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New York Times (02/Jul/1972) - Hitchcock: The Agony is Exquisite



Hitchcock: The Agony is Exquisite

Alfred Hitchcock is enough to make one despair. After 50 years of directing films, he's still not perfect. He refuses to be serious, at least in any easily recognizable way that might win him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award or the Irving Thalberg Award, or even an Oscar for directorial excellence. Take, for example, his new film, "Frenzy," a suspense melodrama about a homicidal maniac, known as the Necktie Killer, who is terrorizing London, and the wrong man who is chased, arrested and convicted for the crimes. What does it tell us about the Human Condition, Love, the Third World, God, Structural Politics, Environmental Violence, Justice, Conscience, Aspects of Underdevelopment, Discrimination, Radical Stupor, Religious Ecstasy or Conservative Commitment? Practically nothing.

It is immensely entertaining, yet it's possible to direct at "Frenzy" the same charges that have been directed at some of his best films in the past, meaning that it's "not significant," that "what it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib," that it "does nothing but give out a good time," that it's "wonderful while you're in the theater and impossible to remember 24 hours later." Hitchcock, who likes to eat well, would, I'm sure, be disturbed only by the suggestion that his film is no more substantial than a take-out order from the Gum Shoo East.

Like all of his best films, going back to "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes" of his English period, to "Shadow of A Doubt," "Strangers on a Train" and "Rear Window" of the middle Hollywood period, and to "Psycho," "The Birds" and, most recently, "Topaz," Hitchcock's newest film is not about the kind of important subjects that can be adequately dealt with in the language of literary criticism. Nor can it safely evoke the sort of personal vocabulary with which one responds to the work of the symbolist poets, although a certain number of intensely loyal Hitchcock fans tend to sound this way, as if writing on typewriters made out of ostrich feathers.

Poor old Hitch. As the members of the cult of the faithful increase, so does the intensity of the scorn of his debunkers, including, I suspect, many people who thoroughly enjoyed his films until the provos of movie criticism began to find in his work such a number of metaphysical implications as to boggle even the director himself. Hitchcock manipulates our emotions, the dead-panned provos tell us triumphantly as if they'd just discovered gravity, and a once-tolerant Hitchcock debunker will scream that that's exactly what's wrong: "I don't want to be manipulated!" Although the only way to avoid that is to stay home, alone, in a cork-lined room, with the lights turned low.

All art involves manipulation of one sort or another, but it takes a certain arrogance to put it this way, and arrogance Hitchcock certainly has. In "Topaz," otherwise such a fascinating film, he demonstrated his feeling for actors by casting the film from a Sears Roebuck catalogue. When Luis Bunuel's films are badly acted, you know that he's simply making do with the talent at hand. Hitchcock often doesn't seem to care. Actors are a type of scenery. He has made splendid use of stars, particularly James Stewart and Cary Grant, and he almost single-handedly created one major star, Grace Kelly, but just as often he has tried to impose people like Tippi Hedren and Vera Miles on us and, having flopped once, he has tried again.

It also takes arrogance to construct films as carefully as Hitchcock does when they really aren't about anything, at least, in the conventional way of a plot, even when they pretend to be about nothing else. One critic, in writing a rave for "Frenzy," has rather desperately suggested that it's about money, which is like saying that "Macbeth" is about daggers, or that "The Birds" is about birds. Money, supposedly stolen from one of the victims, implicates the hero of "Frenzy," a down-on-his-luck, former RAF officer (played by Jon Finch), but that's as far as it goes.

Only in the broadest terms can "Frenzy" be described as being "about" something. Like almost every Hitchcock film it's about Hitchcock's gloomy view of a large majority of mankind, and about his. conviction that he can transform almost any story, no matter how trite, into an experience that. has no exact emotional equivalent in any other form. In the kind of responses their films elicit, Bergman, Bunuel, Keaton, Chaplin, Truffaut and any number of other great directors belong as much to a literary as a film tradition. Hitchcock — more than any other director, perhaps — belongs to films and because he does, he tends to be either patronized (film, after all, is a lesser breed of art) or over-analyzed, with the result that his extraordinary technical skill, his mastery of purely visual communication, and his wit are asked to define more than he ever intended,

"Frenzy," which is the best acted Hitchcock film since "North by Northwest," spends a great deal of time in the company of its necktie murderer, a genial London fruit wholesaler (Barry Foster), but it can't be bothered as much with the whys (except for the fact that he seems devoted to his toothy mum), as with the hows: first he rapes then strangles. It is one of the oddities of the film that although Hitchcock treats us to one murder almost as brutal as the shower killing in "Psycho," it isn't particularly brutalizing, principally, I think, because the presence of Hitchcock, the tall story teller, is never missed for a moment. There he is, just off camera, wearing a woeful expression that seems to ask us what this naughty fellow is likely to do next.

Strangulations, rapes, close shaves, pursuit, 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. Other directors make movies about passion. Hitchcock makes his with passion, which is why watching "Frenzy" is like riding a roller coaster in total darkness. You can never be quite sure when you're going to start a terrifying new descent or take a sudden turn to the left or right. The agony is exquisite.