Mean, Drunk: Alfred Hitchcock’s FRENZY
Although it had turned up in numerous silents, in many ways the Cinematic Drunkard was well and truly born in 1930's Anna Christie, with the first words Greta Garbo ever spoke onscreen: "Give me a whiskey with ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby." In the ensuing 83 years, the archetype of the alcoholic protagonist has staggered through film history, often for laughs (the films of WC Fields), sometimes for high drama (The Lost Weekend) or to add some depth to a secondary character (Dean Martin in Rio Bravo is one of the all-time great Technicolor drunks). As popular culture's awareness and understanding of alcoholism evolved, it became almost exclusively fodder for pathos. Films like Long Day's Journey Into Night and Days Of Wine And Roses won accolades and told us in no uncertain terms that alcoholism is Serious Business. While there were exceptions, for a while in the latter 20th Century one could no longer make a film that happened to feature an alcoholic; you had to make a film about alcoholism.
And unfortunately films about alcoholism are often terrible. For every great little film moment the specter of alcoholism provides (e.g., Little Bill's myth-shattering speech about legendary badass Will Munny in Unforgiven), there are ten films where it's a crutch. It's a tempting, lazy shortcut for a screenwriter looking for a tidy, easy-to-swallow redemptive arc. Those award-winning films of the early Sixties started Hollywood down a path that led to a glut of "socially conscious" made-for-TV movies by the ‘80s. But 1972's Frenzy goes delightfully, cruelly against this tide, as Alfred Hitchcock takes the movie drunkard and drags him into the ugly, real world. Not, mind you, to make some larger point about alcoholics, but simply as one more color in an immensely unflattering landscape.
The film, considered not only his last great work but also often his angriest, is in many ways a return to form for Hitchcock: a wrongly accused protagonist, scenes of suspense in which audience sympathies are transferred to villains, long tracking shots in which horrible things are implied more than shown. And yet, it's also 180 degrees from anything The Master had done before. Next to, say, the 15 Hitchcock films which preceded it, Frenzy is a flat-out ugly film: gone are the glossy production values of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And after filming some of the most beautiful faces (male and female) in cinema, Hitchcock peoples Frenzy with the comparatively plain, unremarkable (and largely unknown) faces of London stage actors. He then has cinematographer Gilbert Taylor photograph those faces, and indeed, the entire city of London, in dreary, unflattering tones. (Hitchcock claimed the look he was after was inspired by Vermeer; perhaps 1970s color film stock just wasn't up to the challenge.)
The crimes, too, are uglier than ever: the film proper opens with the discovery of a naked woman floating face down in the Thames. From there the victims are afforded less and less dignity, their nude bodies on garish display, limbs splayed awkwardly, tongues lolling out of their mouths. The swamp scene in Psycho, in which Norman Bates tries to sink Marion Crane's car, is here mapped onto a hilarious yet gruesome sequence in which the film's killer breaks the fingers of a corpse to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence. (What happens to her body from there is potentially worse, and best left experienced within the film.) Everything in the film is a good deal meaner and nastier than what audiences had come to expect from Hitchcock. And while many mainstream critics praised Frenzy upon release as Hitchock's late-period masterpiece, a contemporary audience might well find themselves struggling with some of the sexual violence in the film.
But if Frenzy is Hitchcock's angriest film, it's important to note that his rage is not solely directed at the film's victims. The forces of law and order fare no better here; as if annoyed at the amount of time the character spends delivering expository information, Hitchcock forces Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) to do so while attempting to eat his wife's increasingly hideous "gourmet" cooking, a gag-inducing procession of all things repellent to an old-school British palate (pig's feet, fish head soup, margaritas, for heaven’s sake!). When he's not torturing them with inedible gristle, Hitchcock portrays the cops as blowhards who end up jailing the wrong man. And it's that wrong man that brings us back to Hitchcock's unsentimental, unflattering portrayal of the drunken protagonist. Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) is in many ways the classic Hitchcock hero: on the run, falsely accused, on a desperate mission to clear his name and save his neck. But Hitchcock has spliced his "wrong man" archetype with that of the drunkard: Blaney is utterly unlikable, impetuous, unreliable and untrustworthy. And it all stems from his drinking.
Well, not all of it: had Cary Grant been cast in the role it might be another story. But Hitchcock saw fit to cast the smug, insolent face of Jon Finch, a visage to which Hitchcock fans were rather unaccustomed. And it's not to obfuscate whether Blaney is guilty or not; the killer's identity is revealed quite early in the film. But with his long hair, ‘70s mustache and mouthful of British teeth, Finch is a far cry from the typical Hitchcock leading man, a greasy stain on Hitchcock’s legacy of charismatic, trustworthy movie stars.
The aesthetic chips stacked against him, Hitch then saddles his protagonist with a rather pissy demeanor and an extant drinking problem out of the gate: we first meet Richard Blaney as he’s being sacked from a pub for helping himself to a boozy breakfast. From there he angrily wanders Covent Garden, running into a string of characters who add layers to his character: his pal Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), who immediately offers him a handout; his current fling Babs (Anna Massey) who sympathetically listens to Blaney’s sad sack bullshit as if she’s been doing it forever and is resigned to keep on doing so; and his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) a tolerant woman who seems used to greeting her down-on-his-luck ex with an apathetic shrug and a few pounds. We get the picture from those closest to him that Blaney’s drinking has turned a proud RAF veteran into that guy no one wants to hear from, the phone call always asking for money, the friend who only ever has bad news. But rather than use Blaney’s alcoholism for sympathy, to get us in his corner, Hitchcock paints Blaney’s affliction in ugly strokes, begging us to dislike his leading man from the get-go. (The legend goes that Hitchcock was rather abusive to Finch, treating him coolly on days he wasn’t outright embarrassing him in front of the crew, all in order to set Finch’s performance in an edgy, irritable zone for the length of the film.) He spits his words at his closest friends, he repays his ex-wife’s buying him dinner by embarrassing her in public, and when everyone around him starts turning up dead, Blaney’s interactions with the police and the public become even less pleasant.
Right up until the end of the film, Hitchcock seems to be daring us to hate this mean drunk. Admittedly, he’s not the only one drinking in the film: we get exposition via pubgoers, poor Chief Inspector Oxford has to gulp down a fair amount of whiskey and wine just to get through his wife's ghastly meals, and even the killer belts back a few. But Blaney’s clearly drawn as the guy who can’t handle his shit, and as a result he has trouble convincing even his closest friends that he’s not a murdering sex maniac.
By all accounts Hitchcock enjoyed wine quite a bit, and it’s clear he was no puritan. So why would he create a protagonist so unlikeable, and do it via booze? At age 72, perhaps Hitchcock’s attitude toward drunkards was a little less enlightened than the rest of the world at that time. Perhaps it wasn’t moralizing so much as it was the Master wanting to find a fresh spin on his “wrong man” trope by inviting us to judge his leading man, to dislike him and to see just how far along we would follow a character we didn’t really want to know. Or, like much of the film’s other shocking elements, it was perhaps a creative exercise Hitchcock was putting himself through, an attempt to see if he could still play the audience like he used to, to take them wherever he wanted, however horrible, and have them happily eating out of his hands once again. To that end, FRENZY is an unqualified success.
This was originally published in the "Cheers! A Celebration of Pub Life" issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See Frenzy at the Alamo Drafthouse this month.