ReFramed No. 5: Alfred Hitchcock's 'Frenzy' and 'Family Plot'
This week the Reframed crew casts its critical gaze on the late career of thriller auteur Alfred Hitchcock, finding unexpected greatness in largely uncelebrated works.
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. For me, 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 incredible 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.