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.
In the sleepy town of Santa Rosa CA, Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is over the moon when her favourite uncle, also called Charlie (Joseph Cotten), comes to stay with her family. Everyone loves Uncle Charlie, y’see. He’s charming, fun and generous. And, best of all, he’s not secretly a serial killer.
Oh. Oh, wait.
Yes, it’s another Hitchcock tale of growing mistrust. Our heroine starts to suspect that one of the people closest to her harbours a dark, sinister secret: is her uncle the “Merry Widow murderer”? As the paranoia grows, it’s only a matter of time until it’s Charlie vs. Charlie.
While the plot may sound like a retread of The Lodger or Suspicion, it’s executed better here than in either of them. For two main reasons. Firstly, the idyllic suburban setting is brought to life magnificently by the Great American playwright Thornton Wilder (Our Town) who collaborated on the screenplay. With the setting imagined with such believability, it only adds to the threat when the dark presence of Uncle Charlie begins to creep in.
The second thing that makes Shadow of a Doubt a success is the spectacular performance by Cotten as Uncle Charlie. He’s acts Cary Grant’s performance in Suspicion out of the water. The strong twin-like bond he has Young Charlie at the beginning seems almost genuine, making it all the more ominous when her ideal of him begins to shatter. As Hitchcock villains go, he’s up there with Norman Bates in Psycho and Bruno in Strangers on a Train.
When the two Charlies come head to head it plays out as an allegory of good and evil. The duality of Man: the Good Charlie and the Bad.
There are some baffling plot aspects, such as an absurdly shoehorned romance subplot that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, or when the detectives drop their investigation of Uncle Charlies after the other suspect meets an untimely death.
Hitchcock ranks the film as one of his very best. While I personally wouldn’t go as far as that, it’s still an extremely strong thriller that shows off many of trademarks that make up the Master of Suspense.
Hitchcock’s next film The Mountain Eagle (1926) is lost. Sad for Hitchcock fans, but not for the great man himself who declared it to be “awful”. We’ll just have to take his word for it and move along to the second of his surviving films: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.
Hitch considered it to be his first “true” film and it’s easy to see why. While The Pleasure Garden took its time to build up to the grisly murder, The Lodger jumps straight in with a vivid opening shot of a screaming victim.
Filmed in “blue tint-o-vision”
What we’re witnessing is the handiwork of a “Jack the Ripper” style murderer, known as the Avenger, who attacks vulnerable blonde women under the cover of night-time fog.
Amid the panic, a pale and haunted tenant called Jonathan (Ivor Novello) moves into the spare room of a Mr. and Mrs. Bunting. He becomes increasingly close to their daughter Daisy (June Tripp), the girlfriend of Joe – police detective on the Avenger case (Malcolm Keen).
A face you can trust
The Lodger is the first of Hitchcock’s films to explore the fetishistic sexuality which would go on to dominate much of his later work. Jonathan turns the pictures of women in his room to face the wall as he can’t bear to look upon them and can never resist staring at Daisy’s golden curls.
But it’s not just our creepy lodger friend who hints towards a relationship between sex and death: “When I’ve put a rope around the Avenger’s neck,” declares Joe, mimicking a noose motion, “I’ll put a ring around Daisy’s finger.”
Nothings gets the girls like religious imagery
As the intimacy between Daisy and Jonathan builds so does the tension; added to by distorted angles, long shadows and claustrophobic lighting.
When the tension finally breaks in the film’s climax Hitchcock employs a final twist that I genuinely didn’t see coming first time I saw it. Not half bad for 1927. Even silent film skeptics might find themselves seduced.