by William S. Pechter
With Frenzy, its director, Alfred Hitchcock, is said to have returned to form, but to what form has he returned? To a resounding orchestral accompaniment, so different from the anxiety-producing music with which Bernard Herrmann contributed so much to Vertigo and Psycho, we move from a panoramic view of the city of London to a Thames-side gathering at which a politician’s speech about progress against the river’s pollution is interrupted by the discovery of a floating corpse. It is a joke, typically Hitchcock, but typical of Hitchcock the jocose television-show host, rather than the film director who created things at once so funny and so disquieting as Robert Walker en famille in Strangers on a Train, or Anthony Perkins among those stuffed birds in Psycho. The corpse has been strangled with a necktie, the latest in a series of such murders, and in the following scene we are introduced to a desperate-looking man as he knots his necktie—a red herring, as it turns out, but a cheaply bought one, dependent as it is on our recognition of the link between the scenes as a cliche and on our anticipation of the next one. (The real red herring, in any case, is that, for all that’s made of the villain’s being the “Necktie Murderer,” nothing comes of it in the way of either the police solving the case or the film illuminating the mind of the killer.) And again, one thinks, how different from the way we are allowed to be misled by our own banal expectations in Psycho, so blinded by our preoccupation with some stolen money that we cannot see the point at which far more terrible matters come into play.
To that sinking feeling one experiences w’hen an artist one admires actually ends up creating the kind of work his detractors have been wrongly attributing to him all along. Frenzy brings a new twist. For here is Hitchcock making the kind of film people have been claiming him once to have made, so as to derogate his recent work by comparison with it, finally making that genteel British thriller with whose fictitious model so much of his later work has been hit over the head. Here, then, is a generous serving of local color and quaintly British humor (in the depiction of the police, who seem fresh from chasing the Lavender Hill Mob), spiced with a few delectable murders, and with a little Rod Serling-level ironic fillip at the conclusion. To add to the amusement, there’s more than a little risible dialogue (Billie Whitelaw is wasted in a role given over almost entirely to this); though Hitchcock has had some past success in bending the work of hack scenarists to his purposes, with Anthony Shaffer’s wind-up mechanical script he has at last collided with the proverbial immovable object. Indeed, at one point, the director makes his own contribution to the film’s repertory of the laughable: leading into a sequence in which we expect to see the protagonist escape from a prison-hospital ward by tracking along two row s of beds as their occupants stealthily rise from each of them, as though about to embark on a mass exodus (as it transpires, they’re merely spectators), as synchronously as the Rockettes.
Now’ no one can deny that The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps w ere witty, and perhaps they were witty in a way that the later films aren’t (though I would argue the later work to be no less funny). But were they laughable? And w-ere they so utterly devoid, as Frenzy is, of a sense of genuine menace? What Frenzy is, in fact, is Hitchcock’s most stodgy film since Dial Si for Murder, and, beyond that, quite possibly his least interesting film from any period. To be sure, it is well-made—“immaculately crafted.” in the phrase of one of its admirers, characterizes it all too w ell—but then virtually any Hitchcock film would resemble the Sistine Chapel compared with the shoddiness of Topaz, and Gilbert Taylor. Frenzy’s photographer, has lent this same clean, crisp look to the work of any number of other directors. Compared with the stylistic excitement of a film such as Walkabout, I value the craftsmanly sheen of Frenzy at next to nothing. And given all the rubbish that is spoken by both Hitchcock and his adulators about his “mastery of purely visual communication,” it was instructive to spend a few minutes watching Frenzy before a dozing projectionist turned on the sound at a reel change and find myself completely unable to follow what was happening, though what was disturbing to me was not that, but the realization that I didn’t even care.
What is interesting in Frenzy are two things that are new to Hitchcock, neither of them auspicious. Though nothing in Hitchcock’s latest film is extraordinarily violent by current standards, the climaxing of a scene of murder with a close shot of the strangled victim’s distorted features while the music swells to a crescendo is extraordinary, by the standards of earlier Hitchcock, in its explicitness and blatancy, Hitchcock has stated in interviews how he availed himself in Frenzy of the screen’s new permissiveness in the representation of violence and nudity, but surely the man who created a sequence both so vivid and so elliptical as the stabbing in the shower in Psycho has nothing to gain in expressive power from lingering on a corpse’s face. It isn’t a case of taking advantage of new resources for expressive purposes, but of exploiting them to satisfy an audience’s taste—that taste he has heretofore always subverted—for the sensationally horrific detail.
