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Film Comment (1972) - A fine Frenzy




Because his films revolve around sex and murder, the morbid and the grotesque, nearly always provoking visceral responses in his viewers, it's easy to judge Hitchcock himself in the light of these apparently Romantic traits; and an intense Romantic should not enjoy a tongue-in-cheek public persona or lend his name to TV and paperback potboilers.



Right from the start FRENZY communicates a sense of enjoyment, as if Hitchcock knew he was back on form again. To the sound of rousing Elgarian music, the camera glides down over the Thames as Tower Bridge opens to let it through. The prodigal son is returning, it seems, to pay homage to his native city. But the pomp and circumstance do not last long. As a speaker on the embankment outside the London Council offices declares that the Thames is now free of pollution, a girl's corpse, naked except for a tie knotted firmly around her neck, comes floating along. "Another necktie murder!" says a voice in the crowd, and the action is under way.

The film blends two of Hitchcock's favorite and most successful themes. An innocent man, Dick Blaney (Jon Finch), is suspected of being a sex-killer when his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey) become victims. He is blood-brother to the many threatened innocents in Hitchcock's films, from Robert Donat in THE 39 STEPS to Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. At the same time the real killer, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), passes for a genial extrovert of the same breed as Joseph Cotten in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and Robert Walker in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

These themes are no doubt what attracted Hitchcock to Arthur La Bern's sour and sloppily-written book, which he and Anthony Shaffer have transformed into a taut, sure-footed film that moves compellingly from start to finish.* For three-fourths of the way, the mounting suspicion of Blaney's guilt provides a steady crescendo of suspense on top of which Hitchcock builds two "set piece" climaxes -first, Rusk's killing of Brenda, and later, more prolonged and nerve-racking, his attempt to retrieve a monogrammed pin from Babs' dead body in the back of a moving potato-truck. After Rusk betrays Blaney to the police, a brief flip of a trial sequence switches the film onto its culminating line of suspense, Blaney's plan of revenge.

* As with PSYCHO, about fifteen years has been knocked off the main character's age in FRENZY'S transition from novel to screenplay. The book's Blaney (there called "Blarney") is 45, not 30-ish; homely, not sexy; passive, not arrogant; a crippled hero of glorious World War II, not a swaggering hero of the decidedly more ambiguous Suez campaign. And as with VERTIGO, FRENZY reveals its "secret"-that Rusk, not Blaney, is the murderer-much earlier than does the book, which doesn't tip us off until Blarney's arrest. Other changes: in the book, Blarney accompanies his friends, the Porters, to Paris; Hetty Porter (the Billie Whitelaw character) testifies on Blarney's behalf at his trial; the trial itself takes fifty pages in the book, ninety seconds on the screen; there is no "necktie" murderer in the book; and it ends just as Blarney discovers the strangled woman in Rusk's bed-who is the late Mrs. Blarney's prim secretary! -ed.

Hitchcock's collaborators seem to have shared his confidence and enthusiasm. There is an especially fine chemistry at work among Hitchcock, Shaffer, and the cast. Shatter, author of the play (and screenplay) Sleuth, has an ear for rapid and witty dialogue that gives a lively edge to Hitchcock's deliberate, let's-make-quite-sure-the-audience-gets-it approach. Even more important, Shaffer injects life into the nondescript characters of the book, and the actors respond eagerly to their roles. Babs, for example, a fluffy bundle of working-class clichés in the book, becomes a girl of delightful spirit, and Anna Massey makes the most of her first good screen role since a very different study of a London sex-killer, Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM. Hitchcock, in turn, gains dividends from her liveliness even after Babs dies, since it gives greater emotional impact to Rusk's maltreatment of her body.

