In his final three films, Hitchcock may have showed his age, but there are undeniable treasures to be found even in these lesser works. Indeed, some consider Frenzy to be among his best films. In any event, here endeth the lesson. If you’ve been following along for the past eleven days, you should now be armed with an arsenal of information, ideas, perspectives, and trivia regarding this, one of the irrefutably essential artists of the 20th century.
Opinions on Hitchcock’s Cold War espionage film Topaz are divided. A majority of critics have insisted that it is an inferior work, far beneath what one normally expects of a director of such storied reputation. Though some maintain it as a great film, and among his more inventive works, most viewers will find it to be one of his dullest pictures, a disjointed and rambling and ultimately unthrilling espionage thriller.
Those who defend the film’s virtues point to Hitchcock’s working with an unusual narrative style, focusing on a long tale set during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. The vast majority of Hitchcock’s films focus on one or two lead characters, tracing the entire narrative through their eyes. There is the occasional ensemble film, like The Trouble With Harry, Rope, and Lifeboat, but these are the few exceptions to the general rule. And, even with these ensemble films, we see the main characters again and again; in the case of Rope and Lifeboat, we see the entire cast interacting in an enclosed space for most of the film.
What is unique about Topaz is that the cast is more serial than ensemble. We see not a lead character but a succession of lead characters. In fact, the film feels more like an anthology than a straight narrative, albeit with each segment connected to one another and with a couple of linking characters. Hitchcock is not often regarded as an experimental filmmaker, but the truth is that throughout his career he was interested in trying things that had never been done before. Several of his films could be considered experimental, such as trying to shoot an entire film with a small group of characters forced into a confined space for an extended period of time (Lifeboat) or doing a film consisting of nothing but long takes (Rope). Psycho was an attempt to make a high-quality “B” picture on a very low budget. Topaz was an experiment in telling a story that was not connected by leading characters or location. Unfortunately, it is difficult to consider Topaz one of his
more successful experiments.
Like many directors who started off in silent film (John Ford and Ernst Lubitsch also spring to mind), Hitchcock frequently inserted sequences into his films that were essentially silent. The best scene in Topaz is a silent film. Trying to get access to papers of a Cuban leader staying a hotel in Harlem, a French official recruits a florist who moonlights as a spy to gain access to the papers. The long scene where the florist enters the hotel and waits for the Cuban official’s secretary is shot from the point-of-view of the French official, who witnesses affairs from across the street. In an otherwise dull film, the scene is a technical tour de force, showing Hitchcock’s skills at their fullest. Regrettably, it is a gem in an otherwise drab production.
The film does not end so much as fizzle out. It was as if Hitchcock and his writer Samuel A. Taylor (who was brought in at the last second after Hitchcock proclaimed Leon Uris’s script to be “unshootable”) had no idea of how it bring affairs to a resolution and decided merely to bring it to an end. In fact, two completely different endings were shot. Part of the problem with the film is that unlike most productions, where Hitchcock had the entire production planned beforehand, the final script of Topaz was being written as it was being filmed, with some scenes being completed only shortly before they were to be shot. It is no accident that this is visually one of Hitchcock’s least interesting films. Even relative failures like The Paradine Case are nonetheless filled with many visually arresting moments. The most remarkable thing about Topaz, unfortunately, is how little is has in common with Hitchcock’s best productions.
With its famous tracking shot and grisly scenes composed of multiple cuts, Frenzy is often hailed as a return to form for Hitchcock. The director was 72 when the film was released. His two previous films, Topaz and Torn Curtain, were met with muted audience and critical responses. In the age of New Hollywood American cinema (The Godfather and The Getaway were released the same year), Hitchcock seemed a relic of bygone days: a technically proficient craftsman with little left to say and an antiquated approach towards Method-era actors. But, his penultimate film proved the old auteur still had plenty to say and was capable of doing so with his own unique cinematic vocabulary.
Frenzy’s plot is conventional Hitchcock. Through a series of coincidences, recently sacked barman and ex-RAF officer Richard Blaney (played with a mixture of elegance and sleaze by Jon Finch) is suspected in a string of murders. Blaney’s amiable pal Bob Rusk is the real perpetrator. Bob is a fruit-seller in London’s Covent Garden, where much of the film takes place. It was a homecoming for Hitchcock after a twenty-year absence, and the locations are an homage to the setting of his childhood — his own father had been a Cockney green grocer. A triumphal score plays over an aerial shot sweeping across the Thames as the picture begins, slowly settling on a public event in progress, an urban renewal project announcement. As a government official promises to “clear up the waste products of our society with which for so long we have poisoned our rivers and canals,” the waste of society’s darker nature floats to shore, nude save for the tie around her neck: the latest victim of the Necktie Murderer. While the
corpse is fished out of the water, a familiar rotund figure in a bowler hat looks on expressionless — Hitchcock in his trademark appearance. His somber visage serves to introduce a new, gritty realism, a movie grim even for this specialist in the macabre.
