Thursday, April 17, 2014

Movie Review: Frenzy

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 1972.

Frenzy is remembered today as Hitchcock's next-to-last and most explicit film, but in our era of endless recycling and dulling overstimulation, we ought to praise its vigor and restraint. The septuagenarian Hitchcock brings, if not a new plot, a mature synthesis of dark comedy, suspense, and pathology which holds us more rapt than the all the gory whiz-bang special effects we can generate today.

Hitchcock keeps us interested by engaging, not overwhelming us. In every scene we are prompted to think: interpreting context, predicting motives, and even questioning our own reactions. At every step we evaluate, not in a struggle to comprehend but out of a desire to act, and in being so active are entertained by Hitchcock's masterful manipulation of our senses and expectations.

Frenzy has the thee cardinal traits of Hitchcock, the violent, the comic, and the suspenseful. The film is violent, but because of what understand, not simply what we see. It is comic not by levity, but by irony. Finally it is suspenseful not because of what happens but because of what we expect to happen. Extraordinary for a film of this genre, Frenzy requires an attentive and appreciative viewer, not to figure out the trite plot, mind you, but to experience the effect, which is that of grappling with the evil in man.

It owes to Hitchcock's genius, not banality, that such a lofty premise is explored by a murder mystery and not a tragedy, for not all murderers make principled stands on grand stages like the scaffolds of the guillotine and Pompey's theater. Some men, the pathological, make frenzied and inglorious evil in flats and the backs of trucks.

Hitchcock's subversive opening sets the tone with a jarring contrast of the grand and obscene. We soar along the Thames to a majestic score of regal pomp and we soon swoop down to a political rally. Here a politician, betokening the progress of his day, promises to rid the river of pollution and contamination. During his speech the crowd slowly peels away and turns to the river, lured by the sight of a dead body floating face down and with the noose of a necktie around her neck. The sight is a morbid reminder that not all foes can be conquered and that civilization coexists with barbarity. We should have known, though, for on our flight over the Thames a tug chuffed past us billowing black smoke, a nod to the director's introduction of evil in his 1943, Shadow of A Doubt. It's more than a nod, though, for the note gives the director's first and last great works a cautioning symmetry.

It won't do to discuss the plot of a movie whose genius lies in technique, other than to summarize it as the hunt for a rapist-murderer in London and the authorities' doubts as to which of two men is committing the crimes. It's Hitchcock's style and context that bring the story to life.

I. Characters and Psychology

First we meet Richard Blaney, a down-on-his-luck bartender who is promptly fired as the movie opens. Blaney is curt, boozy, and irritable. We want to sympathize with him, but he's just so damn rude, and with an air of exasperation about him as if he just can't muster manners any longer. All sympathetic bets are off, though, when he visits his ex-wife Brenda at her matchmaking business and resumes his old abusive habits. Verbally he's loud and accusatory, re-hashing old issues. He hulks around, pounding his fist. Still Brenda takes him out to dinner, to her club even, where he starts up again and even breaks a glass in his anger. The contrasts here, with Brenda in financial and social control and Blaney in physical control, is a disturbing one which will have a more disturbing parallel. After dinner we naturally wonder, especially when Brenda lets him bunk on her couch for the night, whether she'll regret it. After all it's a half-hour into the movie and there's nary a murder or murderer in sight, right?

The next day in Brenda's office Blaney's friend, Robert Rusk, enters seeking a match. Rusk is no longer the chummy chap who loaned Blaney money, though, smiling down over his flowery window box. We learn that he's a regular whom Brenda won't help because of his sexual predilections for women who submit to his violence. When she turns him down again we see in his posture frustration and in his movement aggression, a loathsome figure at once pathetic and fearsome. After she rejects his embarrassing come-ons, Rusk forces himself upon her and in the rape, the director plays out those contrasting tones. Rusk is physically dominating and yet feeble, and as he repeats the word lovely over and over again during the rape, it reminds us both of his power as aggressor and weakness as a slave to desire. Hitchcock also only ever shows us Rusk's shadow during his crime, on the one hand a trick to avoid the censor's cut, but on the other a subtle belittling of the man, as if he's somehow incomplete. At the same time as Brenda is violated, though, she maintains composure. She retains power and dignity as she recites prayer during the rape, with her calm and controlled votive contrasting Rusk's lusty and desperate repetition of lovely. Likewise she remains physically composed, still, as we see Rusk's shadow move up an down over her, contrasting again his power and impotence.