The subsequent murder is tactfully committed off screen, though evincing tact, at that juncture, is a bit like locking the stable after the horses have fled. Yet it too furnishes an occasion for the director’s catering to an audience’s tastes, as Hitchcock tracks away from the door of the room in which the crime is taking place, down a stairway, and out of the building into the street. Like an earlier sequence in which the screen is silent for an extended length of time while we wait for the scream we know will come with someone’s discovery of a corpse, the virtuoso camera movement serves no other purpose, given the context and circumstances, than milking the applause of the cognoscenti; this is the equivalent in films of Illinois Jacquet honking his way through an old “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert. There was already an anticipation of this in Topaz. in the “beautiful” overhead shot of the Cuban spy collapsing as she dies, her flowing robe billowing around her like the petals opening in some accelerated view of the blooming of the flower. There have been breathtakingly beautiful things in Hitchcock before: though Vertigo comes immediately to mind, I’m thinking rather of such things as the assassination in the rain in Foreign Correspondent and the last shot of The Birds, among others, and, of course, Hitchcock’s films are nothing if not works of a dazzling technical virtuosity. But even at its most flamboyant—as in the astonishing crane shot in Young and Innocent that moves from the entirety of a crowded hotel dining room to a tight close-up of the disguised face of a hunted killer, the needle in the haystack, as a nervous tic gives him away—that virtuosity was harnessed to some purpose, and one could delight in it for what one felt to be the director’s delight in a problem solved. (The problem-solving in Frenzy would seem to be mainly at the level of constructing a potato bikini so as to preserve the modesty of a nude corpse as it is removed from a sack of potatoes, which is even more depressing when I recall that I might have wanted to describe the unsettlingly erotic use made of a corpse in Makaveyev’s Love Affair as “Hitchcockian.”) It was bad enough in the fifties (To Catch a Thief, etc.) to see Hitchcock (whose work, at its best, is so bound up with his aggression toward the spectator) trying to please his audience; to see him now, performing tricks to please his admiring critics, is really more than I care to endure.
In a film magazine’s recent issue devoted to the work of Elia Kazan, one of film criticism’s loftiest personages is to be found contributing an article on “The Kazan Problem,” which turns out to be not the problem of how a director of Kazan’s sensibility could have acquired his reputation, but rather “that of accounting for his two great films.” (Lest one think that loftiness in film criticism is no index to discrimination, in another recent film magazine, in an article on Edgar G. Ulmer, that most esoteric of cult figures, one can read: “All in all, Ulmer has directed 128 films. . . . Though not all his films are great . . .”) I have little inclination to argue further the question of Hitchcock’s greatness with his more extreme partisans; they have been raked over the coals often enough, and usually by people with whom I find myself far less in sympathy. After all, I, too, am an admirer of Hitchcock, not a detractor. Still, when coming across something as egregious as Vincent Canby’s recent attempt to dissociate himself from Hitchcock’s more rabid devotees by blithely proclaiming Hitchcock’s greatness despite the fact of his films not being “about” anything, I can begin to feel again that it’s from his admirers and not his detractors that Hitchcock needs defending.
Yes, I think it’s worth insisting that Hitchcock’s films are about something —about a number of things, and even occasionally, as in Stage Fright. however minor a work, about such classically literary things as reality and illusion, life and theater. Elsewhere, in a long piece to which this is of necessity a kind of postscript. I’ve tried to describe in detail what one Hitchcock film is about,* but what all Hitchcock films (at least, all of his successful ones) are irreducibly about is the experience of being frightened by them; they are about the anxiety and terror they communicate—that anxiety that lies just beneath the surface of almost all his best work and surfaces full-blown in The Birds and Psycho—and they are profound to the extent that we feel that terror profoundly. Nor is this quite so remote from “the kind of important subjects that can be adequately dealt with in the language of literary criticism,” as Canby giddily claims Hitchcock’s films to be, in attempting to exempt them from the criteria which an adequately literate criticism might impose. Rather, one is reminded of the esteem in which the experience of terror has been held by literary criticism from its Aristotelian origins. What Hitchcock’s films communicate to us at their best is a sense of their creator’s being in touch with our deeply buried, primal and universal fears and, with this, effecting our recognition of how vulnerable to those fears, despite all our defenses, we remain.
