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Posts Tagged ‘Barry Foster’

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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