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Posts Tagged ‘Alec McCowan’

Sometimes you can learn everything you need to know about a movie from the first five minutes or so. Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy opens with a grand helicopter shot of postcard London, slowly moving up the Thames as the camera descends. Stately music plays; it’s almost as if this film is going to be a co-production with the London tourist board. Then the plot gets underway, as a press conference on the embankment of the Thames is disrupted by the appearance of the naked body of a garrotted young woman, floating in the river, and suddenly the film’s credentials as tourist-enticement material start to look a little more shaky.

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For, yes, there is a serial killer on the loose (although this film was made before the expression had entered the general lexicon), known as the Necktie Killer for his preferred ligature. The police are, predictably, baffled. Indifferent to it all is struggling ex-airman Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), who’s drifting from job to job and essentially living from hand to mouth. This means he is in a pretty much permanent strop, and the fact his ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) is making a great success of her dating agency doesn’t help much.

Blaney’s friend Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) does his best to cheer him up, but this doesn’t really have much effect, so Rusk goes back to dividing his time between running his fruit stall in Covent Garden and strangling women (yes, Rusk is the Necktie Killer, and no, this honestly doesn’t constitute a spoiler, I promise). But when Rusk indulges his little hobby on the person of the former Mrs Blaney, it puts Blaney in a bit of a spot: his reputation as an untrustworthy drifter and all-around sod, not to mention the fact that he was spotted near the murder scene immediately after the killing, mean that the police are taking a very great interest in his movements, and the likelihood of his being able to prove his innocence is very slight…

Frenzy was released in 1972, when a succession of underperforming films had taken the shine off Hitchcock’s reputation. This may be why this film feels more like a British film of that period than one of the big US studio productions Hitchcock was best known for. Certainly the film is peppered with what I’d call British TV faces like Bernard Cribbins, Clive Swift and Jean Marsh (not that these performers didn’t also have film careers, of course), and the milieu of a sleazy, grey and slightly decaying London is also indistinguishable from that of other genre films from this time like Theatre of Blood and Dracula AD 1972.

Perhaps this is why Frenzy feels like more of an exploitation film than any of Hitchcock’s best work. By this time the restrictions of censorship had loosened somewhat, and one definitely gets a sense of Hitchcock’s darker side being let off the leash, not necessarily to the benefit of the film. There’s a lot of quite casual nudity in this film, and – in perhaps a key sequence – an uncomfortably lingering depiction of a rape and murder. Not a great deal is left to the imagination, and Hitch provides helpful close-ups, too. You could argue, I suppose, that taking this kind of subject matter seriously requires you to deal with it unflinchingly and without coyness, but the problem with Frenzy is that it clearly doesn’t seem to be taking it especially seriously.

Early on, for example, there’s a conversation between two walk-on characters discussing the murders, and one makes a comment to the effect that the women are raped first, so ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. (His friend goes on to observe that a string of sex murders will at least be good for the tourist trade.) Many Hitchcock movies have a nice line in black comedy, but for me this crosses the line into simple nastiness. Even when he’s not wheeling on the rape jokes, Hitchcock seems to be playing many scenes for laughs – there’s a running gag where the chief detective on the case (Alec McCowan) has to contend with his wife’s awful, overambitious cooking – and the clash between subject matter and tone is incredibly jarring. There’s even an extraordinary extended sequence where Rusk has to grapple with the corpse of a victim in the back of a moving lorry in order to retrieve some incriminating evidence, and this is presented as a kind of black slapstick.

So Frenzy is not an easy film to warm to. Things are not much helped by the fact that the putative hero of the piece, Blaney, is a bit of a sod himself. He is bitter, he is angry, he is unpleasant and insensitive to almost everyone around him: I half suspect the reason why Hitchcock reveals Rusk to be the killer so early on is to make it absolutely clear that it isn’t Blaney, because he certainly seems like vicious psychopath material. Two women he is involved with are killed in the course of the film and he displays no compassion or grief worth mentioning, just concern for his own wellbeing. The perspective of this movie is an exclusively male one, and in an ugly sort of way.

For its first couple of acts this is a solid, if somewhat unpalatable thriller, but unfortunately the climax shows signs of coming completely unravelled: there are various unlikely developments, including significant time jumps, key story points being completely forgotten about, and major characters deciding to do things for no reason other than the plot demanding it. The resolution of the story is not completely satisfying, either, but to say more really would constitute a spoiler.

I’ve been mainly negative about Frenzy so far – it’s not just that the subject matter is distasteful, but the way in which Hitchcock chooses to handle it is problematic too, both in terms of the comedy and its sheer old-fashionedness – but this wouldn’t be a Hitchcock movie if there wasn’t at least one moment of sheer directorial sorcery involved. Despite everything that I’ve said, Frenzy is actually pretty engaging as a narrative, and one of the problems is that Hitchcock doesn’t just try to play parts of it for laughs, he genuinely succeeds. But there’s also an extraordinary moment when the camera follows Rusk and a blithely-unaware young woman up the stairs to the door of his flat, where he’s offered to let her stay. We know what is on the cards and are perhaps bracing ourselves for another grisly sequence – but as the door closes behind them the camera very slowly and very gently goes into reverse, retreating back down the stairs and out into the busy street. Hitchcock suggests absolute horrors by showing nothing of the sort, with the further implication that anything could be going on behind closed doors in a busy city. It is the genuine master’s touch and one can only regret he didn’t use it more on this film.

