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.

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