29 May 2009

Frenzy (1972)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 116 mins.

Returns to form are often greeted with commercial and critical exuberance, and even if such assessments are occasionally inflated, as they are with Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, there's no denying the satisfaction gleaned from the experience of a director in familiar territory. This, Hitchcock's penultimate film, is a casserole of the director's favorite themes: a murder-by-numbers plot with a bumbling police detective on the heels of a wrongfully accused man. But as close as Frenzy seems to the heart of what it means to be Hitchcockian, there's also an unshakable feeling that we've been whisked away to a foreign land where subtle craftsmanship yields to the opportunity of gratuity. I'm no prude when it comes to sex and violence, but the lack of inhibition on Hitchcock's behalf makes Frenzy somewhat of only a novelty to me — it is certainly interesting to see what the director does as an artist unshackled from content limitations (and no doubt it put to rest what could have been decades of debate regarding what he could have done without censors), but it is also spotty and a little wearisome.

Which makes it all the more ironic, when you think about it. Hitchcock spent almost his entire Hollywood career fighting the rigorous standards of the Production Code; there were always liars, murderers, criminals, the morally corrupt, and the mentally unstable in his films, but there was also a sophistication and elegance in the way he cut corners to squeak by the censors. (Although the Production Code existed in opposition to every First Amendment principle I hold dear, I'm still of the mind that its inherent difficulties forced creativity out of its artists; the effect, while constitutionally reprehensible, is nonetheless artistically rewarding.) When the Code was scrapped in favor of a letter-rating system in 1968, Hitchcock, in the twilight of his career, was finally able to go places on-screen that he never could have gone before.

For Frenzy, he returned to his native England — his first British film is more than twenty years — to make what would be his only R-rated feature. It is a postwar Jack the Ripper-inspired thriller, adapted from Arthur La Bern's novel Goodbye Picadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, about a murderer who asphyxiates his victims with neckties. Hitchcock discloses the true identities of all involved within the first half-hour of Frenzy, but nevertheless I'll avoid giving too much away about the plot; if you haven't seen it, one of its strengths is that Hitchcock tantalizes the audience with the faintly veiled mystery and then completely abandons any pretense that we're to be the detectives. He wants you to know who the Necktie Killer is, wants to watch the depictions of rape and strangulation (not to mention nudity), wants the audience as always to be one step ahead of the bumbling police force. The suspense isn't quite as tight as it should be, but what is created in the space between the innocent man and the guilty man is a intriguing twist: which one will make the first false move? As such, Frenzy is ultimately about its two male leads — Jon Finch and Barry Foster — who provide two of the most interesting performances in a Hitchcock film since his early work in the 1960s. The film's female characters come off as too slight, however, and the chief inspector (Alec McCowan) doesn't deliver the laughs Hitchcock wants him to.

Aside from the suspense not being quite as taut as it could have been, the freedom to see the crimes somehow diminishes their shock value. Some have argued the simple fact that we are witnessing tremendous violence in a Hitchcock film should make them shocking enough. Perhaps in 1972 upon Frenzy's premiere that was the case, but today the violence doesn't translate as well as the sublimely crafted sequences in Hitchcock's earlier films, where he was forced to make your imagination work.

The film does have a great moment of imagination at work, however, and it's also the most dazzling sequence in the whole film. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer rightly convinced the director that showing multiple murders would be redundant. The Necktie Killer's first on-screen attack is prolonged, vicious, and meticulously staged (the quick editing resembles, but fall short of, the infamous shower scene in Psycho). The next time the Necktie Killer strikes, however, is one of the most memorable shots in all of Hitchcock's films: the camera smoothly follows him and his victim up the stairs to his apartment where the camera then stops, watches them enter, then slowly reverses its course down the stairs and out of the building where any sounds from the apartment have been drowned out by the diegetic noises on the street. It's all done in a single shot, and it's superb in its technique, all the more so because not a single violent moment is seen yet we clearly know what's going on inside. The effect is far spookier than any filmed murder could be, and if Frenzy had more of these moments — as opposed to the killer's loony scrummaging in the potato truck as he searches for a lost item and the body of his victim serves as comic relief — I think what is a rather adequate film could have been a final brush with greatness.


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