Frenzy is by far the most graphic film Hitchcock ever made. Thrilling, yes. Brutal, certainly. But the subtlety had faded. Some call it Hitchcock’s last great film. I’d personally label it his last “very good” film. But it is impressive that a man who had in the business for sixty years was still capable of making something different to anything he had done before.
Having said that, there are also some familiar tropes. Our “man on the run from the police” being the most obvious one. Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) is a down-on-his luck bartender, who gets falsely suspected as the Neck Tie Murderer; a serial killer who rapes his female victims before strangling them with his neckties. The London setting makes the plot feel somewhat like an updated version of The Lodger, which he made right at the beginning of his career, only this time Hitchcock had the opportunity to be far more explicit.
Whether or not you think the explicitness is a good thing is pivotal to how much you enjoy the movie. There’s a rape scene, for example, that’s the hardest sequence to watch in all of Hitchcock’s film. The scene is effective, in a brutal sort of way, but Psycho is the perfect horror/thriller because it carefully treads the line between what it reveals to you and the blanks gaps it leaves for your mind to fill in. Frenzy shows you everything.
Though there is one brilliant moment midway through the film that recapture this Psycho spirit. As the killer lures an unaware victim into his flat and closes the door, the camera backs away in a long continuous shot down the staircase and then out onto the street where people bustle to and fro on their daily business. None of them know what’s going on in the flat upstairs. But we do, even though Hitchcock doesn’t show us.
There’s also some strong bits of dark humour, such as the chief inspector’s discussions of grizzly murder while struggling to eat his wife’s disgusting attempts at exotic food (“cailles aux raisins”).
Frenzy was Hitchcock’s most skillful film in nearly a decade, but it’s “bare all” approach works against it. There are times where you remember why Hitchcock was known as the Master of Suspense and other times where it seems unnecessarily nasty. Although it does have Bernard Cribbins in it. That’s awesome.
By 1950 Hitchcock had been directing films for a quarter of a century. His career had survived the shift from silents to talkies, he’d made it big in Hollywood for over a decade and had even bagged himself a Best Picture Oscar with Rebecca. In many ways it must have seemed like there was nowhere left to go. In actuality, the Golden Age of Hitchcock was still to come.
But not quite yet. First we have to get through Stage Fright. It’s not as melodramatically tedious as Under Capricorn, but it’s a bland affair. For a film about deceitful theatrics (Classic Hitchcock), it deserves to be more interesting than it is.
An aspiring London actress Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) gets caught up in a very different kind of drama when her friend Jonathan (Richard Todd) seeks her help. The husband of his secret lover, musical diva Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), has been murdered and Jonathan is the chief suspect. With the help of her cool-as-a-cucumber father (Alastair Sim) and a charming police inspector (Michael Wilding), Eve puts her acting skills to the test in order to uncover the truth.
The thing most critics remember about Stage Fright is the ending, which turns the plot around in a pretty nifty and unexpected twist. Also, in contrast to the large scale chases around big set pieces that had become prominent in Hitch’s American films, the climax is restricted and personal. It’s by far the most tense and claustrophobic moment in the two hour running time and ends things on a high note.
But as for the rest of it…it’s OK. Wyman and Dietrich are watchable enough as the leads and there’s a few funny moments such as a ridiculously over-the-top cameo from comic actress Joyce Grenfell credited only as ‘Lovely ducks’ (you’ll know why when you see it). But the film feels hugely stretched at two hours, with long chunks of unmemorable dialogue.
It’s fair to say Hitchcock’s brief return to British cinema was underwhelming. It would be another two decades before he came back again, this time with glory.
Reunited with leading man Ivor Novello (who also penned the original stage play), Hitchcock gives us a tale of false accusation and the loss of innocence with Downhill.
There’s also a bit where Novello takes his top off to appeal to the teenage girl fanbase. No, I’m serious. He was a huge sex symbol. The Ryan Gosling of his day.
Women got their ankles all kinds of naked for him
This sexy lump of man-meat plays Roddy, a schoolboy who’s best friend Tim (Robin Irvine) knocks up their mutual friend Mabel (Annette Benson). Shockingly, she falsely names Roddy as the father-to-be because she thinks his rich family can provide for the unborn child better than Tim’s. Not wanting his pal’s Oxford scholarship chances to go down the drain, Roddy takes the bullet. He’s immediately expelled and cast out by his parents. Now he has to make his own way in the world and I’ll let you guess how well that goes…
“I’m tripping balls, bro”
It may be lacking in murders, but Downhill is one of Hitchcock’s bleakest films. Polite society is depicted as untrusting, uncaring and unrewarding, particularly when it comes to the women, all of whom betray Roddy’s trust in some vile and deceptive way. There’s also an especially mean-spirited “old-spinster” stereotype towards the end. For anyone already put off by examples of misogyny in Hitchcock’s works, Downhill isn’t for you.
