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The Guardian (14/Aug/1999) - Frenzy: The body in the river

(c) The Guardian (14/Aug/1999)

The body in the river

He travelled every tram route in the city as a child, and when he came back in the 70s to make a film, it was London that became the real star. Jonathan Jones on Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Frenzy.

In 1971 Alfred Hitchcock returned to London to film "Frenzy", a gory autopsy of his childhood, his early career and the metropolis that spawned him. Frenzy contains the most repellent scenes in any Hitchcock film.

The killer, played by Barry Foster, is a psychopath who sexually assaults and strangles his victims. The film is full of bitter characters and repulsive imagery that led Hitchcock's biographer Donald Spoto to see it as evidence of the ageing director's sadism, misogyny and unhappiness. Talk to any of the actors and a different picture emerges. "The strange tradition about Hitchcock treating actors like cattle was nowhere in evidence," remembers Alec McCowen, who plays Inspector Oxford. "He'd start every day with a cabaret. He was a joker; he talked in jokes. Making the film was a sort of joke."

Hitchcock didn't just joke off-screen; he joked on-screen, in a highly controlled way. "Frenzy" isn't just a Hitchcock film - it's Hitchockian, a pastiche and reprise of his work, especially his British films, and a coded autobiography. London is the city of Hitchcock's imagination, and "Frenzy" is his last visit. It's Hitchcock's most insidiously personal film, the Catholic director's final confession.

Frenzy begins in mid-air over the river Thames, up east, with Tower Bridge in the distance. To jaunty patriotic music we move upriver, seeing the undeveloped Docklands, taking in the abandoned, still waters of the Pool of London. It's as if we're following a map - Hitchcock's childhood hobby was maps. Under Tower Bridge we go - it's opened specially for Hitchcock's camera - then suddenly we're above County Hall, with an angel's aerial view as a politician makes a speech about the cleaning up of the Thames, while in the crowd stands a bowler-hatted Hitchcock. A piercing scream shuts the politician up. The crowd run to the riverside. A woman's naked body has just washed up on the muddy shore.

What a homecoming. "Frenzy" is a farewell to film-making, to Hitchcock's signature style - and to London. The point where the camera suddenly materialises above the Thames is way out in the East End, where Hitchcock grew up. His grandfather fished the Thames, his father, who had a grocer's shop and wholesale business, expanded his enterprise in the 1900s to include a fishery at Limehouse. So we've started where Hitch started, downriver. The politician's speech is interrupted by a direct quote from The Lodger, the 1926 silent film that Hitchcock described as "the first true 'Hitchcock movie'", which also begins with a woman being fished out of the Thames.

Frenzy is a flamboyantly old-fashioned film. Its violence is up to the minute, but everything else looks backwards. The old London, that the politician outside County Hall claims has been cleaned up, surfaces like an ancient evil. "The London that he remembered didn't exist any more," says Barbara Leigh-Hunt. She plays the hero's ex-wife, the elegant Brenda Blaney, who is murdered 15 minutes into the film, just like Marion Crane in "Psycho". "He tried to recreate a London that wasn't there."

The young Jon Finch, who plays Frenzy's hero Richard Blaney and who we are supposed to believe had been a squadron leader in Suez, also railed against some of the antiquated dialogue: "Kenneth Tynan said to me when I'd been offered the part, 'beware'," remembers Finch, "'because Hitch still imagines London is wreathed in fog'." Anna Massey also remembers Hitchcock as old-fashioned. She plays Richard Blaney's vibrant girlfriend Babs, surely the only Hitchcock heroine to tell her employer, in the words of Anthony Shaffer's script, to "stick your job up your jacksie". "He came back to a 40s London," Massey says. "That's what he remembered and that's what he created in a way."

But what could be perceived as an old man's nostalgia could equally well be a disciplined and self-conscious piece of artistry. Hitchcock insists on seeing London - the city he knew so well as a child that he claimed to have travelled every tram route - through the eyes of a tourist just off the plane from LA. It's an emigrant's view of home, at once nostalgic and angry. When François Truffaut pressed Hitchcock on why he went to America, he spoke about the British snobbery he was happy to leave behind. In "Frenzy", two posh lawyers in a pub talk about how at least the "necktie murders" will be good for the tourist trade. Hitchcock the emigrant sneers at the decline that left snobby Britain relying on American tourists - like him.

