In 2012 there was a minor stir in the blogosphere of that ever opinionated creature, the cineast. That year the British magazine Sight and Sound did their decennial poll where they invited film scholars to list what in their opinion are the ten greatest films ever made. The poll was first taken in 1952. That year The Bicycle Theif topped the list. A decade later Citizen Kane took the top spot and continued to dominate the Sight and Sound poll (not to mention countless others) every decade. But in 2012 it felt like the earth began spinning in the opposite direction when Kane was bumped to number two in favor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Now I personally don’t think Vertigo is nearly as great as Citizen Kane. In fact it’s far from my favorite Hitchcock film. That honor would probably go to either Rear Window, North by Northwest or Psycho. That’s not to say that Vertigo doesn’t have a wealth of virtues – a top-notch cast, some incredibly passionate moments, arguably the best score Bernard Herman ever wrote and it’s hands down one of the most visually beautiful films of the fifties. But for my money the sum of the parts were always greater than the whole. Then again, every film buff has their own favorite Hitchcock picture. What’s very rare is finding someone who doesn’t like the Master of Suspense at all.
It’s hard to believe now but there was a time when Alfred Hitchcock was not taken very seriously at all by film critics and scholars. For most of his long and storied career he was seen largely as a sort of carnival barker, luring people into his midway tent so that they could get their masochistic jollies gaping at the grotesqueries within. Oh, he got some acclaim. Rebecca, his first Hollywood film (which he personally didn’t care much for) won the Oscar for Best Picture. He was nominated for Best Director but lost to The Grapes of Wrath director John Ford. Hitchcock would later earn a Best Director nom for Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window and Psycho, yet he never won. In 1968 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences awarded Hitchcock the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which is given out on certain years (it was last awarded in 2010) to “Creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” Lifetime achievement awards are often a bit of a double-edged sword. Sure, it’s an honor and unlike the competitive awards the recipient knows he’s not going home empty-handed. Then again awarding ones lifetime of work seems to indicate that the best years are behind you (not always though. Spielberg was awarded the Thalberg in 1986 before he even turned forty!) The fact that it is awarded to “creative producers” seems to indicate that it’s the business side of things that they are honoring and unlike every other Academy Award the Memorial Award statuette is a bust of Mr. Thalberg, not the familiar Oscar figure. This means that Alfred Hitchcock went to his grave without ever having been awarded an actual Oscar.
The public of course loved Hitchcock. Ever since he directed his silent classic The Lodger in 1927 Hitchcock knew how to frighten the hell out of audiences and how to make the most thrilling of thrillers. While some filmmakers spend their whole careers trying to avoid being pigeonholed, Hitchcock was perfectly happy working almost exclusively in the mystery genre and was proud be called “the Master of Suspense.” At a time when directors were often viewed as mere cogs in the large studio system apparatus, Hitchcock knew he was an artist and was not shy about it. Along with Frank Capra he was one of the only film makers who’s name appeared above the title of his films – Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
His style was unmistakable, his technique was sound. Hitch was notorious for storyboarding his films within an inch of their life, laying out his shots, camera movement and montages like Stravinsky notating his musical score. He frequently designed long, complex shots, showing as much action as he could without breaking the continuity or very deliberately only shooting the coverage that was absolutely necessary to fit his storyboards. Part of it was his meticulous nature but part of it was also the fact that the right to final cut was a pipe dream during the studio era. David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone with the Wind who brought Hitchcock over from Great Britain in 1940 was particularly notorious for re-cutting and reshaping films in the editing room once the director had moved on to other projects. No way Hitchcock was going to allow that to happen with his films.
So why exactly were critics so hostile towards Hitch? Part of it was that he was so blatantly commercial. By putting his name above the title of his films and specializing in a certain type of movie Hitchcock was very consciously turning his name into a brand much like Walt Disney had. He later spun off a mystery magazine (still published today), a series of mystery books for kids and of course produced, hosted and occasionally directed his hugely successful anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And let’s not forget those cameos he made in virtually every one of his films. For his die-hard fans going to a Hitchcock movie became a little like one of those Where’s Waldo books. There were times when it was particularly difficult for him to make his cameo. Lifeboat took place entirely on a lifeboat. Look closely and you’ll see someone reading a newspaper. There you will see a weight loss ad with Hitchcock, not surprisingly, as the before picture. Dial M for Murder was a chamber drama that took place almost entirely in a London flat with only a few people. Pay close attention and you will see him in a photograph along with a number of other people. Sometimes it became a bit of a nuisance. It got to the point where Hitchcock had to make his cameo as early in the film as possible so that those looking for him could then relax and concentrate on the film. In his 1956 movie The Wrong Man Hitchcock appears in shadow at the very beginning of the film announcing “every word (of the movie) is true.” This was partly due to the fact that it was inspired by a true story (and like any true story the accuracy can be debated forever) but also because it was deliberately filmed in a docudrama style Hitchcock felt that his trademark cameo would only serve as a distraction.
