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.
The Golden Age of Hitchcock couldn’t last forever. With New Hollywood on the rise, the ground was shifting. Now in his sixties, there was a danger that Hitchcock would be shafted by the studios like other old-time directors such as Frank Capra and John Ford. This meant that for Torn Curtain Hitchcock was forced to do something he hated almost more than anything. Compromise.
American physicist and rocket scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), travels to Soviet-occupied East Berlin for reasons he conceals to his to his fiancée, Sarah (Julie Andrews). Sarah secretly follows him to Berlin to get some straight answers, worried that he’s defected to the other side. But Armstrong is, of course, secretly working for Uncle Sam; gaining the confidence of his communist hosts in order to uncover a crucial anti-missile equation. Armstrong struggles to escape the watchful eye of Soviet goon Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), to get the crucial information back home.
There’s one particularly good scene, both tense and darkly comic, where Hitchcock shows just how long and arduous it would be kill someone by strangulation. Other than that, there’s little to pull Torn Curtain out of mediocrity.
Brian Moore’s plodding screenplay is the film’s biggest fault, but the cast don’t help matters. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of Julie Andrews in a non-singing role. Her short, prim delivery makes every line sounds same-y to me. As for Newman, well, I love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as much as the next person, but here he just looks lost. There’s a blankness to his performance that leaves him completely unconvincing as a man caught between duty and his personal feelings. Someone bring back Cary Grant!
Actually, Grant was exactly who Hitchcock wanted, as well as Eva Marie Saint for his leading lady, but Universal refused, claiming the pair were too old. Accustomed to the wide production control the studio had granted him with The Birds and Marnie, Hitchcock now found himself grappling with Universal over key creative decisions which also led to to an irreparable falling out with his long-term collaborator Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the score for every Hitchcock film since 1955. Hitch despised the process and later wrote it off as the least enjoyable production he’d ever worked on.
Marnie is a very difficult watch for viewers who knows anything about its production history. Hitchcock had already started to develop a stalker-like obsession towards Tippi Hedren during The Birds, but things became even worse during the filming of Marnie. Hedren claims that he followed around outside the set, tried to control what she wore, ate and drank and eventually made “an overt sexual proposition that she could neither ignore nor answer casually, as she could his previous gestures.” She rejected his advances and refused to work with him again, despite Hitchcock’s threats that he would ruin her career.
I firmly believe that art can be brilliant and beautiful on its own merits regardless of the artist’s personal life – no matter how despicable – but after the behind-the-scenes allegations of entrapment, coercion and sexual harassment raised against Hitchcock, what is Marnie about? Entrapment, coercion and sexual harassment.
But, unsettling as it, Marnie is extremely good. Hedren plays the eponymous heroine, a cunning thief who suffers from psychotic episodes brought on by the colour red (sound familiar?). She applies for a job at a publishing company owned by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) with the intent of robbing him. But Rutland guesses her secret and blackmails her into marrying him.
There are times when Marnie is good enough to stand alongside Hitchcocks’s last five films. Hedren absolutely excels in the lead now she gets the chance to dig her teeth into a meatier role and her screen relationship with Connery is the right level of creepy. You get the impression that Rutland truly loves and cares for Marnie, but he still acts detestably towards her. Every time he uses phrases like “wholesome animal lust” it makes the skin crawl.
But boy oh boy, the film drops the ball with the ending. It’s hard to discuss it without major spoilers, but in essence the film moves from what was an intricate and disconcerting portrayal of an abusive relationship to a cop-out slice of victim-blaming. It stinks. And it retrospectively tarnishes what was up until that point a superb and effective film.
Film biographer Donald Spoto describes it as Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. Close but no cigar. I’d say it’s about 80% masterpiece. Well worth watching, but switch it off before the last twenty minutes.
Where on earth would Hitch go after a masterpiece like Psycho? He chose to return one of his favourite authors for inspiration, Daphne du Maurier (who also wrote Rebecca and Jamaica Inn) in his first attempt at paranormal horror.
The story revolves upon one spooky speculation: what if, for completely unexplainable reasons, all the billions of birds of the world started to attack humankind?
But, like all the best disaster horrors, Hitchcock keeps us waiting before we get to the full on avian attacks. The first half of the film is dedicated to character development and gradually building sense of menace before he unleashes the full feathered fury.
Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), travels to the deadend hamlet of Bodega Bay to play a flirtatious practical joke on Mitch (Rod Taylor) who she met in a San Francisco bird shop. Melanie starts to get close to Mitch, despite his protective mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and befriends the local school teacher Annie (Suzanne Pleshette). They are startled in the middle of the night by a loud thud of a gull killing itself by flying against the front door.
“Poor thing,” remarks Annie, “Probably lost his way in the dark.”
“But it isn’t dark,” responds a puzzled Melanie, “There’s a full moon.”
DUN DUN DUNNN
From then on, it’s full on Birdageddon, with our heroes trapped in the epicentre. Inevitably, a few of the special effects have dated somewhat. But the film succeeds because the build-up to the attacks is just so damn good. You can’t help but get the sense that there must be some pattern or purpose to it all…but Hitchcock’s masterful execution doesn’t provide you with any easy answers.
The Birds was the film debut for Tippi Hedren, who Hitchcock picked up after seeing her in a commercial for a diet drink called Sego. His alarmingly possessive treatment of her will be covered in more depth when we get to Marnie, but for now let’s just say that it ain’t pretty. Despite the behind-the-scenes trauma, she’s a magnificent onscreen presence. Hitchcock had been searching for a leading lady to fill the void left by Grace Kelly’s departure and in his eyes Hedren was even greater still. He could well be right.