“Women—they’re all the same.”
—the killer in Frenzy
Off-camera, Tippi Hedren has said, he became vindictive after she wouldn’t return his overtures, had her dressing-room connected by a secret door to his office, got a replica mask of her face made for himself, and sexually assaulted her. And what about on-screen? Hedren thinks a rape-scene in Marnie (1964) reflected his fantasizing about her. In other films, did one of the most famous directors of meaningful looks and (un)romantic obsessions—the man who orchestrated the darting, glancing kisses between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946), to skirt the Hayes Code—indulge in misogyny? Was Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film not so much a twilight-dim failure as a late-career disclosure of his id, an oblique admission of his toxic obsession with blondes (like Hedren) and curdled lust? And how does Frenzy (1972) not only echo an early film by the English director but have its flat notes, and its director’s flaws, sounded out by a then-emerging American master’s echoing of the Master of Suspense?
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), Hitchcock’s third feature and first outright thriller, adapts Marie Belloc Lowndes’s The Lodger (1913), a fog-shrouded novel set close to Baker Street but based on the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 in the East End. Mrs. Bunting, a former maid (and the detective-figure), and Mr. Bunting, a former manservant, realize that their lodger, Mr. Sleuth, is the murdering, Bible-inspired lunatic whom the police (and press) are pursuing. Yet they remain in servile thrall to him largely because, with all his money and eccentric behaviour, Mrs. Bunting thinks, “he was such a nice, gentle gentleman, was Mr. Sleuth” (my emphasis).
In scenario-writer Eliot Stannard and Hitchcock’s adaptation, the victims are all blonde (“to-night[:] golden curls” is the enticement on a music-hall marquee, an image-motif, and the killer’s target), establishing the director’s fascination with the fair-haired sex and his sexualizing of the fair-haired. Before dwelling much, in often drawn-out, stagey ways, on the suspicious lodger (Ivor Novello)—who, amid the Buntings, becomes so interested in daughter (and blonde model) Daisy (June Tripp)—Hitchcock plays with city lights and sights. Intertitles mimic that lightbulb-lettered marquee and a running-ticker news report; Londoners, ’avin’ a laff, pretend to be the kerchief-covered “Avenger” killer as an eyewitness still trembles or a blonde showgirl removes her makeup; the churning newspaper rooms and presses disseminate the news, headlines still drying as papers are bundled up, trucked out, and then hawked on street corners. (Hitchcock has his first of many cameos here: he’s sitting, back to us, in a newsroom, talking urgently into a phone; later, he’s in a mob baying for the lodger’s blood.)
There’s a moment in the Bunting household, though, when Daisy’s paramour, Joe, a police officer, ’avin’ a lark, suddenly handcuffs her and she cries out, alarmed (the lodger looks on, ambiguously thrilled—he seems both appalled and excited), only to
smile afterwards and go off to flirt some more with the lodger . . . so was Joe right to want her shackled to him? Is Hitchcock suggesting that this blonde should be kept in, at home, and tied down to household duties, to keep her safe? The sly Daisy cannot be entirely trusted, it seems, even by her policing lover. (Daisy’s mother tries to assuage her prospective son-in-law’s concerns: “Don’t be silly, Joe, [the lodger]’s not that sort. Even if he is a bit queer, he’s a gentleman.”) And so Hitchcock opens the door to the viewer’s suspicion of the fairer sex as too bold and wayward in The Lodger.
Knife-cut to a half-century later: by the mid-’60s, when Psycho had already killed at the box-office (while, in England, the more explicit, similarly-themed Peeping Tom sank Michael Powell’s career) and he’d just made his fiftieth movie, the tattered Torn Curtain, Hitchcock wanted to do a more experimental—in the vein of Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which he admired—and explicitly sexual and violent film. Kaleidoscope would be about a killer turned on by water, with a woman sent undercover to catch him. Snippets of a nude bedroom scene are nearly all that survives of what little was shot. Hitchcock, as Nicholas Barber’s noted, even wrote a draft of the screenplay, with the script homophobically making its killer, Willie, a mama’s boy who “was to have bodybuilding magazines stashed around his room, so as to suggest that he was gay, and he was to be caught masturbating by his mother. . . . Even Truffaut [the French New Wave director and author of a book of interviews with Hitchcock] was concerned.” The lodger had been fascinatingly sensitive and fragile for Daisy, but here “deviance” would have been doubled down on. Hitchcock was jerking moments of murder into brutality, dilating voyeurism into obsession, and no longer distancing himself from anti-effeminacy.