Hitchcock told Truffaut he wanted to make a film that would examine the life of a city entirely through food. "I'd like to try to do an anthology on food, showing its arrival in the city, its distribution, the selling, how it's fixed up and absorbed. And gradually, the end of the film would show the sewers, and the garbage being dumped out into the ocean... Your theme might almost be the rottenness of humanity." Frenzy is that film. Its vision of London is alimentary, beginning with the image of the Thames as a sewer. The murderer is obsessed with food; it's the only way he and the other characters in the film seem able to express themselves. "Have some grapes - finest muscat, fresh in this morning," says the psychopath Robert Rusk, a dealer in fruit and vegetables, the first time we meet him.

And yet the food in "Frenzy" is also a key to unlock its maker's memories. Hitchcock remembered going with his father to sell wholesale groceries at Covent Garden, London's vegetable market since the 18th century. Hitchcock insisted on making the market the central location of Frenzy - to the delight of traders who were on notice to move to a new building south of the river. For Hitchcock, it was saturated with associations.

The killer lives in a flat in Henrietta Street in the south-west corner of Covent Garden, still seen above the offices of publishing company Duckworth & Co; it was once the home of Clemence Dane, a writer Hitchcock worked with in the 30s. Round the corner are the Drury Lane theatres his parents took him to from an early age. A blue plaque in The Aldwych marks the home of Ivor Novello, who starred in The Lodger. His favourite restaurant, Simpsons-in-the-Strand, is nearby. The self-referential joke of all the food in the film is unavoidable. "We talked about food and how he loved cooking and his fridge in Hollywood, which was the size of a room," says Massey.

"One way to see the food in "Frenzy" is as a joke about Hitchcock's changing desires. In "Frenzy", food seems more important than sex, even though this is the first of his films to contain nudity. Hitchcock in his old age has been portrayed as a man losing his self-control and slipping into embarrassing behaviour towards his actresses. The main witness for the prosecution is Tippi Hedren, who fell out catastrophically with Hitchcock on the set of "The Birds". If her account was typical of Hitchcock, he would surely have upset Massey and Leigh-Hunt, who are sexually assaulted and strangled in "Frenzy" in the most horrible, sexually twisted way Hitchcock ever devised. They never detected any connection between what was on screen and Hitchcock's own benign, reassuring personality.

In his account of the filming, Spoto claims that Hitchcock gradually became more tired and disengaged. That's not how the actors remember it. "My god - it was shot bam, bam, bam, bam, which is a great way to make movies," says Finch. Hitchcock was ill with rheumatism and too large to sit in a dolly on location, indeed too ill to walk far, so a car had to take him everywhere. But the filming was organised so tightly it didn't matter when Hitchcock sometimes went to sleep after his favourite lunchtime tipple of a vodka martini.

If there is a confession in Frenzy, it's one that Hitchcock intended. He shows us the world of his childhood and connects it to his own relationship with food. He portrays London as a place where people cannot express themselves except indirectly, by cooking or violence. The real point of "Frenzy" is what's missing - warmly expressed emotion. In the film's best sequence, an amazing piece of virtuoso filming which has been quoted by Martin Scorsese, the feeling suddenly wells up. Massey's character has just quit her job and walks out into the market. Everything goes silent, and the killer says quietly: "Got a place to stay?" They walk through the market and the camera moves back past the bustle of the city that suddenly stops when he leads her up the stairs into the dark.

On the way he says how he would have liked to travel away from this claustro-phobic place: "The Cape, California, Jaffa - where the fruit comes from, that's where I'd like to go if I wasn't tied down here." After they go inside the camera pulls back into the market in a shot that involved cutting from a mock-up of Duckworth's in Pinewood to a location shot. This sequence is unlike anything else in Hitchcock and looks forward to contemporary cinema because it's about the social panorama, the city, rather than the solitary self.