Time Gentlemen Please
FRENZY represents at least three things —
1) A return from the flaccidity of TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ to a more taut, controlled, satisfying thriller story.
2) A return to England for migrant Hitch, an England he found painfully changed in some ways, but whose progress he could eradicate in the film he was making, erasing all traces of the recent Swinging London and recreating the city of his youth.
3) A return of the repressed, a vicious explosion of curdled sexuality and incipient violence, the legacy of decades of celibacy and censorship.
If I were a woman viewing new releases in the early seventies, I think I would have been a bit worried by all the aggression on display, I must say. It’s surprising from Hitchcock, but even Mankiewicz (who used Hitch’s writer from FRENZY, Anthony Shaffer, on SLEUTH) became decidedly flippant about sexual violence in the distasteful THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN. And British cinema seemed even more sleazy than Hollywood (although a couple of the nastiest films came from visiting or émigré directors like Peckinpah and Kubrick).
FRENZY, of course, revives some of the ideas from the defunct KALEIDOSCOPE / FRENZY project developed before TOPAZ, and applies them to Arthur LaBern’s novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. The earlier film had been influenced by two of Hitchcock’s favourite real-life English serial killers, Neville Heath and John Haigh, the acid-bath murderer. Patrick McGilligan (in his definitive Hitchcock bio) tells us that Hitch took actor Barry Foster under his wing and loaned him books on these two murderers — he doesn’t say if the books were by Arthur La Bern, who wrote about both cases, but it seems more than likely.
La Bern, alas, didn’t care for Hitchcock’s adaptation of his book, writing a strongly-worded condemnation of the film in a letter to The Times. He was particularly dismissive of the dialogue, which in truth often lacks Shaffer’s customary sharpness, and circles around rather aimlessly at times as if unsure whether the point of the scene had been made yet. And there’s an over-reliance on clichés. Sadly, much real-life speech is cliche-ridden, but I think there has to be a way to reflect that in art without simply being flat and unoriginal.
On the other hand, Shaffer does contribute some good stuff — it’s a shame his career diminished into Agatha Christie adaptations for Michael Winner, his early seventies work is pretty distinguished, if we throw in THE WICKER MAN and even the agreeable MR FORBUSH AND THE PENGUINS with John Hurt. Afterwards, only ABSOLUTION really stands out, with its unconventional pairing of Richard Burton and Billy Connolly (and “the Big Yin’s” DELIVERANCE-like banjo score). Shaffer reported that Hitch started their relationship by telling him that his films never contained any plot holes, a very odd claim indeed from a filmmaker whose films often more closely resemble nightmares than case histories. Shaffer promptly screened NORTH BY NORTHWEST and asked how James mason knew what train Cary Grant would be catching? Hitch shrugged.
Oddly, FRENZY behaves like a film very much concerned that the audience should understand every step of the narrative journey, and every iota of character motivation. For some reason, Hitch was evidently more worried than usual about the potential objections of the fun-hating “plausiblists.” One scene in particular, when detective Alec McCowen retrospectively explains the fact that Jon Finch deliberately injured himself to get out of prison and into hospital, is hilarious in its redundancy.
And yet, such ropey exposition is mostly amusing and rarely vexatious. The only really serious issue with the film is tonal, and has to do with the charge of misogyny often leveled at Hitch, but really courted, it often seems, in this movie. As is often the case, it’s a cumulative thing, and the comic scenes, which are often very funny in themselves, generally poke fun at female characters and rebound uncomfortably off the horror content, which likewise targets exclusively female victims. But when I showed the film to a class (well, part of a class) of my students, none of them seemed offended, judging the dramatic and comic scenes purely on their effectiveness.
Having fired Bernard Herrmann on TORN CURTAIN, Hitch repeated the act here with Henry Mancini, who he hired for his lightness of touch, and fired for delivering a solemn and scary score. Mancini of course was quite capable of delivering lightness (for his other side, check out his spine-tingling score for EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, which gives us the David Lynch Sound some decades avant la lettre), and protested that Hitch hadn’t told him what he wanted. Hitch obviously assumed that by hiring Mancini, he was making it clear he wanted a typical Mancini score, as when he hired Cary Grant and expected a Cary Grant performance. Pressing on, he provided detailed notes for Ron Goodwin, a British composer with a similar reputation for lightness, and Goodwin was able to satisfy the master.
