ReFramed No. 5: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy’ and ‘Family Plot’

Alfred Hitchcock
21 June 1972 (UK)
Family Plot
Alfred Hitchcock
9 April 1976 (UK)

Jordan Cronk: Like we mentioned last time regarding Robert Altman, Alfred Hitchcock has been canonized and re-canonized so much over the past 50 years or so that it can seem at first glance like there’s not much from his filmography left to reconsider at this point. But sometime after 1963’s The Birds, Hitchcock’s critical and popular stock waned a bit, and as a result, there is a good decade-and-a-half worth of work which doesn’t garner nearly the same kind of praise that his mid-’50s Hollywood work or even his early British pictures still do. In some cases, this is warranted, but there are at least two wonderful examples of Hitchcock working at a very high level late in his career, however, and we each have a strong connection to one of them.

His 1976 swan song Family Plot is one of his most endlessly entertaining and re-watchable films, while you hold his prior picture, 1972’s Frenzy, as one of his best films, period. These are the only two films Hitchcock made in ’70s, and I think they make for a nice compare and contrast between his British and American sensibilities, with Frenzy harkening back to his pre-Hollywood work in his home country, while Family Plot exemplifies the humor and classic post-war American filmmaking practices that rocketed Hitch to the upper echelons of cinematic autuers.

Calum Marsh: It’s certainly fitting: Hitchcock essentially had two complete, distinctive careers – one in Britain, from 1922 to 1939, and one in Hollywood, from 1940 onward – and his last two films reflect and comment on that separation in very interesting ways. You’re right that I prefer Frenzy, but so too do I generally prefer his earlier, British films to the more polished Hollywood classics he produced later – perhaps it’s that I’m British-born and simply can’t escape the sensibilities of my heritage, but there’s something so charming and efficient about his British work. He made his career and built his legacy in the US, no doubt, but for my money, there are few films more satisfying than The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and, of course, Frenzy, which is not only indebted to the forms and conventions of his formative years but also, I believe, incorporates his decades of subsequent experience to improve upon them.

Cronk: Frenzy is certainly one of his most controlled, precisely executed films, which actually stands in pretty sharp contrast to Family Plot, which is kind of messy and indulgent in many ways. I think it was Francois Truffaut who said around the time of Frenzy’s release that the film was a “young man’s picture,” referring of course to the editing and sound mixing techniques that he employs throughout. Family Plot, by contrast, is somewhat of an old man’s picture — there is an amusing anecdote relayed by assistant director Howard Kazanjian on the film’s DVD where he described Hitchcock’s response to his assertion that they should film the movie’s centerpiece car chase sequence on location instead of second unit, how Hitch preferred. He obviously wasn’t in a state of health where he could go out on location and do anything that psychically taxing anymore, and as a result, Family Plot stands as one of the true stylistic anomalies of ’70s cinema, which I think is of the things I enjoy about it.

Marsh: I think you sort of touched upon the central stylistic difference between the two films there: they’re diametrically opposed in terms of tone. Family Plot is, as you say, quite loose and messy, and although its narrative machinations are still calibrated masterly — this is still Hitchcock, even if he’s aged — there’s a sense of aloofness about the whole thing which makes it incredibly fun to watch. The only thing in his oeuvre as outwardly amusing or relatively lighthearted is the similarly underrated The Trouble With Harry, which, though considered “minor” by critics, has been cited as Hitchcock’s personal favorite of his films. I like the idea that it’s an “old man’s picture,” though because it does feel like something of a well-earned victory lap; it’s a bit of fun and supremely well-crafted cinema from someone who obviously knew the medium’s tricks inside and out. And, of course, it’s appropriate that it’s also a film about trickery and deceit, and about suspense and magic and mystery. In many ways it’s the perfect summation of his career, and I think the only thing harming its reputation is the coy way it disavows its own accomplishments. It takes a very modest genius to finish with such a self-consciously “slight” masterpiece.

Cronk: Yes, and it’s that very tone that makes it one of my go-to picks for a Hitch film when I simply want to be entertained. Obviously, there aren’t any Vertigo-level attempts at psychological horror here, but Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris play off each other so well and the humor is just light enough to make the evil characters played by William Devane and Karen Black delicious enough to savor as both comedic and quasi-mystical thriller props. And I love that the last shot of the film breaks the fourth wall — it’s almost as if Hitchcock is winking at his audience for the 50-plus years of thrills and excitement that he’s imparted on us. A moment like this certainly couldn’t happen in a film like Frenzy, which was purposefully “adult” in content and violence. But Hitchcock being Hitchcock, he still offers up a hilarious series of digressions concerning food. There’s a great scene towards the end of the film where the police chief outlines the case while choking down some pretty hideous looking entrees cooked up by his wife. You spoke a little bit already about why you may prefer these British pictures to his Hollywood work, but it’s great that even amidst one of his toughest and most violent films he can still carry over those little bits of personality that endeared him so readily to American audiences.