Meanwhile, one of the most prominent American directors of the next generation, a man who’d be greatly influenced by and pay homage to Hitchcock, was emerging. By the mid-’60s, he was working on what would be his first feature and he’d already made some short films. Both directors had a close, important relationship with editors: Hitchcock with George Tomasini, while Martin Scorsese continues to work with Thelma Schoonmaker (Powell’s wife). Each had his preferred composers (Hitchcock’s most famous was Bernard Herrmann), certain cinematographers they worked with, and select screenwriters they often returned to. Their leading men were stand-outs—Farley Granger, Cary Grant, and James Stewart for Hitchcock; Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci, and Leonardo DiCaprio for Scorsese—and both directors make sly cameos, with Hitchcock’s appearances often humorous glimpses of the balding, lip-drooping, portly man as bystander or passer-by in his own movie. They established his famous form as a literal signature, a body standing for a body of work, Hitchcock’s silhouette branding the enterprise.
But, four years after Frenzy, the New York-born and -raised Catholic son of garment-industry workers and actors was already outdoing and re-doing the East London-born and -raised Catholic son of a greengrocer and his wife (Hitchcock usually eschewed Catholic symbolism, but offers a silhouetted cross image and a pietà tableau in The Lodger). Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), a masterful dissection of machismo, where America’s gun culture is seen as a pornographic and pathetic sexual overcompensation for male loner-ness, is a deeper drive off Route 99 into the lonely motel-room mind of an American psycho—a late ’70s study of a NYC Norman Bates. Its neo-noir portrait of a psycho as a young man begins in America’s largest city, but not quite in fog, as The Lodger does. A yellow cab looms up out of the street smoke, as, yes, Bernard Herrmann’s score—a sax-swoon interrupted by ominous, clattering percussion—mists along. Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (DeNiro), 26, can’t sleep well and starts driving cabs six, seven nights a week. But this study’s also something of a self-portrait—screenwriter Paul Schrader was channeling his own down-and-out-ness, alienation, and obsessions. And Scorsese’s self-exposing—his first Hitchcock-like cameo comes with the slo-mo introduction of Cybill Shepherd’s cool blonde, Bickle’s fixation, where Scorsese’s there, too, eagle-eyeing her from his perch on a building’s stoop. Later, in a scene echoing Rear Window and Psycho, Scorsese’s a passenger testily directing Bickle to stop, leave the meter running, and stare with him at the silhouette of a woman—his wife—in a window of another man’s—a black man’s—apartment; he talks of how he’ll kill her. The
voyeurism has darkened and deepened, yet still we, too, look on. We’re implicated. Racism, cars, guns, an apple pie in the Big Apple (on Travis’ first date with the Yankee-named Betsy [Shepherd], shortly before Memorial Day), a Presidential campaign, talk of the town as an “open sewer” that needs cleaning-up, a would-be assassin whom fate twists into a vigilante-hero . . . it doesn’t get more American Psycho.
Hitchcock’s near-pathological fascination with cool blondes in his films—Bergman, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Vivien Leigh, Hedren, etc.—was meant to mix ice and fire, and gentility and passion, though he explained it more disturbingly to Truffaut: he meant to show “real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom.” It’s impossible, now, not to think of Hedren’s accusations of Hitchcock’s all-too-real obsession about her “in the bedroom” with him (and the revelations of Marnie, disturbingly, are bound up with trauma, rape, and prostitution). And so it’s difficult not to read, for instance, critic David Denby’s sum-up of Scottie’s fixation on blonde Madeleine (Novak) in Vertigo (1958) without feeling a chill: “The entire fable suggests that men . . . need some sort of obsession to get aroused—that male sexual passion by its very nature is fetishistic in some way, and that ordinary love and deep disturbance are not so far apart.”