Nice helicopter shot of “The City of London,” with helpful map-style caption in the top corner, Goodwin’s patriotic theme, and a glide through the tower bridge, before a dissolve brings us floating towards the pompous political speech about pollution in the Thames, rudely interrupted by the arrival of a naked, strangled female corpse. (Hitchcock cameos here, apparently unimpressed by the speech, going by his doleful expression.) The comedy is a little off-putting already — does she have to be naked? Is Hitch equating the female body with pollution?
A Langian cut to Jon Finch tying his necktie starts the film’s first feint, in which we’re to be led to suspect Finch. I forgot to ask my students if they were taken in, but my feeling now is that the film perhaps succeeds better today, when Finch is less famous, than it would have at the time. And in any case, the film gets by even if we’re not fooled (it would get by better if the narrative moved faster, but I’ll come to that).
Right from the off, Finch’s Blaney is preposterously surly and dislikable, quite the most unappealing Hitchcock lead. It’s a shame for Finch, a genuinely charismatic player when he can let rip with his inherent flounce and swagger (neither FRENZY nor Polanski’s MACBETH show his real flair: try THE FINAL PROGRAMME for the full-on Finch strut). The actor got off to a bad start with Hitch, after giving a foolish interview in which he announced that the script was old-fashioned and the actors might need to improvise a bit to bring it up to date. Throughout the shoot, Hitch short-changed Finch on closeups, we are told (although this isn’t obviously detectable in the final cut) and belittled him on set.
Hitch seems to have had some affection for Anna Massey, whom he taught to make batter, and Barry Foster, as well as the older stage actors. We are not told what he thought of Bernard Cribbins, who relishes his role as the nasty publican who fires Finch at the start. Cribbins is a revered UK comedy actor, particularly well-liked for his narration of The Wombles, an eco-friendly animated puppet show for kids, so it’s blasphemously thrilling to hear him making nasty remarks about Anna Massey’s tits. It’s like seeing Mr Rogers shoot up.
Then we get the odd, forced exposition scene in another pub, where a couple of city gents discuss the murders, make off-colour jokes, and paint a psychological portrait of the likely killer, all while Blaney drinks in the background (FRENZY would make an excellent drinking game: drink everything Finch imbibes and you will end the film seeing double and needing stereoscopic glasses to put the film back into 2D). We could probably do without this scene, although the hideous jokes about rape have a sort of nostalgic horror — people doubtless were this insensitive, if not in 1971, then probably in 1931.
While Shaffer was concerned, and a little amused, that Hitchcock seemed to want to reverse time and make his characters talk and behave as they would in a 1930s movie, he seems to have taken his eye off the ball when Blaney meets his ex-wife at her office. This scene sets up the tensions between the two, which are overheard by Blaney’s secretary. The scene could logically end with Blaney leaving and Rusk arriving, proceeding directly to the horrible rape-murder, which will then be pinned on Blaney due to a mountain of circumstantial evidence.
Instead, 24 hrs of screen time go by, with Blaney going on a date with his wife, spending the night in a Salvation Army hostel, discovering she’s slipped him some money, picking up Anna Massey and taking her to a hotel, and then learning of the murder, which happens that day.
The whole date could have been deleted — intended, presumably, to deepen our understanding of the hero, it just allows him to act peevish and self-pitying some more, with Barbara Leigh-Hunt continuing to show him more sympathy than he deserves. I do like the fact that one of his failed business ventures was a roadhouse, scuppered by the closing of a motorway. The Bates Motel?
This fat in the first half hour delays the start of the thriller proper, but once it does get going we’re rapidly thrown off balance. Barry Foster’s mere arrival at the Blaney Bureau (Friendship and Marriage) signals instantly that he’s the killer, so the lengthy exchange between him and BL-H is fraught with tension and near-nausea. Hitch abandons his dictum that if you scare the audience with the prospect of a Bad Thing, you must let them off the hook by not having it happen. Here, the Bad Thing happens, graphically, lengthily, and observed with a somewhat leering closeness. And the tone is unsettlingly off.