Critics often felt that his films were all style and no content. What exactly did they mean by that? Well, it’s safe to say that he was far less interested in the psychological make-up of his characters then say Orson Welles or Elia Kazan. A favorite protagonist of Hitchcock was the innocent man falsely accused of something. We don’t learn a whole lot about his what makes him tick. That’s not the point. The point is that the rug has been pulled out from under him or her and they have to restore order to their lives. It doesn’t always work out mind you. In Saboteur, for example, the man wrongly accused of terrorism (Robert Cummings) is unable to prevent the only guy that can clear his name (Norman Lloyd) from falling off the torch of the Statue of Liberty. His villains were often interesting and charismatic. Hitch once said that his favorite movie of his was Shadow of a Doubt, which starred Joseph Cotton as a charming, handsome, beloved uncle who also happens to be a serial killer. What’s important isn’t why he kills but the fact that he’s going to kill. Even after that cross-dressing mama’s boy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is apprehended the rather glib explanation for his behavior is hardly satisfactory. What’s so much more fascinating is the fact that he kills Janet Leigh and then mops up her blood and disposes of the body so that his “mother” won’t get in trouble. When faced with such criticism Hitchcock would protest that condemning his films for their lack of “content” was like asking a painter if the apples in his still life were sweet or sour. Who cares?
And then there was the charge that he was manipulative, that his movies did nothing more than strike certain nerves to give off certain responses. In Hitchcock’s mind that was precisely what an artist, any artist, does. A novelist elicits an emotional response through his use of prose, a playwright through his use of dialog. A composer arranges notes to create a melody, a painter mixes colors to create certain shades and a sculptor molds and shapes certain contours onto a three-dimensional object. The goal is always to stimulate an emotional response. For Hitchcock that response was usually fear. He knew that the world was a chaotic place. That behind the veneer of order in society there was always a storm of chaos waiting to be set free. That evil was omnipresent and that it took many forms. The fact that people needed to exorcise these fears was a strange bit of human nature that Hitchcock was always ready to provide. He always said he liked to play his audience like a piano. What so many of these critics didn’t seem to get is that he made us feel like a Steinway.
Hitchcock had his champions, of course. In France, the famed critic and theorist Andre Bazin assembled a salon of young film enthusiasts to write for his magazine Cashiers du cinema. These young men included Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Eric Rohmer, Claud Chabrol and others who would go on to make up the core of the French New Wave in the late fifties and early sixties. Before making their own films they wrote volumes about American filmmakers and how they were, despite the fact that they worked for the big studios, artists with their own unique voice and style. Hitchcock was among those that they championed and none was more enthusiastic about the master then Truffaut, the very man who coined the term auteur and later went on to become a great director in his own right. In 1962, after he had already directed The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Truffaut sat down with Hitch at Universal pictures and conducted a weeklong series of interviews. In 1966 they were published in the volume Hitchcock/Truffaut, unquestionably one of the most important pieces of film criticism ever published. By then popular opinion about Hitchcock was already beginning to change in the U.S. Andrew Sarris began his career at The Village Voice by writing a rave review of Psycho. Younger critics like Peter Bogdonavich (who would soon become a director) and Roger Ebert unabashedly loved the master and soon there was a whole generation of “movie brats” like Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, Polanski, Altman and Friedkin (the latter two got their starts directing episodes of Hitchcock’s anthology series) who were quite vocal in their love of the master.
As Hitchcock approached his senior years his movies started to become darker and darker. His somewhat gleeful fascination with death and gallows humor started to be replaced with ever-growing droplets of despair. The Birds was arguably the only out-and-out horror movie Hitchcock ever made. It was as close as he ever came to making a “monster” movie and it was clearly meant to be a doomsday picture, a speculation on how the human race might end. But it isn’t a mushroom cloud or giant radioactive monster that will be the death of us but rather our feathered friends who we usually perceive as harmless and benign. For all man has done to tame the planet we’d be utterly defenseless if mother nature rose up against us (this past year has recorded a frightening number of unusual weather patterns and unnatural occurrences. As our planet gets hotter Mother Nature grows more and more hostile). Marnie (1964) comes to a particularly disturbing conclusion in which the title character played by Tippi Hedren recounts a most harrowing childhood trauma. The way in which Hitch edits the scene is bound to make anyone uncomfortable. His espionage film Torn Curtain includes one of the most violent scenes he ever filmed in which Paul Newman and Julie Andrews have to defend themselves against a killer. Whatever faults the film as a whole has this one masterfully directed scene does illustrate how incredibly difficult it can be for an ordinary person to kill but should the need arise we can all take another human life to save our own.