Hitchcock’s Essential Britishness

Marsh: That’s a quintessentially British quality, I think: dry humor permeates even the bleakest moments of the film. This stands in marked contrast to the humor of Family Plot, which is the dominant tone only occasionally punctuated with hardline thrills. I’m very glad you brought up the subject of food, though, because for me it’s a central aspect of Frenzy’s greatness. The film frequently uses food as a sight gag, particularly when the police chief’s wife brandishes her failed gourmet dishes, but on a deeper level, the film seems to view food and eating almost contemptuously. As a persistent visual motif, it has little thematic relevance — one could imagine it excised from the film with no impact to the narrative — but it gels nicely with the theory that Frenzy is a highly personal film for Hitchcock, who was returning to his native country in the twilight of his life and who, as we all know from the infamous image of his silhouette, had his own obvious struggles with gluttony.

There’s a sequence late in the film in which the killer, realizing after hiding his latest victim in the back of a potato truck that he’s misplaced a personal effect that could identify him to police, attempts to wrest the MacGuffin from the victim’s rigor mortis-stricken fist, and the visceral crack of her fingers being snapped open is reflected later in the cracking of a breadstick — it’s a nasty bit of visual poetry that’s lent the film a reputation for crassness, but it’s also one of the most memorable moments in any Hitchcock’s filmography.

Cronk: Indeed, it’s a wonderfully macabre moment. I’m wondering, though, how you react to some of the more visually aggressive types of violence seen throughout Frenzy? Like I mentioned earlier, this was purposefully implemented by Hitchcock, but in one case in particular – the much-discussed office rape and murder sequence – he was urged to not even include the scene at all. We recently talked about something similar in regard to some of the more explicitly sexual moments in late period Godard, and I guess we could chalk this up to being a case of simply being allowed to show a little more violence and nudity in the ’70s, but it seems to me like Hitchcock wanted to come back strong with this film, returning to his home country with a provocative film the likes of which hadn’t been seen from him since arguably Psycho. What’s your take on this?

Marsh: Well, as with the increasingly frank depictions of sexuality in Godard’s later work, I think the extremity of that rape sequence can be attributed not only to the liberalized ratings system in place in the ’70s but also, as you noted, to Hitchcock’s desire to be provocative. Hitchcock had always had a reputation for reveling in rather shocking depictions of violence and depravity, and the brutal rape sequence in Frenzy is undoubtedly his response to the comparatively desensitized audiences of the time. What’s remarkable, though, is that the sequence is just as difficult to watch today, and I might even argue that it outperforms modern shock-horror films in terms of sheer visceral impact.

Cronk: Yeah, I’d agree. But most importantly this sequence is integral to the plot of the film, and it’s not explicit so much as provocative, which I think some filmmakers confuse nowadays. Despite some tough scenes, though, these are audience-friendly films — they are a joy to watch unfold, whether acutely in Frenzy or more haphazardly in Family Plot. In fact, Hitchcock is probably the greatest example of a filmmaker who is held in similar regard by both audiences and critics alike.

For all the many important contributions of the original Cahiers du Cinema critics, their dedication to a “genre” filmmaker such as Hitchcock proves that this high level of artistry can and should be looked for across the entire spectrum of filmmaking. There’s less of it on display nowadays, but in some ways the status of many directors such as David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Brian DePalma, George Romero, and in some quarters recently, Tony Scott, can all be attributed to the rise in popularity of Hitchcock in the mid-’50s. I still find this fascinating, and it’s just one of the many things that keep audiences and critics returning to his films all these years later, and both for many different reasons.

Marsh: I think it’s a matter, perhaps, of learning to appreciate craft as well as art. Hitchcock’s reputation doesn’t exactly need further bolstering by us, but it’s important to consider that the principal reasons why films like Frenzy and Family Plot are so wholly satisfying is that they are in many ways formally perfect. They may lack any kind of deeper import or emotional resonance, but as exercises in filmmaking they are nearly flawless, and that mastery is its own kind of greatness. What impresses me about Frenzy is how finely calibrated every element is, how it runs as a result of the care and attention paid to it like a machine.

Maybe there’s a coldness in that sort of craftsmanship, but it’s incredible to see it unfold: Hitchcock is in complete control of everything — every visual and aural cue, every suggestive narrative hint, every line of dialogue or action undertaken. He understands the cinema’s capacity to manipulate our thoughts and feelings better than just about any mainstream filmmaker, and he plans his every move around maximizing the dramatic effect of that manipulation. There are a number of visual hints early in the film, for instance, which strongly suggest that the protagonist of the film is also its faceless murderer; when the true identity of the killer is later revealed to us and the police immediately and wrongly suspect the protagonist, we’ve already been implicated in the false accusation — we were already compelled by Hitchcock to vilify the hero, so we’re denied the opportunity to view the situation with righteous indignation. It’s a very clever turn.

Cronk: And he keeps morality — and in some cases motives — ambiguous in both films. I’ve heard many people say there are no likable characters in Frenzy, which never strikes me as particularly important with regard to quality, while the multiple plots strands in Family Plot are each grounded in some form of deceit. In this way, as you suggested, these films are exercises, but as far as stylistic showcases go, each is unique and fully developed in their own very personal way. Hitchcock never really left his home base genre, but each of his films — even some of his more minor efforts between The Birds and Frenzy — are unique entities unto themselves. This is another reason why each of his films, by their own internal logic, speak to Hitchcock’s overarching career narrative — always different, always the same, maybe, but rich, entertaining, and vital all the same.