(Fiona and I both saw this film at around the same time, as young teenagers, on Grampian TV. We hadn’t met. I like to think it was the same screening. Fiona was in Dundee, where Grampian is the ITV regional broadcaster. I was in Edinburgh, where the portable b&w TV in my bedroom could pick up a very fuzzy signal from Grampian, way up north. There’s a passage in the wildly offensive Philip Larkin / Kingsley Amis letters where one complains to the other that all the Hammer films are on TV in another region, and “We’re starved of tits and fangs here.” That’s kind of what Scotland was like: all the horror films and sexy stuff seemed to get broadcast in Grampian. Although sometimes I would have the choice of two bad films, one on STV and one of Grampian, and would spin the dial back and forth between them, creating a mix n match bad movie.
Anyhow, that scene in FRENZY disturbed us both at a vulnerable age. Anything to do with sex was interesting then — has that changed? — but this was freaky and horrible. I guess it plays a similar game to the PSYCHO shower scene, the come-on of nudity and the slap on the face of bloody murder, but updated to 1970s levels of nastiness. And it’s menacing from the start, so the guilty desire to see is highlighted in red.)
Could do without the close-ups of breasts, I must say, but they’re largely a function of Hitch’s use of a body double: he never allowed an actress to go nude. I wish I could find the source of a quote about nudity, where Hitch says “Never in my films!” and complains that it’s already a cliche. But in fact he’d planned to undress ladies in KALEIDOSCOPE and again in TOPAZ, where Karin Dor resisted owing to some unsightly scars, and Hitch shot the scene from the shoulders up.
Some have issues with Barry Foster’s performance here — the leering barrow-boy look, I think Anne Billson called it. One of my students, Kestrel, said it was like “Family Guy does English porn.” And Shaffer, primarily a humorous writer, creates this weird orgasmic rhythm out of Leigh-Hunt’s prayers and Foster’s repeated grunts of “Lovely.” When I’ve said this strikes me as an essentially comic device, people haven’t always understood me. The prayer is moving, and the juxtaposition of the scared and the profane no doubt meaningful to Hitch, and potentially powerful. But the repetition and rhythmic alteration always struck me as theatrical and nastily humorous, and I can’t explain it better than that.
Do we need to see all of this? If this is, essentially, a black comedy, what’s this scene doing in the film?
Foster, in interview, said the scene was arduous and painful to shoot — several days of rape and homicide, presided over by Hitch in a chair positioned millimetres from the action, directing the actors in his deliberate, lugubrious tones, like a silent filmmaker, or like Fellini: recording no sound, and talking them through the scene as the camera’s rolled. And then in the edit he had to be talked out of a loving ECU of drool running from the murdered woman’s lolling tongue.
My students were curious as to whether the tongue was forensically accurate. I suspect it might not be: I gather the strangulation victim’s tongue swells and blackens (nice), but I think this might take a bit of time. But I don’t know, I’m no Quincey.
If you feel I’m overstating the air of grubbiness and sexual malaise here, let me regale you with a story passed on to Fiona from director Mike Hodges, who worked with FRENZY’s cinematographer Gilbert Taylor when he made FLASH GORDON. Taylor’s operator reported that when he took the shot of Foster tripping Leigh-Hunt as she tries to escape, Hitch’s direction to him was “Make sure you get a shot of her knickers.” Brrr.
Another operator story: a character passes the lens, and Hitch says afterwards, “We should be down to the third button on his jacket.” He knows exactly how the shot should be framed, and he’s right, to the very button. The operator is astounded, never having heard of a director who could visualize that precisely what a given lens would see from a given position. (Orson Welles also claimed this rare gift.) After almost fifty years directing, Hitchcock IS a camera.
At the hotel where Finch is shacked up with Massey, there’s a familiar face. After enjoying her work in RICH AND STRANGE, back in 1931 (playing an old maid at age 27), he’d promised Else Randolph that he’d work with her again. Forty years later, he got his chance, and cast her as the hotel receptionist here.
Elsie plays one of the film’s many comic females, not all of whom are negative stereotypes, but like I’ve said, the cumulative effect is a bit overpowering. Elsie’s character is kind of dumb, as is the barmaid who laughs at the off-colour jokes, and Barry Foster’s mum is just a bit grotesque and frothy. At the Blaney Agency we meet one bullying woman and her soon-to-be hen-pecked man, and the starched secretary. Anna Massey seems to be conceived in busty barmaid terms, so it’s nice that they’ve cast an actress with such odd, birdlike features, taking the role into less conventional territory. Vivien Merchant, as the detective’s wife, is a sort of domestic monster, but we rather like her — she’s amusing, and she’s a better detective than her husband. Billie Whitelaw is the only real monster.