At times, Scorsese’s better employed blonde actresses to emphasize how, in his Roman Catholicism-tinged outlook, women are treated as madonnas or whores by obsessive men. Their whiteness and blondeness, especially when they first appear, makes them seem angelic or otherworldly figures of fascination to men who need them to reflect or reassert their power: Shepherd in Taxi Driver; white-bikinied Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull; white-minidressed Sharon Stone in Casino; spectral Michelle Williams in Shutter Island (2010).
(Three years before, Scorsese’s homage to the man who built the foundations for so many films about hidden lives, surveillance, and disturbed minds came in the wine company-promo and short film “The Key to Reserva” . . . its best part comes at the end, with Scorsese’s humorous dig at himself. The whole exercise, tainted as Scorsese seems to know by its blatant advertising, is lightened by Scorsese’s willingness to show himself as a slightly too geeky, too jokey director. He’s ready, this serial voyeur pretending to be an artist, to murder and re-create again—he greedily suggests a re-edit or re-making of at least some of the lost ten-hour final print of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed . In the final scene, and final allusion, the dark Birds of Hitchcock’s restless spirit wait, outside the window, to revenge themselves upon this impious imitator.)
In Shutter Island, both a locked-mind mystery and island-prison thriller, sickness, madness, and paranoia whip up from the start. It’s 1954 and Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (Dicaprio) comes by boat to the titular place, a forbidding rock off the Massachusetts coast home only to Ashecliffe Hospital, an institution for those deemed criminally insane. Daniels first suffers seasickness, then migraines. As a hurricane moves in, he and his partner try to investigate the disappearance—from her locked cell—of a patient who murdered her children. But the authorities seem uncooperative and Daniels is still haunted by the death of his wife Dolores (Williams).
Scorsese, working from Laeta Kalogridis’ screen-adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel, experiments with genres past, pulping up the noir and gothic to slowly flesh out psychological horror. He mixes not only moments of suspense with off-kilter conversations, but war veteran Teddy’s golden-edged dreams of his wife (one shot of him clinging to her eerily imitates Klimt’s The Kiss) with his nightmarish memories of
liberating Dachau. Other reunions with the dead are disturbingly ecstatic. This exercise in style’s so overheated that the controlled burn reignites the gothic’s tropes (madwoman, abandoned building, apparitions, stormy weather). Ash, fire, and snow—white flares up throughout, to be eclipsed by blood-red—mingle death, trauma, and grief. What’s the line between bereavement, even bereft-ment, and madness, or between denial and psychosis? We’re in a Stygian world shell-shocked by the Holocaust’s depravity, after a war from which boys came back broken men, losing some of what they went off to supposedly protect—humanity. Many of the story’s scars of violence are scratched at in Dicaprio’s performance as a lost saviour, while Williams vaults her character beyond the ’50s dutiful housewife. Where the film uncannily slips out of its genre shackles, though, is in its suggestion that we, the viewers, are patients eager to drug ourselves on the thriller formula, to willingly collude in its conventions and clichés. The easy answers are outside ourselves, we’d like to believe, in the solution to the locked-room mystery that the detective will solve or the web of machinations that the cop will unravel. But take a closer look within, Shutter Island whispers, because that’s where not just the hard answers but the easy lies are buried.
