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New York Times (30/Jul/1972) - Does 'Frenzy' Degrade Women?




Does 'Frenzy' Degrade Women?

I'm tired of going to movies and seeing women get raped. It makes me so damned angry. And what also makes me angry is the way critics can go blithely along passing cinematic judgments on films while ignoring all sorts of questions raised by their content. Alfred Hitchcock's latest film, "Frenzy," is a perfect example. Here is Vincent Canby in The Times: "Strangulation, rapes, close shaves, pursuits, the arrest of an innocent, amusing character bits — none of these things is especially meaningful except in Hitchcock, for whom method is meaning, and whose perfection of method involves an evident passion."

Method may sometimes be meaning (a judgment that only a phenomenologist can really dig), but there is also plain old garden variety meaning is meaning, and some of the meanings this film suggested to me include:

1. Women are naturally victims.

2. Psychopathic rapists are basically nice guys (Canby calls the one in "Frenzy" "a genial London fruit wholesaler") screwed up by their mums.

And on a secondary and more insidious level:

3. There is a certain glamour and excitement in rape and murder (i.e. it's a turn-on).

4. Women better watch out if they're independent, living alone, living without a man, because there are a lot of sick guys around.

Now it is no secret that the American public digs violence: the movies, television, and the daily press provide ample proof of our real tastes. What the critics seem to ignore, probably quite unconsciously, is that a film like "Frenzy" panders to a taste for the perverse, may even encourage it. I don't mean this simplistically, like saying that bank robbery films encourage people to become bank robbers. They probably don't.

But sex and violence are so close to the surface in so many people's lives — men still beat up their wives; over 37,000 rapes were reported in the U.S. in 1970, while countless rapes went unreported — that it is quite possible a certain percentage of the movie audience is really titillated by the loving camera treatment of the murder, the lingering focus on the slowly expiring victim, the flashback strangulation, the frequent shots of nude dead female bodies.

Hitchcock would surely deny that the protagonist is a hero in such a work (just as the directors of "Ten Rillington Place," "The Boston Strangler," and "No Way To Treat a Lady" — all films in the genre of the murderer as sexual pervert — would), and on the most obvious level he would be correct (even though he readily admits: "I'm not personally offended by sex and violence"), since the morality of such films is generally impeccable. After raping and murdering X number of females, the man is finally apprehended by the police, and the film ends, as all such standard morality tales do, on the note that crime does not pay — a note that every unrecognized rapist in the audience knows in his heart is false.

The ending is a kind of necessary, Hollywood-style moral tag, false to reality but also false to the film which precedes it, where the agony is not "exquisite" (as Canby maintains in a striking example of male insensitivity; I doubt if he'd find emasculation exquisite), but sick — sick as all acts of wanton brutality are sick. This is not a case of consenting adults, a situation where I would be loath to call any act perverse; this is a case of rape. RAPE. The word means violence. There is no such thing as nonviolent rape; if the woman is willing, it is not rape. (Probably Mr. Canby has never been raped.) Now Robert, the genial London greengrocer, is a man who gets his kicks from taking women against their will, violating them absolutely. Then, as the pièce de résistance, he strangles them with his necktie, a new one for each victim.

Is he a hero? Yes, in a curious way the film suggests he is. Even Canby, who, we can assume, is not a sexual psychopath, admits that Hitchcock has a "gift for implicating the audience in the most outrageous acts, which, as often as not, have us identifying with the killer. In one agonizing sequence, we are put into the position of cheering on (well, almost) the maniac ..." I wasn't cheering him on, Mr. Canby. If nothing else, the psychopath is a man of action — he actually lives his fantasies — and we in the West have always admired men of action. The purported villain in any work of art may also play, on another level, the role of hero; the very strength of his drives attracts admiration.

Like the hero Stephen Rojack in Mailer's "An American Dream" (who murders his wife and then sodomizes her maid), Robert, the genial greengrocer, treads the thin line which we in America draw between healthy masculine assertiveness and genuine perversion. For the neurotic in the audience, the man who regularly fantasizes rape, "Frenzy" must provide a highly stimulating experience; in sheer voyeuristic turn-on alone it is worth the price of admission. The saner sorts, like Canby, can dig it as "a marvelously funny script."

And what were my own responses to the film? I identified with the victims, at the same time hating and fearing their total innocence and impotence. When the killer is in the office of the business woman — whose business, ironically, is making marriages and finding companions—I shuddered as I watched him go through his routine. First he attempts to charm and seduce ("You're my kind of woman"); when she resists, all business ("I'm afraid I can't help you"), he becomes more persistent, more demanding.

Although she was not aware of her danger from the start, from the moment he entered her office, I was. I knew she was like a mouse in a cage being toyed with by a giant grinning cat. But I also knew how she felt, that firm belief in her own ability to control an encounter (that we independent women cling to), that crazy belief in the power of reason to handle messy or embarrassing situations. I, too, have been so deluded. Finally, of course, the cat pounces. Brute male strength triumphs, and she is raped and strangled. She never had a chance. Just as the woman who goes to his apartment thinking he's a good friend of her boyfriend never had a chance, nor the anonymous blonde found dead, nude, strangled in his bed at the end.

One very strong after-effect of such a film is to graphically remind a woman of her vulnerability. In my own case, as I left the theater with a most possessive and frequently jealous companion, he turned to me with a smile: "Guess you'll stay close to your apartment for the next week or so," a joke prompted by the fact that I wasn't to see him again for a week, but also perhaps by a warning implicit in the film: you need a man to protect you. You're too independent. Lock yourself in. Bolt the door. Stay out of sight. Be discreet. A woman alone is an invitation.

I know, I know, males reading this will wonder how I can push one Hitchcock film so far — they will discern female paranoia run rampant; Canby will shake his head and mutter about cinema for cinema's sake. But I suspect that many women will leave the theater experiencing the same confused but intense sense of outrage. Must we go on seeing endless images of ourselves as victims? Women's Liberation tells us not to emulate males, but to be ourselves. On an ideological level I buy this, but on a personal gut reaction level I suddenly want to retaliate: I want to see films about men getting raped by women (crazy, I know); I want to see the camera linger on the look of terror in his eyes when he suddenly realizes that the woman is bigger, stronger and far more brutal than he.

I suspect that films like "Frenzy" may be sicker and more pernicious than your cheapie hum-drum porno flick, because they are slicker, more artistically compelling versions of sado-masochistic fantasies, and because they leave me feeling more angry and more impotent simultaneously.

I don't like such feelings.

Victoria Sullivan is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at City College.