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Hitchapalooza 8: Fun & Frenzy Free August 17, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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Hitchcock’s penultimate film and last major hit was 1972’s Frenzy, where he went back to the successful well of his series of wrong-man-accused films and combined that formula (somewhat) with the psycho killer most fully exploited in (duh!) Psycho. I hadn’t seen Frenzy since I caught it at a repertory theater back in my college days, but I remembered liking it. It was interesting to watch it again, in gloriously spiffy DVD print, especially after my recent heavy dosage of assorted Hitchcock films from across his career.

I came away from it with mixed feelings – there’s some very good stuff here, and the film moves along briskly – but once again it seems Hitchcock became trapped by what he felt were his audience’s expectations after the success of Psycho, and after his frustrations over the string of box office failures Marnie, Torn Curtain & Topaz, it struck me that the more graphic depictions of the sexual violence in Frenzy were the result of overcompensation by a director determined to win his audience back, as well as a way for him to take advantage of the looser censorship standards of 1972. The rape/murder scene is shocking, and goes on long enough to unnerve the audience, make us see how evil our villain is, and sympathize with all of his victims through this one representative – but ALL of these necessary effects would be possible without the R-rating-grabbin’ graphic nature, complete with some brief nudity and simulated sex, as well as lingering on the moment of death and the twisted grimace of the corpse. He had overdone it even more at first. Hitchcock had shot drool and blood coming out of her mouth originally, and wound up cutting it to reduce the effect of the scene – he could have cut further without losing anything, really, especially when he’s also giving you the usual doses of dark humor in portions of the film. The humor works, mostly, but would work much better without the deeper level of darkness in the serious portions. A second murder is handled far better, telegraphed to us with only a single line of matching dialogue from the first murder – “You’re my kind of girl” – before a rather impressive trick tracking shot away from a closed door where everything is left to our imagination. Even when this particular murder is shown in flashback later with a series of quick cuts, it’s only there for us to see a mistake the killer realizes he’s made, leading to what is perhaps the best sequence of the film, where the killer (Barry Foster, doing a nice job with a rather generically written psycho killer role) has to retrieve his tie clip from his victim’s death grip aboard a potato truck.

Another problem with Frenzy is that our innocent-man protagonist, played by Jon Finch, is rather an obnoxious and unsympathetic lout. Unlike the wrong-men played by Robert Donat or Cary Grant, he is without charm and the only emotion he ever displays is anger. Even when informed that his girlfriend has been murdered, he only discusses how he has an alibi that might now free him from police suspicion – he shows absolutely no emotion over the victim, one of the few people in the film who defends and believes in him earlier. There aren’t too many characters in this film that come off positive, so what we wind up with is a very dark and dangerous world, one less elegant and adventurous in the fun sense that we’ve gotten in earlier Hitchcock films. And at times, it’s a little too dark, to be honest.

So all in all – a mixed bag, and certainly not as good as I remember. A fun part of viewing is seeing those early ’70s London locations and hairstyles, something that reminds me of any exterior shots from the Monty Python of the period, as well the English slang spread throughout the script. After years in Hollywood with big-name actors for his movies (Topaz notwithstanding) Hitchcock returned to England and had an all-British, mostly-stage actor cast this time, forcing us to concentrate on character. Unfortunately, those characters aren’t all that developed or likeable for the most part. There are some good set pieces and a very odd linkage of appetites for food with appetites for killing (even some of the humor in the film revolves around eating – our police investigator must suffer his wife’s bizarro meals resulting from her French cooking lessons), and some wonderful little technical tricks and moments that remind you that Hitchcock was still in command of his craft, even if I think he was locked in the Psycho box once that film defined him to modern movie audiences, trapping him into near-pandering with a similar story. Even the trailer is the same – Htichcock himself taking you on a tour of the movie’s murder scenes with narration straight out of his television show intros.

Hitchcock would follow this with his final film (and the first Hitchcock film I ever saw!), 1976’s Family Plot, where he returned to Hollywood and got some fairly well know stars, and it’s an entertaining little trifle, but in the end something so light, so whimsical in parts – that it feels more like a Disney adventure film in the Escape From Witch Mountain mode than a Hitchcock thriller.

And speaking of Ray Milland, there’s one last DVD on the stack – 1954’s Dial M For Murder, which I remember liking very much back in college. Going beyond the yardsale bonanza, however, now that I’ve gotten into “the zone,” I might make a consistent effort to hunt down any of my remaining unseen Hitchcock films for examination. Stay tuned.

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