FRENZY - Page 2
The bare bones of the plot are nothing very special, but Hitchcock's technique is marvellous. There are three set-pieces which stand up proudly with the best of Argento and Bava, and which make FRENZY one of the best "serial killer" films ever made.
The first great set piece is the rape and murder of Mrs Blaney. Confined to one small room, Hitch shoots close in, gradually bringing us closer to the characters until the atmosphere becomes almost too claustrophobic. Bob Rusk enters the room casually and steals an apple from Brenda Blaney's lunch. He paces like a tiger and his conversation becomes more threatening, until we realise with horror that he is the killer. Brenda indicates that she is not able to find a woman for his "unusual tastes" and asks him to leave. She attempts to leave the room, but is blocked and knocked the ground when Rusk cries "But it's you I want". Hitch shoots very close here, allowing us to feel Brenda's desperation as she tries anything to get out of this horror. Rusk is impossible to deflect and when she says he can have sex with her and she won't struggle he says "I like it when they struggle". He starts to undress her, revealing her breasts, but Hitchcock is not interested in the body. He moves close to Brenda's face as she pathetically prays to an uncaring, immovable God. Rusk keeps up his sickening monologue of "lovely, lovely", but is unable to orgasm. Blaming her, he starts to remove his tie, and Brenda screams for help. He strangles her, with the camera alternating between two anguished faces; his, as he summons up all his strength, and hers as she fights to breathe. The scene ends on a close-up of Brenda Blaney, her tongue sticking out, her throat red. It is a disturbing, memorable image, both bizarre and tragic. Hitchcock seems to be saying that this is how we will all end - without any trace of human dignity, alone and unloved.
The second classic moment is much shorter, but more important in emotional terms. The rape and murder is horrific and deeply unpleasant, but our relative lack of knowledge concerning Brenda Blaney makes it less emotionally affecting than it would be had it concerned a major character. The second important murder takes place off-screen, informed by our knowledge of what Rusk does to his victims. Richard Blaney's girlfriend, Babs, played with appealing wide-eyed naiveté by Anna Massey, is searching for shelter, when she meets Bob Rusk. He offers her tea and sympathy and she follows him, blind to her impending fate. We see Rusk open the door and follow Babs in, while he says "You know, Babs, you're my kind of woman." Hitchcock, realising that he cannot equal the force of the first murder, instead tracks backwards, down the stairs and out of the house, slowly and sorrowfully. This omission speaks volumes about what is happening inside the room, while the bustle of Covent Garden continues unabated, blind to the horror taking place in a small room on the first floor of an insignificant house. The banality of evil has never been better expressed than it is in this vignette.
The third masterstroke is different in tone, being blackly comic, indeed hilariously funny. As in most gialli, one small detail takes on enormous significance, in this case Rusk's tie pin, which he removes as a prelude to strangling his victims. After disposing of Babs' corpse in a bag of potatoes, he realises that his tie pin has been grasped by Babs as she struggles during the rape. It is now grasped in her fist, sealed shut by rigor mortis. Rusk has to climb onto the truck, find the relevant sack, get the corpse out, retrieve the pin and escape, without being detected. Hitchcock displays immense skill at manipulating our emotions here. Rusk is a vile psychopath, but somehow we are persuaded to care about him avoiding justice. The female body is abstracted to such an extreme that it seems one with the potatoes. Unable to pull the pin out of the fist, Rusk has to break the fingers, which is a classic flinch inducer, but also strangely, heartlessly comic, especially as he is travelling on the A1 at 60 MPH. The relief we feel when he retrieves the pin is disturbing, because we are suddenly pitched back into the plot, where the wrong man is still being blamed for the crimes.
The effect of the latter set-piece is strengthened by the acting. Barry Foster is brilliant as Rusk, changing in an instant from friendly bonhomie to threatening sadism. Hitchcock clearly loved this actor's performance; he concentrates on it to the detriment of the plot.Jon Finch is so weak as Blaney that the film is unbalanced. Blaney needs to be completely sympathetic, almost pathetic, while Finch plays him as petulant and unpleasant. Finch _hated_ working on the film and was allegedly ignored by Hitchcock during much of the shooting. Indeed, this is evident in some of the exposition scenes which could have been tightened up with an extra take. Barry Foster is given space to create a complete personality, while Finch seems constrained and out of place.
