Film Fiber: Frenzy brings it all back home (and shouldn't)
(or, "Hitchcock Completism Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be")
Frenzy is adequate. It's not great; it's not quite good, even. Alfred Hitchcock's penultimate film is miles better than the stillbirth that preceded it in his oeuvre, Topaz, and may have enjoyed better reviews that in deserved as a result, its actual merits swamped by a wave of relief that the old man hadn't actually lost it.
He hadn't, or not completely, and I propose that the issue with Frenzy and other post-The Birds Hitchcock films is not the director himself, but the changing times. In the '60s and '70s, the culture grew more permissive as to what film could show and viewers could handle onscreen; the days of brainstorming ways to tone down the blood in Psycho's shower scene had passed. Hitchcock thrived, I think, under those constraints. He "mastered" dread by merely suggesting it, playing on the unseen and barely understood.
By 1972, of course, you could put a bunch of breasts in your film and not end up in a sticky back room on 42nd Street. You could ladle on the literal gore and pathology. Hitch shouldn't have, because this is the result:
This is Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt). She's just gotten strangled by the "Necktie Killer" who's terrorizing London; her ex-husband Richard (Jon Finch) is about to get framed for it and go on the lam while the real murderer, Richard's friend Bob (Barry Foster), blithely continues raping, strangling, and having wonderfully creepy dyed frizzy hair. Foster and Leigh-Hunt both kick ass in the mortal struggle that leads to Brenda's death, and the scene is shot and edited tightly for maximum discomfort. And then: a cartoonish hold on what I am pretty sure is a stunt tongue. And it's not even the only stunt tongue!
The movie as a whole is mostly well acted (I hate to speak ill of the recently dead, but Finch, who passed last month, relies on his wardrobe for charisma and doesn't jump his lines right), and fun to look at period-wise, but the plot isn't fresh enough to make up for a bloated length and an overall sense that the movie just…doesn't get it. The music cues are consistently juuuust a hair off, a bit too cheery and dated. The running gag with the inspector's wife's misguided attempts at French cooking kind of grew on me — it's a sweet relationship that feels lived in, particularly Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen, a shot of dry sherry) hocking an inedible bite of pig's foot through a circle he forms with his finger and thumb, and it reminded me of the clueless "and to drink, Peru!" mom in Better Off Dead. But it's typical of the set pieces that, taken together, bog Frenzy down; the famed potato-truck scene, for one, is overacted and slow. Foster is doing his best to create tension, but instead of rooting for the ostensible villain, you spend the time wondering (again…you'll have wondered it during Brenda's murder as well) why none of his victims has just wrenched the tie pin off and stabbed him in the face. Or why Richard's friend's wife is okay with Richard staying on their couch when she suspects him of the necktie slayings, but when he allegedly commits another murder while staying with them, that's when she gets fed up? Or how Richard is getting sentenced to life in prison the same day he got arrested?
That in turn leads to an inessential escape-from-the-hoosegow-infirmary subplot involving stripey pajamas…my notes at this juncture read, and I quote, "WTF pre-Thatcherian Marvel-reject shit is this?" Fortunately, it's all gotten control of for the ending, which is a typical Hitch drop-the-mic line from the inspector, but on balance, Frenzy isn't an essential part of your nutritious cinema breakfast. It's not awful, and if you're going through the entire Hitchcock IMDb entry in order for some reason (weirder projects have been undertaken), this will seem like a steak dinner after shite like Torn Curtain. As I mentioned before, it seems to embody a certain difficulty Hitchcock had with carrying a coherent "brand," for lack of a better word, forward into a more culturally and visually liberal era; this isn't uninteresting, and there's some fun acting here as well. Qua film? Not necessary, and not in my opinion the imposing swan song others may have seen.
What is film fiber? It's the movies I feel it's necessary to have watched in order to participate in the cultural conversation. Canon, in other words, and whether it's good or enjoyable isn't the point. The point, as our exasperated sophomore-English teacher noted on the subject of The Scarlet Letter: "You can hate Pearl all you want, but if you can't tell me what she means, you're going to fail this class."
For more bowls of Film Fiber, click the "Film Fiber" tag below.
Next up on Film Fiber, and I should note that these seldom remain accurate because I have an untreated queue-shuffling compulsion, but anyway, in theory it's: The Magnificent Seven
Tags: Alec McCowen Alfred Hitchcock Barbara Leigh-Hunt Barry Foster Film Fiber Frenzy hairdon'ts henh? Jon Finch Kookoo Crazypantses man perms movies showing versus telling