All the same, since Hitchcock takes prime responsibility for his films from their inception to final cut, it's fair to see FRENZY as essentially his achievement-just as it was fair to see TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ as his failures. Through his choice of collaborators, and through his influence on them, he obtains a broad family resemblance from film to film. Shatter's dialogue echoes, even as it surpasses, John Michael Hayes' work for Hitchcock in the mid-Fifties or the Frank Launder-Sidney Gilliatt script for THE LADY VANISHES. Ron Goodwin's music continues the Bernard Herrmann tradition of the Fifties and early Sixties, with a pulsing theme for strings that recalls the opening of PSYCHO and a poignant, sustained theme in 3⁄4 time similar to the romantic orchestral tides of VERTIGO and MARNIE-or, for that matter, to Richard Addinsell's score for UNDER CAPRICORN. Cinematographer Gil Taylor has worked mainly in black-and-white, and the only other color films of his I have seen with London settings, Desmond Davis' A NICE GIRL LIKE ME, was keyed to rich, romantic effects quite unlike the clear warm pastels which predominate in FRENZY-as they do in most of the Hitchcock films photographed by Robert Burks. At the same time, the film undoubtedly benefits from Taylor's long and varied experience of filming in London, from SEVEN DAYS TO NOON through A HARD DAY'S NIGHT and REPULSION.

With FRENZY, Hitchcock seems to have been stimulated as never before by a return to his native city. The street-location scenes are deft and casual, with none of the self-conscious "local color" found in, say, BLOWUP or SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY. Both in mood and in technique-especially the matching of colors and settings-they blend impeccably with the studio scenes. As a result, although the film quickly narrows its focus from the London panorama of the opening to the actions of a handful of characters, the sense of place persists.

All this is unusual for Hitchcock. Though praised as a master technician whose strength lies in his visual impact, he often seems to turn a blind eye to his backgrounds, jolting the viewer with the most obvious and sometimes hideous process-shots. This may be because, as he asserts, he enjoys working out the detailed shooting script far more than the realization of it, which must inevitably fall short of his idealized vision. In any event, he has never shown much respect for reality in the Kracauer sense. There is little "flow of life" in his films except what he himself can control: the change of viewpoint from one shot to the next; the movement of a character or significant object within the frame; the movement of the camera.

At their best, however, Hitchcock's films reveal an interplay between drama and background which goes as far beyond any rigid shot-by-shot continuity as it does beyond naturalism. In VERTIGO, for example when James Stewart follows Kim Novak on a zigzag drive around the blocks of San Francisco, his sinuous path reflects the deviousness of the mystery. With FRENZY, the Covent Garden market background-only incidental in the book-sustains the tone of the whole film. Immediately after the corpse-in-Thames prelude, Blaney is seen losing his job in one Covent Garden pub and walking through the market to spend his last money on drinks in another. The settings-a market where farm produce is continually coming in and going out, pubs where people are continually coming in and going outpick up the theme of shiftlessness and uncertainty and carry it like an ostinato throughout the film.

Some critics react to this kind of deeper appraisal of Hitchcock rather like a WCTU member faced with a glass of beer-as if it leads straight to delirium. In their view, taking Hitchcock seriously as a filmmaker means getting hopelessly high on allusions and profundities which don't exist. Ironically, one of the allusions that can easily be read into FRENZY is a satire on those who read too much into it. When the Scotland Yard inspector's wife proudly uncovers her ludicrous soupe de poissons instead of the plain fare her husband wants, she might be standing in for Hitchcock's more fanciful interpreters. But the barb also cuts the other way. The inspector, who could go on wallowing forever in fried egg and sausage, is clearly too unadventurous in his tastes.

The skeptics' case for rejecting anything but egg and sausage in Hitchcock can be summed up like this: The kind of subtlety and artistry that is often attributed to him is difficult for any filmmaker to achieve; it is certainly beyond the reach of one who deals in melodramatic plots and effects. The best way to answer this case and define my own particular claims for Hitchcock is to go straight to specifics. As Exhibit A for the defense, here is a scene from FRENZY which anyone who has seen the film should remember:

When Rusk takes Babs to his apartment, the camera picks them up inside the street entrance, moves ahead as they climb the stairs, and then pauses, panning with them until they arrive at Rusk's door. "I don't know whether I've ever told you, Babs," Rusk says, "but you're my type of woman"-the same line he said to Brenda before attacking her. After the door closes behind them, the camera-still in the same continuous shot-backs slowly down the stairs, out of the front door and across the busy street, where it holds on Rusk's curtained windows.

