Sunday, 1 July 2012
Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy: The Last Masterpiece - Review
John G. Byrne
The Irish Times
20 June 2012
Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film is a masterpiece, but has largely been overlooked in cinematic history. A new book throws fresh light on the director’s darkest work
BY 1970, Alfred Hitchcock’s half-century-long directorial career had reached its lowest ebb. Not only had recent films such as Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969) been critical and commercial failures, but trusted members of his entourage had gone. George Tomasini, his editor, and Robert Burks, his director of photography, had both died. His relationship with Bernard Herrmann, creator of many of the most intoxicating Hitchcock scores, had been bitterly severed.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy: The Last Masterpiece, Raymond Foery exhaustively charts the production of the film that helped restore his fortunes and flagging spirits. The film took him back, some 30 years after he departed for Hollywood, to London, the city of his birth.
On the face of it, the script of Frenzy, on which Hitchcock collaborated with Anthony Shaffer, was underwhelmingly formulaic. While a psychotic killer and rapist dubbed the “Necktie Murderer” stalks London, a down-at-heel former squadron leader, played by Jon Finch, finds himself implicated in the killings, thus becoming that most Hitchcockian of characters, “the wronged man”.
Hitchcock, as Foery reminds us, had always been far less interested in the basic textual content of a story than in how that story was to be realised cinematically.
His interest in dialogue was, famously, minimal, and that relative disinterest is evident here. There are some memorable moments of inky-black and mordant wit – such as when a well-to-do pub patron laments that London hasn’t had “a good sex murderer since Christie”, before pointing out that “they’re so good for the tourist trade” – but the sparkling exchanges that characterise earlier works such as North by Northwest are largely absent.
The banality of the dialogue, however, functions to create a deceptive sense of everydayness. The Necktie Murderer, Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), initially seems a perfectly ordinary, superficially charming, Covent Garden fruit-seller. The face he presents to the world, through cheeky and cheery patter, is nothing if not innocuous. Hitchcock’s films, of course, frequently played on notions of exteriority and interiority, on the contrast between seemingly harmless outer appearances and monstrous inner realities.
The visual “language” of Frenzy makes this contrast explicit. While the Covent Garden street scenes bustle with life and vitality, the film’s interiors are pointedly squalid and suffocating. Interiors are not a refuge from the dangers of the external world, but rather the spaces where damaged humanity can reveal the ugliness of its true face.
Hitchcock’s fascination with these hidden worlds of misanthropy, psychopathy and sexual deviancy reached an apogee with Frenzy. The film’s excruciating central rape and murder, realised through a typically jarring Hitchcock montage, far eclipses Psycho’s infamous shower scene in its gruesomeness and horror. It’s the moment where Hitchcock threw off the constraints of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood and fully committed to graphically capturing the horrible mechanics of slow death.
Few sequences in cinema, before or since, match it for hideous brilliance.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy: The Last Masterpiece, by Raymond Foery, is published by Scarecrow Press