIME (19/Jun/1972)
- issue: volume 99, issue 25
- journal ISSN: 0040-781X
- publisher: Time Incorporated
- keywords: Alec McCowen, Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville, Anna Massey, Anthony Shaffer, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Barry Foster, Bel Air, Los Angeles, California, Covent Garden, London, Frenzy (1972), Gerald Clarke, Jon Finch, Marnie (1964), Scotland Yard, Topaz (1969), Tower Bridge, London, Universal Studios, Vivien Merchant
In case there was any doubt, back in the dim days of Marnie and Topaz, Hitchcock is still in fine form. Frenzy is the dazzling proof. It is not at the level of his greatest work, but it is smooth and shrewd and dexterous, a reminder that anyone who makes a suspense film is still an apprentice to this old master.
Frenzy is the first film that Hitchcock has shot in England for more than 20 years. Like a prodigal at home again, he lets his camera roam lovingly across London—Tower Bridge to Covent Garden, Hyde Park to Scotland Yard, where Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) is trying to solve the unsavory murders of a dozen London women who have been strangled with a silk tie.
The latest to fall victim to the strangler are the ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and the girl friend (Anna Massey) of a former R.A.F. ace, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch). The screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, author of the Broadway thriller Sleuth, almost too painstakingly builds up the circumstantial evidence that points to the ex-flyer as the killer. After Blaney is in custody he finds out what the audience has known all along: that he has been framed by his good pal Bob (Barry Foster).
The film has some shaky motivation and more than a fair share of trickery, but Hitchcock is such a superb storyteller that few viewers will even notice till well after the final fadeout. What they will notice is the perversity of the film. In one mind-boggling sequence, Bob tries to pry his diamond pin from the stiff fingers of the corpse that he has stashed inside a potato sack.
The actors are all proficient; Foster's flamboyant Bob, picking his teeth with that tie pin, is particularly telling. There are also Hitchcock's usual moments of high comedy, here involving Inspector Oxford and his wife, who is taking a course in gourmet cookery and assaults her husband's stubbornly English palate with a selection of highly sauced dishes. It is an old joke that would have worn pretty thin but for the performances of Alec McCowen and Vivien Merchant, the most elegant comic acting seen in movies in a long while.
Alfred Hitchcock professed to be indignant at being misquoted. "It has been said that I called actors cattle. I would never say such a rude, insulting thing," he told TIME's Gerald Clarke last week. "What I probably said was that all actors should be treated like cattle."
At 72, the world's most famous film director may waddle a bit more slowly and his double chin may now be subdivided into a triplex, but no one, particularly an actor who strays into his corral, can doubt that there is still only one brand on a Hitchcock film.
Hitchcock writes, films and edits a picture — on a screen some place behind his hazel eyes — long before the cameras are loaded. "I can make a film on paper," he says. "I never improvise." The grisly scene in Frenzy in which the killer wrestles with a dead body in a potato sack — almost certain to be enshrined by the Cahierists — was dictated by Hitchcock to his secretary one day at lunch, with every stomach-curdling movement laid out in exactly 118 takes.
The actual filming is almost an afterthought. The script and preparation of Frenzy, for example, took six months, and Hitchcock's always meticulous casting took another two. Shooting, by contrast, lasted only 55 days. When the cameras begin rolling, says Hitchcock, "I'd just as soon not make the picture. The creative thing is over, and you begin to compromise."
Few modern films are "cinematic" enough for Hitchcock. "What do you see now?" he asks. "Photographs of people talking, which is only an extension of the theater. Or car chases, which are just movement. Pure cinema is the assembly of pieces of film that when put together create an idea in the mind of the audience. And out of that idea comes an emotion."
With Hitchcock, in films and in life, style is everything, and not the smallest detail escapes his eye. His dress is impeccable if funereal, and his life, so serene as to seem un-Hitchcockian, is as well planned as his movies. He and his wife of 46 years, Alma, live in a two-bedroom house in Bel Air, Calif.; the only thing unusual about it is the large kitchen, with walk-in refrigerator and a wine cellar, which has a vast if diminishing collection. The prices of French wines today are too much even for a director who makes on the order of $500,000 a film.
Rarely do he and Alma entertain, and just as rarely do they allow themselves to be entertained. Bedtime, in fact, is a spartan 9 o'clock; he gets up at 7, and when he is between pictures is usually in his office at Universal Studios in Los Angeles by 10, poring over scripts, stories and reports of juicy murders in the London papers.
"Nobody," Hitchcock claims, "has a sense of humor any more," and he has quit playing practical jokes on his friends. But he relishes them in retrospect. Once, he remembers, he served a dinner in which everything on the table, from meat to butter, was dyed blue. Another time he put place cards of non-guests behind each plate, so that no one was sure that he was in fact invited. Now, fortunately perhaps for everyone, he confines his rather special sense of humor to the screen.