Now let's look at seven possible (and mutually compatible) statements about this scene:

  1. It is a technical tour-de-force.
  2. It is dramatically effective. Since one rape-murder has already been shown. Exhibit A avoids a repetition, relying instead on the viewer's imagination.
  3. It helps prepare the ground for Blaney's arrival to take revenge on Rusk. Since Exhibit A provides a complete sightseeing tour of the passage and stairs, the later scene can be broken down into tense closeups of Blaney's face, his hand on the bannister, etc., with no fear that the audience will lose their bearings.
  4. It is elegant and esthetically pleasing.
  5. It strengthens the bond between the drama (the first, interior part of the scene) and the setting (the exterior part).
  6. It prepares the g round emotionally for the scene where Blaney comes to hide out at Rusk's place, not knowing he's the killer. The imprint of Babs' going to her death adds an emotional overtone to the audience's concern for Blaney.
  7. The movement away from Babs, and the progression from silence to the bustle of the street, crystallize a sense of human aloneness.

All but extreme skeptics would probably accept the earlier statements concerning technique and dramatic structure, and would probably also agree that these effects could have been planned. Their big objection would be to the subtlety and significance implied by points 5, 6 and 7-and particularly to any suggestion that these too could have been planned.

Let's concentrate for the moment on the earlier statements. These should make it clear that Hitchcock's lurid subject matter does not in any way preclude control of the film's technique and structure; in fact, the planning of 2 and 3 would be easier within the solid plot-framework of a melodrama than with the looser action of most "serious" films.

As to the last three statements, I consider them legitimate interpretations of Exhibit A but see no need to assume any specific intent behind them. If FRENZY was thought out with as much care for its structural balance and visual force as are indicated by the earlier statements, then 5, 6 and 7 can be viewed as by-products, as serendipitous extensions of mood or meaning that can come to any craftsman who works with vigor and intensity.

Does this description apply to Hitchcock? To the skeptics, he may seem only a jaded old pro. Because his films revolve around sex and murder, the morbid and the grotesque, nearly always provoking visceral responses in his viewers, it's easy to judge Hitchcock himself in the light of these apparently Romantic traits; and an intense Romantic should not enjoy a tongue-in-cheek public persona or lend his name to TV and paperback potboilers.

But Hitchcock is no Romantic. Despite the sensational content of his films, he stands much closer to the classical tradition. Even when he puts personal experience into his films-his fear of policemen, or the detritus of his Jesuit schooling-he handles them with as much detachment as the cleaning up of the Thames or the state of the potato market. What distinguishes Hitchcock from most other commercial directors is his concern with shaping each film, above all else, into a satisfying object with an over-all balance and harmony of its own. He does not look for any easy way of doing this-via fantasy or abstraction-but accepts the challenge of wrestling with at least the semblance of real life.

In FRENZY the semblance is stronger than in most of his films-and so is the challenge. Here he has to assimilate more than settings into the shape of his drama. The characters, too, have a surface grittiness which could tear the fabric of a merely "well-made" plot. It's a long time since Hitchcock has featured a straight romantic hero, but none has been so morose and self-centered as Blaney. Most of the characters, in fact, reveal a similar chilly egoism, and the only two generous ones-Babs and Brenda-are disposed of very nastily indeed. Yet Hitchcock still succeeds in making his film into a satisfying and enjoyable object.

A craftsman who can bring off this kind of challenge is working at a high level of vigor and intensity. It is no longer far-fetched to suggest that FRENZY-which has a classical tightness of form, grips its audience, and revolves around characters who are indifferent to one another-can also crystallize the precariousness of the human condition.

This does not mean that Hitchcock is a conscious moralist. In his film making, he is as detached from messages as he is from his own past-and he remains unspoiled by critical adulation that might have lured another filmmaker into self-consciousness. In his own way, he has a "poet's eye [which] Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven"; but it is the viewer's eye which ends up "in a fine frenzy rolling."