Frenzy is the only Hitchcock film to receive an “R” rating. The most graphic scene is one of eroticized violence. The rape and murder of Blaney’s ex-wife is uncomfortably long. And though it is edited with multiple cuts similar to the Psycho shower scene, much less is left to the imagination. The audience gets a reprieve in the second murder, the camera tracking away from Rusk’s apartment as he enters with Blaney’s girlfriend, moving slowly down the stairs and out to bustling and colorful Covent Garden market.
The other graphic scene, however, is equally gruesome and hilarious. After killing Blaney’s girlfriend, Rusk is dismayed to find his tie pin missing. He has no choice but to return to the potato truck where he deposited the body. His ensuing struggle with the stiffened corpse is comic while creating a tension whereby the audience roots for the killer. In another scene, an inspector at a pub muses that tourists come to London expecting streets teaming with the bodies of “ripped whores.” A woman then asks, “He rapes them first, doesn’t he?” She receives the tactless reply, “every cloud has a silver lining.” Londoners are at once titillated and repulsed by the murders. Drawn in by the humor, Hitchcock’s audience is in turn made complicit in that behavior.
Rusk himself is a grotesque extension of the inveterate bachelor; a literal lady killer. His victims, a far cry from the starlets of other Hitchcock films, are, well, very British. Both of Blaney’s murdered lovers are at once sensual and ordinary, Cockney-accented women navigating a world of dangerous masculinity. Blaney sleeps in a Salvation Army mission after wheedling money out of his ex, which he then blows on an expensive hotel tryst; the mother-loving and dapper Rusk engages in sadism and murder. Meanwhile, another masculine model, the murder case’s lead inspector, suffers through his wife’s culinary experiments in a seemingly amicable if not sexless marriage. The inspector finally catches Rusk, exonerating the dissolute but wrongfully convicted Blaney. Yet with the presence of another naked woman’s corpse, the conclusion is hardly satisfying.
In an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock answered a question concerning new American cinema’s tendency towards “insolence and freedom of expression with respect to eroticism, violence, and politics.” He simply said: “It reflects the moral climate and the way of life that prevail today in the United States.” Attuned to this change in climate, Frenzy appeals to a public appetite for sex and violence without letting the audience off the hook. Three men — the bachelor, the murderer, and the long-suffering husband — and a corpse, all of which at one time or another deliver equal measures humor and horror.
There were many causes for Hitchcock’s late career decline. Age and illness certainly played a role, as did an increase in alcohol consumption. In the late 1950s he had become progressively more embittered about the amount of money paid to actors in his films. Whereas for most of his career he had insisted on working with only the finest actors in Hollywood or London, in his last few films he would only work with relatively unknown — and therefore inexpensive — performers.
All of these factors led to a string of relatively weak late-career films. In fact, after the success of The Birds, only Frenzy displayed some of the old Hitchcock magic. Marnie had some interesting moments in its first half — after he and Tippi Hedren had a complete falling out he lost all interest in the film and sleepwalked through the remainder of the production — but this was the beginning of a string of cinematic failures. Torn Curtain is regarded as one of his weakest films, while Topaz is unrelentingly dull.
Family Plot is not an out and out bad movie, but it is a sad end to arguably the greatest directorial career in the history of film. Hitchcock truly went out with a whimper instead of a bang. The aforementioned unwillingness to spend money on the best available actors was unquestionably a factor. At another point in his career, Hitchcock might instead have sought out Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty instead of Bruce Dern and William Devane. In addition to his avoidance of the top Hollywood talent, Hitchcock was also in steep physical decline during filming. He depended heavily on his second unit for the filming of many key scenes, being physically incapable of overseeing even minimally demanding shoots. Actors were shocked when he would sometimes interrupt filming to have a doctor come and check his pacemaker.
The film tells the story of two couples whose lives unexpectedly intersect. Karen Black and William Defane play professional kidnappers, while Barbara Harris plays a psychic who with her cab driver boyfriend (played by Bruce Dern) is trying to get a petty reward for discovering the whereabouts of someone to whom a wealthy old lady would like to leave her fortune. In a black comedy of errors, the kidnappers wrongly assume that the other two have learned of their crimes and are attempting to extort money from them.
In tone, the film attempts to emulate the tongue-in-cheek feel of previous dark comedies like The Trouble With Harry, but it lacks that film’s delicate touch, as well as its stellar cast. It is devoid of the production values of previous Hitchcock films and in general feels more like a made-for-TV movie than a feature film. Compared to To Catch a Thief or Rebecca it feels decidedly low budget.
It isn’t the way any fan of Hitchcock would have liked for him to go out. But to be fair, very few directors have been able to end their careers while doing their best work. John Ford, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and many, many other great directors continued making films well past their prime. Best to remember Hitchcock for the almost surreal number of masterpieces than for his final films.