By the end of the sixties the industry had changed considerably. For much of his career Hitchcock often had to do battle with the notorious Hayes office over the violent and sexual content of his films. In 1968 the MPAA introduced a ratings system. Studios would voluntarily submit their films to a board that would then give the film a rating (G, PG, R) based on the film’s content. In theory at least this would give people an idea as to whether or not a film was appropriate for children without resorting to out-and-out censorship. In the ensuing years the methods in which films are classified and the economic pressured placed on studios would cause many critics to condemn the rating system as just another form of censorship. But when it was first introduced it looked as if film makers could finally say what they wanted and a whole flood of movies such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider, A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather and countless others were released with a seemingly unrestrained amount of sex, violence, nudity, profanity and debauchery. Suddenly a movie like Psycho, so shocking when first released seemed kind of tame compared to, say, Rosemary’s Baby (according to some reports, Hitchcock was offered that film but found the subject matter appalling. Maybe it was his Jesuit upbringing but the master finally found a subject that was too shocking even for him). Could the master hope to keep up?
Fortunately he still had one great movie in him. And for that he returned to London, the city of his youth where his career began. He had left London in 1939 as the war clouds were forming over Europe. He briefly returned in the late forties to direct the films Under Capricorn and Stage Fright. Otherwise he hadn’t made a film in his homeland in over two decades.
Frenzy opens with a sweeping helicopter shot down the Thames River, ending at Tower Bridge. On the promenade along the bank we see a politician holding a press conference where he extolls the clean up effort underway along the river. Just then somebody sees something. The stone cold body of a nude woman with a necktie tied around her neck. Apparently there have been a few of these “necktie murders” going on in London. “He’s a regular Jack the Ripper,” says one of the onlookers. “Not on your life,” another one answers. “He used to carve them up.”
We then meet Richard Blaney (John Finch), a former fighter pilot for the R.A.F. who’s now working as a bartender at a local pub. Things haven’t been going too well for him. He’s divorced, has been locked out of his flat and at the start of the film is fired from his job for pinching some of the liquor. Blaney does seem to be a likable fellow. He’s romantically involved with the pubs barmaid Babs (Anna Massey) who also seems to look out for him. He’s still friendly with his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) who runs a dating service. She offers to take him out to dinner. He spends the night at the Salvation Army. He only learns after someone tries to pick his pocket that she’s slipped him some much-needed cash.
Another friend of his is Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), a fruit and vegetable wholesaler in Covent Garden. This is where Hitchcock’s father ran a poultry business. He knew that the fruit and vegetable market was about to be priced out as London real estate was on the rise. He wanted to capture it on film before it was gone.
Going back to Robert Rusk. He’s a dapper, handsome guy with blonde hair. He also advances Robert some cash. Russ later visits Brenda’s dating service. She apparently doesn’t know that he’s a friend of her ex-husband. She also addresses him as Mr. Robinson. She does know that “certain peculiarities appeal to (him) and he needs certain women to submit to them.” That’s a service she doesn’t provide. It’s soon pretty clear that Rusk plans to use Brenda to quell his “certain peculiarity” and that he is, in fact, the necktie murderer. He removes his tie and proceeds to rape and strangle her.
Hitchcock was always fascinated by deviant human nature but the violent nature of a sex offender was something that could only have been hinted at. Russ rips off Brenda’s dress and paws at her bare breasts. Mercifully Hitchcock doesn’t turn it into something as explicit as, say, the scene of Jodi Foster in The Accused. He relies on some abstract editing and sound (“lovely”). Afterwards Rusk seems tired, a bit nervous but utterly unremorseful. He takes some money from her purse, bites into an apple on her desk and picks his teeth with his tie-pin, adorned with a bejeweled letter “R” which he so strategically placed on his lapel before murdering Brenda. Shortly after he leaves Richard Blaney arrives, only to find the office locked. He leaves just as Brenda’s secretary (Jean Marsh, who had already created her iconic role of Rose Buck on the series Upstairs, Downstairs) returns from lunch and discovers Brenda’s dead body.
Unaware of his ex-wife’s death, Blaney calls up Babs. They then meet up and with the money that Brenda slipped him the night before get a hotel room and enjoy a nice day of lovemaking. But by that evening news of Brenda’s murder has made the paper. The hotel clerk (Jimmy Porter) recognizes him and calls the police. Alas, an evening edition had already been slipped under their door. Richard and Babs make it out of there and later meet up with a friend of Richard’s who’s planning to leave for France. His plan is to lay low while Babs goes to get his things from Richard’s old apartment. Unfortunately she runs into Rusk. There’s no guarantee that the good guys will survive in a Hitchcock film. Rusk leads Babs up to the flat. We follow them as the enter but once they shut the door the camera tracks backwards out onto the busy street. A prime example of how what you don’t show is as important as what you do, this is easily one of the most chilling moments the master ever directed.