This is a frightening scene which lingers in the memory, and has perhaps forever soured me on the word lovely and the sight of actor Barry Foster's face, but it's the psychology which disturbs most. Subsequent generations have squandered and dulled our sight for horror, but Hitchcock's visual style, restrained by today's standards, tells a story which it forces us to finish in our minds. It demands apprehension, and therefore interest and sympathy, even more than the explicit.

Of the men, what's the difference between Rusk and Blaney? The more successful and seemingly adjusted is quite the opposite, and what keeps the unlikeable Blaney from turning into Rusk? Morality, nature, fear? In the end, both men are frenzied, Rusk during his crimes and Blaney always, although to a lesser degree. Only one is heinous, though. An unflattering verdict for man.

II. Major Details

Details make or break a movie, and anything which reeks of cliche, artifice, or falsity is the death-knell for suspense. In order to hold our breath we need to fear we might drown, and anything that strikes us as inauthentic sends us back to the safety of reality.

We've already discussed the examples of the opening and the scene of Brenda's attack, but there are others, the most curious of which takes place when Blaney, before he's accused and before any murder at all, steps into a pub and the camera shifts focus to two men talking at the bar. They banter about the crime and the killer's psychology and when they ask the waitress for her thoughts she replies, "He rapes them first doesn't he?!" It isn't fear we hear in her voice, though, but a lurid fascination we also see in her widening eyes and her lips just unashamed enough to purse into a weak smile. That would have been enough, but then the two men lampoon her response and call the fact a "silver lining," and then Hitchcock raises the bar again, with the waitress getting a good chuckle out of the man's naughty response. This scene of the everyday person's cavalier attitude toward the violence they don't see or experience is more interesting, and off-putting, than most other whole movies and constitutes a theme throughout the movie.

In another scene, Rusk has dumped the body of his latest victim in the back of a truck hauling potatoes, but realized it holds a piece of evidence which might incriminate him. His realization is a work of directorial brilliance, a scene merely utilitarian to the plot–all it has to do is toss out a maguffin to get the antagonist to do something–which Hitchcock elevates to psychological horror. After disposing of the body Rusk reaches for his tie pin but can't find it. In fact he can't find it anywhere. Now Hitchcock could have shown Rusk's realization of where it was by showing him snap his fingers or some such gesture, or just having him remember and go find it, but Hitchcock shows us a sudden and brief flashback to the rape, from Rusk's perspective. We're suddenly and violently thrust into not just the mindset but the mind of the murderer, behind his eyes. We see in his perspective her desperate eyes, clawing hands, and the tightening tie, and are discomfited by being put into his position. The visceral impact, though, is heightened by the fact that these are Rusk's memories that we see. What a horrible thought Hitchcock forces us to think: imagine living with the fact and images of having raped someone. Imagine having those memories. Worse still, to Rusk those are just some of many memories.

III. Subversion of Expectations

It is ultimately Hitchcock's mastery of sub- and perversion which keeps us most hotly involved, though. There are numerous examples in the movie, but the most famous is in fact a whole scene taking place inside the aforementioned potato truck. Here, Rusk needs to reclaim the tie pin or risk being exposed. He makes his way into the truck and a scene of dark comedy ensues as he empties bag after bag of potatoes looking for his dead victim. When he finds her, naturally he has to get her out of the bag to reach her hand which contains the pin, and so he tugs and pulls on her body as potatoes fly everywhere. This sight unsettles by its juxtaposition of the morbid and ridiculous, fiddling with a cadaver in a pile of potatoes. Yet Hitchcock doubles down on the tension, for when Rusk gets to her hand, its rigor mortis clenches the pin in an unbreakable grip. The gross sight is then topped when Rusk decides to cut the pin out. In a classic Hitchcock twist, he tries to cut her finger off but fails, a fact which elevates the scene's 1) morbidity by exploiting the fact that we already pictured what we expected would happen when we saw the knife, 2) suspense by not letting our expectation get fulfilled, and 3) humor by the sight of the preposterous situation.

The most disturbing twist comes when the truck starts and pulls away. Now we begin to sympathize with Rusk as we would any underdog even as we see before us a constant reminder of his horrific crime.

The best testament to the maturity and success of Frenzy though, is that these three elements of characterization, contextual details, and subversion are so integrated. We don't see his technique or tropes, rather they disappear into the film's effect and therefore our own emotional response. Frenzy is an ingenious weave of the expected and the unexpected, with Hitchcock managing to engage us with both.

Like many late masterpieces of great artists, its story was fashioned conservatively in the old mold while the artist shaped it into something much greater than the sum of its plot. This is not to say that style has trumped substance, a charge often and easily hurled, but that style can produce substance. In the case of Frenzy, we see the form of a traditional murder mystery but the effect is a psychological chase which haunts long after the crime.

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