The scenes with Clive Swift as Finch’s old friend (they apparently fought together in the Suez crisis, a clear anachronism given Finch’s age) and Billie Whitelaw as his wife are among the weakest. Swift turns up in a blazing bit of coincidence, and shelters the fugitive in defiance of his dragon-lady wife. But a few scenes later he’s suddenly cowed, and dumps his pal in it. We’re meant to believe that because this horrid couple are off to run a pub in France, they will be impossible to reach and Blaney’s cast-iron alibi will be destroyed. It seems implausible in both logical and character consistency terms. (Always nice to see Billie though.)
This sequence, in which Finch is required to hide out and dynamically do nothing, is another pace-killer, although it does give us the valuable information about the Blaney divorce, in which he pled guilty to cruelty to get a quickie divorce — another fact that will count against him in court.
Meanwhile, detective Alec McCowen has been introduced, one of the film’s best characters. My students thoroughly enjoyed the byplay with his nouvelle cuisine obsessed wife, and his championing of the correct diet as “Breakfast, three times a day.” The film is indeed focussed on food to an extraordinary extent. When Hitch was asked if his father was a greengrocer, he demurred, specifying that Hitchcock pere was a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. In other words, he wasn’t like John Loder in SABOTAGE, he was like Barry Foster in FRENZY…
McCowen underplays beautifully in his quiet desperation to get out of the line of fire of his wife’s awful meals (served up with a kind of gentle sadism). Merchant has very odd delivery, which is a consistent pleasure of the head-scratching variety. What’s with her? I especially love her delivery of “tequilla”, where she pronounces the Q as if it were an English word.
Blaney’s safehouse having moved from under him (allowing Finch more opportunity for petulance — he seizes every chance to roll his Rs as if auditioning for a Restoration comedy — it’s not appropriate to 1971, but anything to give the drab and unappealing character a bit of colour) he pitches up on Foster’s doorstep, and the trap is sprung.
Foster’s murder of Massey gives the film several of its high points. The way the sound drops out just before he introduces himself to her is very effective, and quite radical for the period. Hitch earlier uses a radical diminution of the soundtrack when Blaney disappears rather than talk to a copper, right at the start: all the market hubbub falls away, leaving just the sparse sound of footsteps. The murder behind locked doors is chilling, and still a welcome relief from the snuff-porn sexploitation of the first onscreen murder. As with PSYCHO the principle holds that restraint is most effective when it follows explicitness: give the audience’s imaginations plenty to work with. The extremely difficult camera move where we first follow the couple upstairs, then retreat backwards in silent horror, is also treated experimentally on the soundtrack: silence, with a slow build-up of street noises, building to a roar that will drown out any screams. The scene also has an absolutely perfect concealed cut, taking us from the studio to location. Hitch’s special effects only have the reputation of being clunky because so many of them don’t work. When they do work, hardly anybody is aware of them.
Then there’s the sequence where Foster misses his tie-pin, and we get the flashback of the murder — a sort of imaginary flashback, since Foster literally reconstructs (out of fragmentary close-ups) what must have happened, even though he didn’t actually SEE the tie-pin get grabbed by his victim. These excessive, ecstatic detail shots, cut at breakneck speed to Goodwin’s pounding score (all talk of lightness laid aside for now), are one of the film’s best moments, but rarely discussed. Having switched to Foster’s pyschological POV, Hitch now delights in making the audience root for his sexual psychopath anti-hero. he’d talked about this when planning KALEIDOSCOPE (“For some inexplicable reason, the audience is on the side of the criminal at this point.”)
So now we come to the famous potato truck sequence, extended to breaking point, you might think, but it really works with an audience. Something Jan Svankmajeresque about the strange image of the bare foot amid the spuds, the toes like tiny baby (pota)toes. Good use of artifice to create the impression that Foster is at work in a truck on the motorway: practically all his shots are studio. Gilbert Taylor had also shot REPULSION, which is the other great rape-and-potatoes Brit horror film.