And that’s where Hitchcock’s Frenzy (the title taken from the script of Kaleidoscope) drops the knife, clattering, on the floor—it never even sticks it in. (The author, Arthur La Bern, disavowed the adaptation, declaring that he “endured . . . it at a press showing,” found it “a painful experience,” and the “result [of the adaptation] on the screen is appalling.”) Early on, we’re not implicated or urged to look within but made distastefully, pathetically, and scuzzily party to a public dismissal of rape-as-trauma and sexualized-murder-as-reprehensible. In The Lodger, the dangerous frenzy lies in the public-turned-mob—it chases down the lodger, wrongly thinking him the Avenger, and nearly kills him. (That all begins in a pub, where Daisy gives the lodger, escaped from the police, some brandy after secretly meeting him and putting a cloak around the handcuffed man; Joe and other police officers arrive soon after to call in about the fugitive and the other patrons realize the man, whose arms they never saw and seemed locked in place, is on the run, and pursue him. But, Joe learns over the phone, the actual Avenger has been caught; we’re now set against the mob, because it’s in error.) In Frenzy, though, where Hitchcock returns to London (specifically Covent Garden, as if out of nostalgia for his father’s greengrocer business; fruit-and-veg shops and a fruit-and-veg delivery depot take centre-stage early on) for another serial-killer thriller, the mob is the vox pop, cozily prurient. We’re led to feel ourselves at home among them but, worse, excited about and even allied with the murderer.
The opening aerial shot, gliding over the Thames and in towards Tower Bridge, its drawbridge opening up for us, is penetrative; the camera is phallic. Then, on the Embankment, as an official announces that the river will be pollution-free, we spot the director in the crowd, back among his people. Another man in the assembled audience exclaims, “Look!”—we witness the floating corpse of a naked woman, a necktie around her throat (Hitchcock makes sure to titillate us with an unnecessary flash of frontal nudity when the police look at the blonde’s body). Yet another man then begins to talk about the gruesome differences between this “necktie killer” and Jack the Ripper as Hitchcock, (next to him) and we listen on. Then we’re in an Englishman’s clichéd home-away-from-home, the pub, as Richard Blaney (who’ll be wrongly suspected) comes down from his apartment, indulges in an early-morning drink, and is promptly fired from his barman job (the back-and-forth between boss, Blaney [Jon Finch], and barmaid includes this crude and cruel exchange between boss and female employee: “And he’s usually pulling your tits instead of pulling pints” . . . “What about you? Always fingering me.”
It’s a pub, that falsely comfy place of conjecture and gossip—flowing with drink and chit-chat and sexual nastiness—that sees, as Blaney is sitting behind them, two well-heeled gents, solicitors, speculate about how the criminal proceedings for the killer would go. (Here, the movie’s one-note in its he-done-it?-ness, concerned only with having us wonder if Blaney’s the culprit or not. Especially when we realize he isn’t, half-an-hour in, his peevishness, snappishness, and general irascibility make him an unsympathetic, uninteresting figure flopping about—an annoying, smelly red herring. And the movie leers and sneers at that half-hour point, when it indulges in the over-long revealing of the murderer, who talks and talks and draws out his rape and killing. It’s pointlessly explicit and sordid, individualizing and prioritizing the killer while the woman is reduced to a near-mute, near-helpless victim.) As the barmaid returns with their pints, one says, “We
were just talking about the tie murderer, Maisie. You better watch out.” She asks, a salacious gleam in her eye, “He rapes ’em first, doesn’t he?” “Yes, I believe he does,” he says, twinkling, and his friend, nearly licking his lips, adds, “I suppose it’s nice to know every cloud has a silver lining.” They both grin and Maisie says, “Ooh,” and smiles. Their sneering joke here, insensitivity to the victims, and passing-off-rape-“humour”-as-flirting are appalling, but, worse, we’re being solicited to smile with them, especially as a woman is doing so, too, even egging them on. The “ha-ha-this-rapist-murderer-will-have-his-fun-won’t-he?” attitude’s endorsed by the film. The pair’s “joke” isn’t undercut or meant to disturb us; indeed, the two go back to ruminating on the type of man who’d do this, and we’re expected to listen in on their supposedly educated opinions with interest. The scuzzy and squalid atmosphere—a socially-polluted London—just is.
