Film

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

Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

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.

Hitchcock's Essential Britishness

Marsh: That's a quintessentially British quality, I think: dry humor permeates even the bleakest moments of the film. Which 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 affect which 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 the 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 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, like you suggested, these films are exercises, but as far as stylistic showcases go, each are 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.

Prev Page

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.