Though there is no Hitchcock film I would call great and there are many in which I’ve been disappointed, there is still probably no other film director to whose new work I would rush so unhesitatingly and with so much anticipation of immediate pleasure. My problem with Hitchcock is in reconciling the director of those Hitchcock films I admire most with that of those I find disappointing, and the disappointments are to be found in all periods; The Paradine Case follows Notorious, and Young and Innocent, as weak a Hitchcock film as his most recent ones, was sandwiched between Sabotage and The Lady Vanishes. It is not that he has failed, however, but something about the character of his failures (as of many of his “successes”)—their ready embrace of compromise, the ease with which they shed ambition—that makes Hitchcock so problematical. Despite his recent work, I have no sense of Hitchcock’s being in decline, in the way the slack, self-indulgence of Howard Hawks’s late work bespeaks decline; and, until Frenzy, none of even the most recent failures has been without interest: Mamie and Torn Curtain, aside from some local brilliance, for the ghost of a conception that one can fleetingly apprehend in them, and even Topaz in its attempt to develop some aspects of Torn Curtain on a larger canvas. These failures, like Hitchcock’s earlier ones, seem to owe not to decline but to withdrawal, to some almost deliberate pulling back from the audacity of Psycho and The Birds. Why does a man who has just made Psycho and The Birds, and who is free to make the film he wants, make first Marnie and then Tom Curtain? How can a director still capable, I am convinced, of making films as profoundly terrifying as Psycho and The Birds be content to make instead a work as toothless—fangless, one might better say—as Frenzy? And, of course, the problem these questions point to is not just mine but Hitchcock’s also.
In the past, I’ve been inclined to seek complex answers to these questions, but I’m increasingly persuaded that the truth is to be found in simpler ones. (Hitchcock himself has some alibis, usually in the way of complaining of his actors, though blame directed at Julie Andrews and Paul Newman for the faults of Tom Curtain, when they were chosen to provide box-office insurance against a repetition of his preceding films’ disappointing reception, seems blame ungraciously misplaced. Hitchcock has been both a brilliant and a slovenly director of actors, and his comments on the defects of his actors have been equally unreliable. To have wanted Harry Carey for the part Otto Kruger played in Saboteur is totally in keeping with his perverse humor, but to lament the deficiencies of Joel McCrea in Foreign Correspondent or Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train seems inexplicably unappreciative of the way the personalities of these actors ideally suit those works.) Among directors enjoying a comparable critical prestige, Hitchcock has a record of virtually unparalleled popular success, and yet it may be that is some ways Hitchcock’s success has been as crippling to his career as Orson Welles’s failure to his. For I’ve come increasingly to believe that the key to Hitchcock’s checkered career is fear of failure, fear of getting as far ahead of his audience as his artistic temperament would seem to place him. My charge against recent Hitchcock, as against the Hitchcock of the mid-fifties and some Hitchcock prior to that, is nakedly ad hominem. it is of timidity, of a cowardly retreat from those risks a full commitment to his art would demand of him. Hitchcock has his fame, his new honorary degree from Columbia University, and the uncritical admiration of a pack of ’critical” admirers. He has everything he might want, except for the achievement of those films he might make were he to allow himself consistently to follow his artistic impulses wherever they might lead, or drive, him. The title is Frenzy, but there is no frenzy in it. I could think of few sadder things in films were Hitchcock, having returned with such acclaim to this form, never again to return to the form of The 39 Steps and Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and The Birds.
* “The Director Vanishes,” in Twenty-four Times a Second (Harper and Row).
Commentary, September 1972