Monday, August 19, 2019

Frenzy--Hitchcock's Penultimate Film

Hitchcock's cameo at the begining.
In 1972, Hitchcock was coming off one of the least successful periods of his long career. His last three films--Marnie, Torn Curtain, and Topaz--had fizzled with moviegoers and critics. Still, there was much anticipation surrounding the release of Frenzy. It was a return to a familiar Hitchcockian premise, with an innocent man being pursued by the police while a murderer roams free. It was the famed director's first movie to be made in his native Britain in two decades. And it also marked Hitch's first, and only, film rated "R" for nudity and violence.

Jon Finch as Blaney.
Jon Finch stars as Richard Blaney, a self-pitying former RAF pilot who drinks too much and can't hold a job. After being fired from a London pub, he visits his successful ex-wife and berates her twice in front of other people. When he goes to see her the following day, her office door is locked. What Blamey doesn't know is that the notorious "necktie killer" has strangled his ex-wife. When he is seen leaving the office building, he becomes Scotland Yard's quarry in the manhunt to find the serial murderer.

Hitchcock reveals the identity of the necktie killer early in Frenzy. Thus, he merges two of his favorite plots: the one in which an innocent man has to elude the police (e.g., Young and Innocent, North By Northwest) and the one in which the killer takes center stage in the film (e.g., Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train). It's a clever structure and Hitchcock and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) merge the two storylines seamlessly.

Barry Foster as a Blaney friend.
Hitch is less successful at balancing the tone of Frenzy, which shifts awkwardly from extreme violence to black comedy. Hitchcock is not one to shy away from violence...the shower scene in Psycho proved that. However, the rape and strangulation of Blaney's ex-wife is shown in explicit--and needless--detail. In a DVD interview, Anthony Shaffer called the scene "disgusting" and recommended that Hitchcock delete it--to which the director allegedly replied: "Nonsense, my boy." Fortunately, Hitchcock refrains from showing a second murder in the same fashion, opting instead to use the more potent power of suggestion.

The best scenes in Frenzy are the comedic ones, which range from darkly humorous to intentionally amusing. The latter scenes focus on the Scotland Yard inspector (a first-rate Alec McCowen) and his wife (a delightful Vivien Merchant). As they discuss the case, she serves him visually revolting meals, which are the result of her cooking classes. The best example of black comedy occurs when the killer dumps a victim's corpse into a potato truck, only to realize later that the victim grabbed a lapel pin from his jacket. As the truck careens down the highway, the killer desperately struggles to find the right potato bag, pull out the corpse, and retrieve the lapel pin from the clutches of a clinched rigor mortis-laden hand. It's physical comedy at its best, in a disgusting sort of way!

Vivien Merchant as the
inspector's wife.
Although the two main characters are male, the best performances come from the actresses in the cast. In addition to the aforementioned Vivien Merchant, Barbara Leigh-Hunt (as the ex-wife) and Anna Massey (as Blaney's girlfriend) stand out. French filmmaker and critic Francoise Truffaut noted this was one of the few later Hitchcock films to "turn away from glamorous and sophisticated heroines (of whom Grace Kelly remains the best example) toward everyday women...and they bring a new realism to Hitchcock's work."

Frenzy doesn't rank with Alfred Hitchcock's best films, but it stands out as the best among his post-Marnie works. It would have been a fitting end to his career, but, alas, he went on to make Family Plot. Like many great artists (and athletes), the Master of Suspense didn't know when to quit.

6 comments:

  1. Main reason for post Marnie slump was Universal took away his autonomy. No more Tippi, no more blondes, no more Bernard Herrmann. The studio chose projects and stars...Instead he had to do two spy films - in neither he showed much interest.

    He'd wanted to do Kaleidascope. A hand held "French New Wave" film with nudity and no stars. Universal nixed it.

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    1. Sadly, Hitch severed his ties with Bernard Herrmann on his own when he rejected Herrmann's score for TORN CURTAIN (which was better than the one that can be heard in the film).

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    2. He was told by Universal prez Lew Wassermann to get a lighter score from BH or fire him. Not something AH would've ever done on his own initiative.

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    3. It’s true that Wasserman didn’t like Herrmann and was a more “commercial” score, but Hitchcock went ahead and used the composer anyway. It was only after their disagreement over the farmhouse sequence that Hitchcock fired Herrmann.

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    4. Wassermann didn't accept the score in toto. AH had no authority here. Nor did he choose the movie or its stars.

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  2. The film has one of the greatest under appreciated closing lines of all time, when Alec McCowen says to Barry Foster, "Mr. Rusk...you're not wearing your tie."

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