Although I do attend The Prytania’s Sunday morning Classic Movies series far more often than I used to, I’m not exactly religious about it. If my schedule is convenient enough and the Old Hollywood classic on the bill is halfway intriguing, I’m likely to go, but my attendance is not a guaranteed weekly occurrence. (If the demographics of the few patrons who do attend every week are any indication, that won’t be a part of my regular routine for another thirty years or so). There is one major exception, though; if The Prytania is screening a Hitchcock film I’ve never seen before, I consider it mandatory appointment viewing. This started when the Classic Movies’ iconic host Rene Brunet Jr. would bring an unbridled enthusiasm to the Hitchcock pictures that he reserved for few others, but it’s a tradition that’s continued now years since Mr. Rene’s sadly passed away. (I still get teary-eyed at his pre-recorded intros to the Sunday screenings). Of course, an allegiance to Rene Brunet’s memory isn’t the only thing that keeps me coming back for every Hitchcock picture, from stone-cold classics like Strangers on a Train to forgotten frivolities like Saboteur. I’m also in attendance for the Hitchcock classics because they always deliver. I’ve yet to blindly go into an Alfred Hitchcock film on the big screen and leave disappointed; each consecutive screening has been a delight so far, whether in surprise of a smaller flick that doesn’t get much attention or in a decades-late affirmation of something I’ve already known to be a classic long before I saw it for myself. That very nearly changed for me with The Prytania’s recent screening of Hitchcock’s late-career serial killer thriller Frenzy, a film that’s just as punishingly nasty in spirit as it is impressive technical craft.
The very first murder scene in Frenzy is so grotesquely sleazy that I almost soured on the movie entirely. At the very least, I did not blame the young couple who quietly walked out of the screening after that brutal, misogynist display, as it was nothing like what we have been primed to expect from the Hitchcock classics that regularly screen in that venue. Frenzy is a thriller about a man who’s wrongly accused of serially strangling women to death all over London with his neckties, then dumping their bodies to be discovered by police & press. There’s no glaring narrative deviation in that premise from Hitchcock’s usual schtick, as it’s common that we know who the true killer is in these thrillers upfront and all the mystery & suspense is packaged in watching a wrongly accused man prove his innocence. The major deviation here, then, is a severity in tone. The first murder committed onscreen is a lengthy, unblinking rape & strangling shot in sweaty closeups that drag on for a hideous eternity. It’s a break in form from Hiscock’s classic mode, where he was restrained in what Hays Code-type censorship would allow him to get away with onscreen, to explore a much crasser sensibility befitting 1970s grindhouse exploitation like I Spit on Your Grave, I Drink Your Blood, or Last House on the Left. It’s arguable that this distasteful effect was purposeful & self-aware, since the subsequent murders in the film read more like a return to form in contrast – with Hitchcock pulling away from the violent & sexual brutality of the kills instead of pushing in to gawk at it. If the point was to demonstrate how much better 1950s restraint & cleverness in obscuration are in depicting onscreen violence than the 1970s free-for-all of uninhibited sleaze & cruelty, it’s severely undercut by just how much of a sour taste that first kill scene leaves to linger over the rest of the picture. Hitchcock may move on to finish his point, but the audience struggles to move past the echo of his openings statement.
Part of the reason it’s difficult to fully buy into the tonal shift of the softened violence after that opening kill is that Frenzy is morally grotesque in so many other ways. Our wrongly accused man may not be a murderer or a serial rapist, but he’s a grotesquely macho piece of shit that the movie too easily lets off the hook anyway. He’s the same womanizing, alcoholic anti-hero we’ve been asked to sympathize with in far too many machismo fantasies over the years (including in a John Wayne pic titled Brannigan that oddly resembles this one), a total menace in the lives of the women who are unfortunate enough to know him. When he asks his current girlfriend/coworker “Do I look like a sex-murderer to you?” it’s frustrating that her answer isn’t a simple, resounding “Yes,” because he totally does. The same parallels Hitchcock usually draws between his own voyeurism as a director and the violent perversions of his fictional killers continues here, but the unrestrained frankness of the dialogue makes that connection more distasteful than intriguing. The men of London regularly joke about the rapes with offhand bon mots about how “Women like to struggle,” as well as playing armchair psychologist with the killer-at-large’s necktie strangling kink. Hitchcock’s unconscious id as a violent, voyeuristic pervert is still interesting here, but listening to characters babble about how “criminal, sexual psychopaths […] hate women and are mostly impotent” only continues the moral unease of that opening, hideous murder scene long after it’s over. In terms of the explicit brutality of his onscreen violence, Hitchcock may revert to his old ways after the first kill’s brief indulgence in 70s sleaze, but there are plenty of other, unconscious factors that leave us stuck in that initial shock: a scumbag protagonist, a continued leering at naked breasts (whether or not they’re attached to corpses), a general disinterest in the inner lives of women outside their roles as victims, an equating of kink to rape, etc.
All of this is not to say that Frenzy is meritless, or even minor. Most of the film’s set pieces are just as cleverly genius as Hitchcock ever was in his prime, especially a central one set the back of a potato truck and a backwards tracking shot that pulls away from the second murder. It’s also a joy to watch the legendary director export this artistry from traditional sound stages to the crowded streets of London, as most of the film is shot on location. I also always have respect for auteurs who go down swinging in their later years, concluding their careers on angry screeds of pure, uninhibited id. It’s just that the general pall of 70s sleaze mutes a lot of Unkie Hitch’s usual charm. It’s a stomach-turning level of violent misogyny I usually brace myself for when approaching 1970s genre cinema blind but didn’t think to in this particular case because of my past, pleasant experiences watching Hitchcock classics at The Prytania. I have to wonder, if Rene Brunet were still around to host the series himself, would he have selected or approved of it? I have my doubts.