Novello, well into his 30s, isn’t going to convince anyone he’s a schoolboy but he sinks his teeth into the emotional range of his role with aplomb. He makes a believable journey from bushy-tailed rapscallion to a broken, haunted man the likes of which we saw him play in The Lodger. Speaking of familiar, Ian Hunter makes a return as another love rival. Sleazier this time. And he sneezes on a toy dog. Sleazier and sneezier.
Downhill is one of Hitchcock’s clunkier films. Symbols of “descent” are pushed to a breaking point, the villainesses are crude caricatures and the final resolution is absurdly quick and easy. There are a couple of truly stand-out moments such as the accusation in the headmaster’s study which is a master class in How To Inject Tension Into Your Scene. On its own, it may be one of the most suspenseful moments on Hitch’s resume so far. It’s a shame the rest of the movie goes downhill (ho ho) from there.
Well that escalated quickly
Hitchcock brings the “love triangle” motif found in The Pleasure Garden and The Lodger to the foreground of his next film The Ring, unique for being the only original screenplay he ever wrote.
We follow the rivalry between two boxers – ‘One-Round’ Jack (Carl Brisson) and Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Things become personal when Jack’s love interest Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) begins to fall for his more successful rival. Jack pops the question with a wedding ring, but Bob presents her with an arm bracelet. “Mine is bigger than yours”, if you will.
The boxing setting plays perfectly into the themes of emasculation and competitive sexual jealousy, although the character of Mabel suffers as a consequence. Her attraction to one man over the other wavers haphazardly, without clear motivation, to give the men a “prize” to compete over. A bit of a step back from the more psychologically realised women of Hitchcock’s previous two films.
As for the rest of the cast, Brisson is a charming actor but he’s too slender for us to really buy into the idea that he’s a boxer. Once again, we get some enjoyable wacky side characters for comic relief such as a bumbling trainer who inadvertently flips off the priest at the wedding while picking his nose and an eccentric old fortune-teller puffing away on her pipe.
No pain no gain
Where the film truly succeeds is in its technical achievements. Hitchcock displays some of his best editing yet: well-paced montages, effective use of double exposure and a thrilling rapid tempo during the fights.
It’s also got some nice juicy slabs of symbolism. The title refers most directly to the boxing ring where the bulk of action takes places, but also acts as a metaphor for the spiralling love triangle between the lead characters – further represented by the arm bracelet versus wedding ring. Rings within rings.
Upon its release The Bioscope heralded The Ring as “the most magnificent British film ever made.” While it remains a tribute to Hitchcock’s technical mastery, it is perhaps less accessible than The Lodger for modern moviegoers.
There’s also an unpleasant use of the N-Word. Yikes. Maybe it’s a good thing this was Hitch’s only screenplay.
I first saw Psycho at the impressionable age of 12. It gave me nightmares for weeks. My Dad, ever a comforting parent, would leave nighttime notes under my door from the Bates Motel staff stained with blood (ketchup).
Despite (or because of?) the trauma, even since then I’ve been a huge fan of The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. In my teenage years I sought out his must-see classics – North by Northwest, Rear Window, The Birds, etc – but I never got round to watching many of his more obscure films. It’s time that changed.
Starting on July 1 I’ll be giving my thoughts on a different Hitchcock flick every day from his first finished film The Pleasure Garden (1925) to his final feature Family Plot (1976). From the masterpieces to the pieces of shit.
The murders, the blondes, the MacGuffins, the twist endings, the director cameos, the overbearing mothers, all covered here on Folding Seats. This is going to be a complete Hitchcock marathon. A Hitchcock-a-thon.
Countless critics and filmmakers have already written extensively on Hitchcock’s films. Practically every frame has been analysed ad infinitum. This marathon doesn’t hope to contribute anything new or significant. It’s merely a fan’s notes.
A brief disclaimer. I’ll be looking at feature films only, so don’t expect any commentary on his wartime propaganda shorts or any of his TV episodes on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I also won’t be covering the 1930 revue comedy film Elstree Calling, since Hitch only directed the “linking segments” between sketches, or Mary since it’s just the German version of his 1930 flick Murder!.
Other than that, I’ll be watching everything in Hitchcock’s directorial canon. By my count, this comes to 52 films.
52 films. 52 days.
Let’s do this.
See you on July 1.