by Penelope Gilliatt
In Frenzy, Hitchcock is back in London after a long time—it’s sixteen years since the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much—working with his old fanged humor. The picture begins with a track up the Thames. A tugboat goes under Tower Bridge and pours out a feather boa of filthy smoke. The movie travels silently under the bridge, in one of Hitchcock’s nonchalantly amazing shots. Then we are listening to a knighted buffer spouting propaganda to the press on the terrace of County Hall about how “your government” and “your local authority” have beaten pollution. ” ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,’ as Wordsworth has it,” he says. And then the crush of reporters, courteously bored, suddenly has its attention caught by the sight of the naked corpse of a woman in the Thames and rushes away from the knight. “It’s a woman!” “It’s a tie, all right.” “Another necktie murder.” After a quick change of scene to a suspicious-looking man (Jon Finch), who soon does up his tie with disagreeable pedantry, you mutter to yourself, “I thought as much,” and then discover you were onto the wrong suspect. From the very beginning of the film, therefore, you know’ the misapprehension that is to go on existing in the minds of the police. Hitchcock has always believed that suspense and surprise have nothing to do with each other. So much for the canard that people wreck everything by giving away the plot. Synopses seldom spoil the shocks in Hitchcock: except, perhaps, for the ending of Psycho. They do no great harm to Frenzy—which is Hitch back in an old form of Punch-Cockney thriller—because the weak-faced good-looker of a Covent Garden fruit merchant who is played by Barry Foster is very quickly shown to be guilty of the rapes and murders-by- necktie that are put down by the police to the sterling and rather bovine recalcitrant barman played by Jon Finch.
The man stalking the murderer is a detective from New Scotland Yard, played by Alec McCowen. An acerbic chap with Hitchcock’s own twist of knowing humor, he is saddled with a loving wife of cloying cuteness played by the brilliant Vivien Merchant. She is taking a course in Continental gourmet cooking, and he has to suffer for it regularly at the end of a long day. While she is seeing to the quails with grapes, dear, which starve him to death, he tips the conger eels and unspeakable bits of frog back into her dainty silver soup tureen and dreams of bacon and eggs and sausages, which we see him eating when he is at liberty at the office, tucking into a tTayful on his desk. Late in the film, he explains patiently to his wife that a pull-in—
crucially involved in one of the murder ca$es—means a place where lorry drivers can go for “humble food like sausages and mashed potatoes.”
For a long time he is misled on the trail, maybe through hunger. He thinks that the obvious suspect is guilty. Everything leads to the man. The barman, just sacked from his job for apparent thieving and blatant cheek, was once married to one of the later victims (Barbara Leigh-Hunt, playing a genteel woman w-ho runs a marriage bureau). Another victim is played by Anna Massey, a skinny, poignant redhead, here doing a perfect London working- class bird’s accent and giving a beautifully brainy, energetic performance. The plot depends on Sherlock Holmes detective business with an analysis of potato dust and on a rhythm of coincidences that move as fast as the shuffling of a cardsharper. The violence shown amounts to relatively little. It is transferred to the mind of the audience and turned into an emotion more like anticipation of the seemingly inevitable. The most upsetting murder isn’t even seen. The camera simply tracks very slowly away from a closed door, down a stairway, through a front door, and then up to look in at the window of the house on Henrietta Street—running at right angles to Covent Garden market—that holds the fruit merchant’s flat, over an old publishing firm called Duckworth, which has a brass plate like a dentist’s.
As in The Trouble with Harry, the story has a sense of humor that seems very English. It may have been both consoling and astringent for Hitchcock to work in England again. He is mordantly good at conveying a certain rabbity working life. He does it here, for the first time in ages, with the parts played by Alec McCowen and Barry Foster. There is also a sort of saber- toothed gentility that he greatly relishes, and no one else in the commercial cinema uses savage silence so well. In one three-minute sequence done without dialogue you can almost hear him enjoying himself. He is as fascinated by the twinges of domestic psychology as he is by plot, and he revels in air pockets of dead hush. Like Simenon, he cuts corners, and he has the cold control and insight of Simenon. He also has an instantly recognizable way of handling exchanges of looks and silences between people. The eternal imbalance of power in private relations obsesses him. He is the dramatist of edginess, and the reporter-poet of impossible small calamities such as a flash in Frenzy w hen a man nearly gives himself away by sneezing. It is like the moment in The 39 Steps when events are held up by a traffic jam caused by a flock of sheep, and like the use of a facial affliction in Young and Innocent. He thought of putting Cary Grant into Lincoln’s nostril on Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest and sending this character into a sneezing fit.
In Frenzy we are in Hitchcock’s old world of using Evening Standard and Daily Express headlines to grab us into a chain of events. He instructs us always in the belief that catastrophe surrounds us and, like the blandly pretty flying kingdom in The Birds, is likely to take over. In this film, as so often before—in Rear Window, for instance—he manipulates one’s frustration about a frantic honest man’s possibly not being recognized in time as someone who is telling the truth. People in Hitchcock are always compelled to act out their natures: the world he creates is determinist. Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps is destined by his talent to answer questions about the spy ring, and he gets shot for it. We, in our turn, are destined by curiosity to cliff-hang as Hitchcock pleases, and there seems no escape. He can make determinists of us all. It is this, more than anything else, that may really be sticking in our throats when we call him a gloater, or a showman who is a glutton for our punishment. He lives in a very fast-moving land, sharp with erotic and ironic detail, where the camera is often used subjectively as a character in the story. One would never find Hitchcock putting the camera in one of those impossible positions behind the steering wheel of a car or below the waste catch of a washbasin. He is interested by the mannerisms of hysteria, and there is an extraordinary vivacity about his social eye. The streets and clothes and expressions of a London that he sees rather as the old-style city are reported in Frenzy with the most fine-grained detail. One is taken into a territory of spirited visual gossip, conducted by a guide of lazy humor and command.
Hitchcock’s Englishness has always had a powerful grip on him. With Frenzy, we are nearly back in the days of his great English films—The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, The Lady Vanishes. The aging Hitchcock’s accomplishment in Frenzy is astonishing, coming after his poor-quality Torn Curtain. This sense of nationality always gave his English work a pungency and a warm swiftness. He is lucky to have been able to draw on Anthony Shaffer to do Frenzy s sly screenplay, not to speak of a cast of first-rate, well-equated actors pretty much unknown outside England, so that audiences have no preconceptions about which actors are the stars and therefore unkillable. Maybe going back to England revived something of his technical energy and sharpened the famous cutting edge of his sense of family combat, though there is no abatement of his abominable treatment of his audience. For instance, we are asked to believe that a hero now in his early thirties got the D.F.C. as a squadron leader, which would put the Blitz somewhere around 1960; and there is outrageous macabre use, clever though it is, of the “MacGuffin’’ that he says every thriller of his needs—in Frenzy, a diamond-initialed pin. By “MacGuffin” he means something of crucial importance to the character that is of no weight at all to anyone else. Not to his public, because not to Hitchcock.
The New Yorker, June 24, 1972