It is in the detection that much of the comedy comes. The police Inspector is a small miracle of writing and acting, giving Alec McCowen ample room to endear himself to the audience. He seems utterly right and completely, uncomplicatedly _good_, and one of the very few positive characters in the film. His scenes with his appalling wife, Vivian Merchant, are very funny because of what he doesn't say as opposed to what he does. Hitch clearly relished these scenes, lengthening them deliberately and shooting them in long takes.
The supporting cast are largely stereotypes, but they are all that they should be. Barbara Leigh Hunt ,in particular, shines in the role of Brenda Blaney, making her touching in her desire to recapture what she once felt for her husband, during the sequence at the restaurant. Her terror in the rape scene was compounded by Hitchcock's constant choreographing, which she found very disconcerting. But her eyes tell the whole story, especially when she starts to pray. Anna Massey is just right as Babs, and Billie Whitelaw does the impossible with the small role of a harridan wife, by making her seem realistic despite the sexist conception.
Indeed, it is in the area of sexism and misogyny that FRENZY has attracted much criticism. The rape scene was considered much too graphic, especially for a major director, and the equation of the human body with waste matter was considered vulgar. Yet the film expresses horror and regret at what happens to its women characters, and ,in at least one instance, declines to satiate any audience lust for sex and violence. Rather than misogyny, the film seems to express a deep, abiding disgust with people of all genders. Even the audience is condemned for watching this sort of stuff - after the potato truck scene, Hitchcock seems to be saying, "But why are you rooting for this murderer ?" The opening scene, when a lecture about cleaning the Thames of pollution is ironically interrupted by the discovery of a naked female body, is full of prurient speculation by the citizens of London - "He rapes them first you know...." , "It's a long time since we had a decent string of sex murders". Hitchcock can be seen in his trademark cameo, in the middle of the crowd, looking completely unfeeling. Rape is seen in the conversation of the people of London as something funny - upon hearing that the murders are preceded my rape, one businessman says "Well, nice to know that every cloud has a silver lining." The feminist critic, Tania Modileski, in her superb defence of the film, has suggested that the rape scene is intentionally designed to show that rape is a horrible, violent act which invades and destroys, in contrast to the light hearted jokes made earlier.
Ironically, compared to the rapes in LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, STRAW DOGS and even, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, the scene here is relatively restrained and obviously intended to shock rather than titillate.
The film concludes with one of the greatest end lines, after a last-minute police chase. Bob Rusk is confronted by the police Inspector, who calmly says," Why Mr Rusk, you're not wearing your tie." Alec McCowen's casual reading of that line wraps up the film with style and underplayed wit.
But the film is disturbing and unsettling long after the police have discovered "Whodunit". Hitchcock seems to be despairing at the human race. Food is constantly contrasted with death. Bodies become lumps of white flesh. The despair which informs the brilliant last scene of TOPAZ is allowed free reign here. There is no real happy ending - what has Blaney got left, now his best friend, his girlfriend and his ex-wife have all gone ? What has happened to the human race ? When we laugh at the potato truck scene, Hitch turns the tables on us, and says to us, how can you be so unfeeling ? Another question, given the religious faith of at least two of the characters is; Where is God in all this ? Well, as the rape scene has suggested, he doesn't care anymore. There is a gradual retreat from the vision of a loving, omnipotent God in all of Hitchcock's films from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN onwards. In PSYCHO, the world is in chaos, and horrible, violent things happen at random. In THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the kidnappers can hide out in a church under the guise of a respectable Vicar's family. In VERTIGO, two people fall from a church belltower. In THE BIRDS, nature has taken over from its creator. In MARNIE, the heroine cannot rely on faith to save her, she must look to modern psychoanalysis. At the end of TOPAZ, we see brief shots of the human casualties of the spy - games so casually played by the secret agencies of the superpowers.
In this incredible vision of a world
which God has abandoned and left to its own devices, no-one, not even the audience,
escapes the judgement of the Master.
1) Woman strangled and dumped in the river
2) Woman raped and strangled
3) Woman strangled and dumped in a potato truck
4) Woman strangled off-screen