Denby tries to make a case for Frenzy being about “a generalized sexual misery” and the “absence of sexual happiness in ‘normal’ life,” but that’s giving it too much depth. Even when it’s acting self-conscious about its homicidal subject-as-entertainment, it’s just an act, with a smirk; the one lawyer says to the other at the end of their conversation, “I rather hope he doesn’t [slip up soon]. Well, we haven’t had a good, juicy series of sex murders since [John] Christie [in the ’50s]. And they’re so good for the tourist trade. Foreigners expect the squares of London to be fog-wreathed, full of hansom cabs, and littered with ripped whores, don’t you think?” Gone are the disturbing psychological depths of Vertigo or Psycho; this is London reduced to a dilapidated Hitchcock Land, a cheap, run-down theme-park of empty kills and tawdry thrills.
Or, as Victoria Sullivan argued at the time, in what was in part a rebuttal of Vincent Canby’s approving review of Frenzy, the movie seems to show that “[w]oman [sic] are naturally victims,” “[p]sychopathic rapists are basically nice guys (Canby calls the one in “Frenzy” “a genial London fruit wholesaler”) screwed up by their mums,” and, worse, that “[t]here is a certain glamour and excitement in rape and murder (i.e. it’s a turn-on)” and “[w]omen better watch out if they’re independent, living alone, living without a man, because there are a lot of sick guys around.” When Sullivan left the cinema, she notes, her “most possessive and frequently jealous companion” made a jest not unlike, in its unfunniness, the one shared by the two lawyers at the pub in the movie:
‘Guess you’ll stay close to your apartment for the next week or so,’ a joke prompted by the fact that I wasn’t to see him again for a week, but also perhaps by a warning implicit in the film: you need a man to protect you. You’re too independent. Lock yourself in. Bolt the door. Stay out of sight. Be discreet. A woman alone is an invitation.
Or, as Jane Doe—who won a lawsuit against the Toronto Police, after she was raped at knifepoint in her home, for not warning women in her neighbourhood and so being used as bait—writes in The Story of Jane Doe: A Book About Rape, “There are bad men among us. . . . But the places we put them, the manner in which we treat them, the degree to which we forget them, will determine our future well-being individually and as a society.” Jane Doe’s rapist, though, still has a Wikipedia page naming him. And the name of Jack the Ripper remains better known than the names of the women he killed. Male frenzy continues to be heard and echoed, loud and clear, drowning out the voices of those who’ve suffered from it and know its awful, unthrilling truth best.
(Thanks to Peter Mansour for bringing the Frenzy pub scene to my attention.)
Barber, Nicholas. “Why Hitchcock’s Kaleidoscope [sic] was too shocking to be made.” BBC, 21 June 2018, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180620-why-hitchcocks-kaleidoscope-was-too-shocking-to-be-made.
Denby, David. “In A Frenzy”. The New Yorker, vol. 90, no. 6, 31 March 2014, p. 10, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/03/31/in-a-frenzy.
Doe, Jane. The Story of Jane Doe: A Book About Rape. Vintage, 2003.
Evans, Alan. “Tippi Hedren: Alfred Hitchcock sexually assaulted me.” The Guardian, 31 Oct. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/31/tippi-hedren-alfred-hitchcock-sexually-assaulted-me.
Frenzy. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Universal, 1972.
La Bern, Arthur. “Hitchcock’s ‘Frenzy’, from Mr Arthur La Bern”. Letter, The Times, 29 May 1972. Reprinted at https://the.hitchcock.zone/wiki/The_Times_(29/May/1972)-_Letters_to_the_Editor:_Hitchcock%27s%22Frenzy%22.
The Lodger: A Story of London Fog. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Gainsborough, 1927.
Shutter Island. Directed by Martin Scorsese, Paramount, 2010.
Sullivan, Victoria. “Does ‘Frenzy’ Degrade Women?” The New York Times, 30 July 1972, p. D9, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/film/073072hitch-frenzy-comment.html.
Taxi Driver. Directed by Martin Scorsese, Columbia, 1976.
The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.