The hideous protraction of the business of dealing with Massey’s (or her body double’s) rigor mortis grasp on the tell-tale tie-pin recalls the killing of dear old Gromek in TORN CURTAIN. And then we wind up here ~
Not really, of course, we wind up at Wally’s New Cafe, which still feels like it was built on the site of the 1930s “trucker’s pull-in” (odd that the term used is a cinematic one). Which suddenly brings home to me the resemblance between YOUNG AND INNOCENT and FRENZY. There’s an essay somewhere suggesting that the stained dress of STAGE FRIGHT and the raincoat belt of YOUNG AND INNOCENT suggest numerous formal connections between the early British thriller (one of the least-known of the 30s thriller cycle) and the film marking Hitchcock’s return to England in 1950. But this much later return seems to have far more in common with the Nova Pilbeam vehicle. Consider:
Story: in both films, a woman goes on the run to attempt to clear a man of the murder of his (ex)wife.
Locations: in both films — a truck stop cafe, a doss house, a grand hotel, a detective’s home (scenes around the dinner table).
Murder: in both films, of a woman, by stragulation, using a garment, body washed up on the shore at the beginning.
Oh, the tie-pin doesn’t come from YOUNG AND INNOCENT though, that comes from the play Rope. In his film, Hitchcock used a different clue, but the pin must have stuck in the back of his mind (ouch!) — or else it’s from the novel, in which case maybe La Bern was influenced by his fellow Londoner Patrick Hamilton.
Foster now proceeds to neatly frame Finch for his crimes, even packing his last victim’s clothes into Finch’s luggage and, after inviting him to shelter from the authorities at his trendily decorated bachelor pad (complete with the same commercial art visible on Alex’s parents’ walls in CLOCKWORK ORANGE), he snitches to his copper friend and before we know it (well, after a few more plodding expository scenes), Hitchcock does another of his tentative courtroom scenes. Here we stay outside the doors, only getting snippets of sound when the doors are opened. Then Finch is shoved into a holding cell and we get ~
(1) A classic Hitchcockian God shot, from directly overhead, as if peeking into a doll’s house.
(2) Another version of the Hitchcockian primal scene, his five minutes of imprisonment at the local police station, his father’s punishment for some long-forgotten infraction. Interesting that both Hitch in real life and Finch in fiction have been sent to the stripy hole due to the machinations of a wholesale greengrocer. Interesting that this scene obsessed Hitch to the very end.
This overhead view is followed by a matching one of McCowen as the first doubts descend in the courtroom, which prompts him, like John Williams in DIAL M FOR MURDER, to privately re-investigate a crime which he’s already “solved.” (“Unconventional, yes, but my blood was up!”) And McCowen is in fact a virtual clone of the Williams detective. FRENZY can be seen as a last visitation of Hitchcock’s British themes and characters. Some of them may seem a little dog-eared and anachronistic, but it’s nostalgically pleasing to find them trotted out one last time.
Now McCowen’s investigations move in parallel with Finch’s escape attempt — but why do his fellow prisoners help him escape, since he’s the convicted necktie strangler, the sort of “nonsense case” who might be expected to receive little sympathy from your serious professional criminal? The only possible answer is that criminals are somehow capable of recognizing an innocent man in a way that policemen aren’t. I don’t believe that to be true, but you could probably convey the idea in a scene — but you would have to write such a scene.
On to the smashing finish. For some reason Foster leaves his door unlocked, admitting the desperate escapee. Good laughs from my students at Finch’s plight — it works that he’s not exactly sympathetic — and I’m impressed by the beat-by-beat revelation of the facts. The tension is, can McCowen arrest Foster before Finch kills him? When Finch batters the blond-locked figure in Foster’s bed, we fear he’ll be convicted of another murder. Then the female arm falls loose and we fear he’s murdered an innocent. Then he whips back the sheet and — whew! — she was dead already. Then McCowen appears in the doorway, leaving Finch to stutter the abortive beginnings of some kind of truly weak, “I can explain” or “This isn’t what it looks like” explanation. Then McCowen, finally revealed as a smart copper, motions him to wait.
McGilligan gives us some nice insights into the filming, and how Hitchcock’s interventions turned some obvious playing into more interesting choices. Foster initially hung his head in defeat upon realizing he was captured. Hitch suggested a hopeful smile. And when McCowen declaimed the closing line, Hitch asked for a lighter approach (as he told composer John Williams, “Murder can be fun.”)
“Alec, if I was playing your part … which I’m not … but if I was playing your part I wouldn’t say the line like that. It’s the end of the movie. You’ve got your man. There’s nothing else to worry about. If I was playing your part, I’d just lean against the door, and I’d sigh, I might smile, even … and I’d say very quietly, “You’re not wearing your tie.”
But it’s up to you — you’re playing the part.”