There is apparently a body of opinion that Frenzy is the last great Hitchcock movie. For me it has a few moments of greatness, but overall it’s too problematic and nasty to really qualify as that. It is obviously intended as nothing more or less than a jolly piece of entertainment: and how much it succeeds depends on how entertaining you find violent sex crimes and their aftermath. Proficient, but misjudged.

 

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Nigel Kneale’s reputation these days is basically as the great wordsmith, a bit of a prophet of doom (and, occasionally, one who was bang on the money). When it comes to British television he is mentioned in the same breath as people like Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale, a creator of the first rank. But when you look at Kneale’s film work his resume is somewhat less impressive: one undeniably brilliant script for Quatermass and the Pit, based – of course – on his own screenplay, and a large number of adaptations of things by other people, from various genres. I remember sitting down to watch Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer a few years ago and being startled to see Kneale credited as the screenwriter, so strongly did I associate him with the horror and SF genres.

Kneale seems to have been very much working as a gun for hire when it came to another movie for Hammer, 1966’s The Witches, directed by Cyril Frankel. This is a very atypical Hammer horror in all sorts of ways, not least in that it was brought to the company as a personal project by its star, Joan Fontaine. An Oscar-winner in her youth, by the mid 60s Fontaine had hit the sticky patch encountered by many actresses of a certain age (how times have, er, not changed) and saw this as a good vehicle for her talents.

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Fontaine plays Gwen, a schoolmistress recovering after the trauma of being on the wrong end of a native uprising somewhere in Africa (quite what happened is left to the imagination of the viewer). Trying to rebuild her life, she accepts a job as the head teacher of the local school in Heddaway, an idyllic village in the English countryside. Everyone is very welcoming, but it isn’t too long before she starts to sense that some very odd things are afoot. The man purporting to be the local priest (Alec McCowan) is not ordained, but a fantasist in a dog collar – there isn’t even a village church. And there are signs that someone in the area is up to a sneaky spot of black magic…

In an age when every major film is precision-made to have the widest possible audience – I give you, for example, A Good Day to Die Hard and nu-Hammer film The Woman in Black, both of which were re-edited in the UK to get a 12 rather than a 15 certification – The Witches is a reminder of a vanished, peculiar world. The initial script was given an A rating – the equivalent of a 15 today, I suppose – and Hammer, appropriately, reacted with horror. Back in the 60s horror movies didn’t make money unless they were X-rated, and so The Witches was amended to achieve a more restrictive certification. It’s all quite bemusing from a modern viewpoint as – other than the subject matter and a dab of Kensington Gore – there’s not much here to shock or disturb, and indeed the DVD release is rated 12.

Then again, as the director put it, The Witches is ‘a more sensitive and serious film than [Hammer’s] usual horror, blood, and thunder‘ and it doesn’t really look or feel like a genuine Hammer horror. There are none of the usual suspects amongst the main cast – no Lee, Cushing, Keir, Shelley, Morell, and so on – although perennial Hammer supporting artist Duncan Lamont does make an appearance. It’s not directed by one of the big Hammer names, though Frankel is competent enough, and the score isn’t by James Bernard (Richard Rodney Bennett’s percussive music is rather good, though, and shows up as part of the linking material on the Ultimate Hammer box set). Perhaps it’s best not to judge The Witches by the standards of other Hammer horrors at all.

Even then, as a film in its own right, The Witches feels curiously well-mannered and underpowered. In some ways the basic plot inevitably recalls that of The Wicker Man, in that it concerns a well-meaning outsider thrust into a close-knit community and stumbling upon a terrible plot, but it lacks that film’s intellectual steel and lethal conviction. This isn’t to say that Joan Fontaine gives a poor performance – far from it – but everything’s just a bit too obvious and straightforward. This could have been a rather effective exercise in paranoia – is Gwen really seeing witchcraft at work, or have her experiences in Africa left her unbalanced and prone to flights of fantasy? – but this aspect of the story isn’t really explored.

Perhaps the problems with The Witches partly stem from the script and the realisation pulling in opposite directions. Nigel Kneale (showing his usual reverence for someone else’s source material) apparently decided that the idea of present-day witchcraft was ‘risible’ and wrote the screenplay as a black comedy, with the coven themselves as delusional cranks, their ‘magic’ only working through the credulity of the villagers around them. It’s telling that in the finished film, the question of whether black magic is objectively real, or only exists in the minds of its practitioners and victims, is left completely open.

However, for whatever reason, the actual film is mostly played completely straight, with only the faintest signs of Kneale’s humour making it onto the screen (mostly through the performance of Kay Walsh as the leader of the coven). The movie is trying to be subtle and atmospheric, the script is trying to be funny, and nobody is trying to give the film any kind of fire in its belly or simple raw energy. There’s the odd unsettling moment, but it never comes anywhere close being genuinely shocking or scary. The result is a polite and restrained film with some good performances, but with nothing like the colour or charisma of any other Hammer film from this period.

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