In an earlier scene Rusk overhears someone complaining about being in the potato business and that he has to send a truck full of unsold potatoes back to his supplier. Seizing the opportunity, Rusk wraps poor Brenda’s corps in a sack and places it in the potato truck. Unfortunately he notices his tiepin is missing and he remembers Brenda grabbing it while he was rapping her. He climbs onto the truck to get the pin back just as the driver starts the truck up and heads out. Once again it’s one of Hitchcock’s most beautiful set pieces. Also, as reprehensible as we now know Rusk is we can’t help but fear for him and we can’t help but relieved when he isn’t found out. Ever the master manipulator he knows how to make us feel sympathy for the devil. Remember how you first tensed up when you thought that Janet Leigh’s car wouldn’t completely sink into the swamp?
Once again we’re in that familiar territory of a man falsely accused. Hitchcock often told a story about how when he was a boy his Dad sent him to the local constable with a note. After reading the letter the officer lead the chubby boy down to a jail cell and locked him in a cell for about fifteen minutes. When he returned he told little Alfred “this is what we do to naughty boys.” There’s no way of knowing if this story is true or not. Hitchcock always swore that it was but couldn’t for the life of him remember what he did to deserve such punishment. Either way it does illustrate Hitchcock’s unique understanding of fear. The thought of having the rug pulled out from under you, of suddenly being utterly defenseless and not really understanding why is far more terrifying than any individual jolts or shocks life may throw at you.
The cast of Frenzy is quite excellent though it is interesting to note who turned down roles in the film. David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, both of who co-starred in Blow-Up were offered the roles of Richard and Brenda. Michael Caine was offered the role of Rusk but found the character to be utterly reprehensible. It’s quite interesting to picture him in the role though Barry Foster played the role to perfection. One of the most curious actors to turn down a role in Frenzy was Helen Mirren, who was offered the role of Babs. She would have been around twenty-seven at the time and was working as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Years later she would play Hitchcock’s wife Alma (who played a pivotal role in writing and editing all of his movies) in the film Hitchcock. Mirren has freely admitted that she regrets turning down the role but one has to wonder why such a young and relatively unknown actress would turn down the chance to work with the Master of Suspense? Well, there is his famous statement where he said, “actors should be treated like cattle.” This was a terribly insensitive thing to say but in a sense what he meant was that an actors performance is, in some way or another, manipulated. An actor on stage goes through an entire character arc during the course of the performance. An actor’s performance is pieced together in the editing room. Of course a director who miscasts an actor is doomed. Truth is most actors liked working with Hitch and lord knows he got many a great performance out of them. I went to a lecture once with Farley Granger who acted in Rope and Strangers on a Train. He said “if he liked you he left you alone.” He tended to give very little direction to his actors. He did claim to have trouble with method actors though. He apparently had some difficulty with Montgomery Clift in I Confess and Paul Newman in Torn Curtain. Apparently they needed more direction then being told where to hit their mark.
Either way, Frenzy is a marvelous film filled with many of Hitchcock’s most familiar trademarks, including his droll sense of humor. Alec McGowen plays the police officer assigned to the case. His wife (Vivien Merchant) is studying French cuisine and is frequently preparing some exotic dishes that he doesn’t care for and which frankly look repulsive, even compared to the native cuisine of Britannia. In one scene McGowan is served a soup with made with fish heads and squid tentacles. He explains to his wife the particulars of the case while trying not to betray his revulsion at the meal sitting in front of him. One has to wonder if Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were thinking about this scene when they came up with the banquet scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?
When Hitchcock showed a final cut of Frenzy to his beloved wife Alma (who suffered a stroke during the making of the film) she said to him “this is the work of a young director.” Indeed it is. Beyond the explicitness of the film there’s a certain sense of realism and immediacy that no other film of his except maybe The Wrong Man possesses. Hitch always said he preferred shooting in a studio. Perhaps, but he knew the value of location shooting as well. Frenzy is one of the great movies about London, so beautifully captured on celluloid by cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who also lensed A Hard Days Night, Dr. Strangelove, The Omen and the original Star Wars.
Frenzy was a box office hit but it couldn’t help but to be overshadowed by the work of the new young directors flooding Hollywood. Hitchcock made one last movie, the rather lighthearted and thoroughly enjoyable Family Plot. He was working on a script called The Short Night when he died in 1980. By then Hitchcock could rest assured that he had earned his place as one of the greatest cinema artists who ever lived.