Monday, July 15, 2013

Finishing Hitchcock

Film: Frenzy; Rear Window
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library (Frenzy) and from personal collection (Rear Window) on laptop.

I made the executive decision to finish up the films of Alfred Hitchcock today, which meant that I’d be watching Frenzy. I’ve tried to watch Frenzy in the past and it just didn’t interest me at all. Nothing about this film made me want to continue. I got about 30 minutes in and just turned it off from lack of interest. Certainly it manages to trade on a lot of Hitchcock’s signature ideas, but the main character is singularly unappealing, and Hitchcock’s decision to play in the R-rated end of the swimming pool didn’t make his films better or more interesting; it just allowed him to roam his camera around a bit more. Knowing I had two Hitchcock’s left, I made the second executive decision to watch Frenzy first. Hitchcock deserves to leave The List on a high note.

Here’s what we get in Frenzy: London is being stalked by a man called the Necktie Murderer, who strangles women with a tie. We learn pretty early on that the identity of the killer is a man named Bob Rusk (Barry Foster). We also learn pretty quickly that Rusk is either incredibly lucky or that the police are amazingly incompetent, but that’s a rant for a little later (we’ll get there). In one way, Rusk is luckier than most criminals—he has a patsy who stumbles into the crosshairs for him. That patsy is Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), Rusk’s personal friend.

Blaney is a loser and not very likable. The film opens with him losing his job for stealing booze from his employer at a pub. Blaney claims that he always pays his tab, but he’s also unlikable enough that we can’t really be sure. He storms out of the pub, which is also his residence, leaving his girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey) behind. He cadges a free meal of his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) after a short argument. Brenda runs a matchmaking service, and it’s relatively successful.

And then all the coincidences start happening as the Necktie Murderer starts bumping off people in Blaney’s life, starting with his ex-wife and soon followed by poor Babs (thankfully off-screen). Circumstantial evidence begins to pile up, causing Blaney to be incarcerated, and then, idiotically, to escape and eventually help track down the real killer. I won’t say how this ends—one of the things Hitchcock really has going for him is that some of his films were content with a downbeat ending (Vertigo, anyone?).

There’s a lot of dark humor running through Frenzy, but not enough to call it a comedy. On the surface, it’s a decent thriller, but it shows its hand almost immediately—if you can’t see where it’s going, it’s because you’re not paying attention. In a short sequence, we see Rusk kill Brenda, then run away. This is immediately followed by Richard being seen leaving the scene of the crime—he had gone to visit his wife’s place of business. This sort of incriminating coincidence happens again and again to the point where it would appear that the forces of nature are conspiring against poor Richard Blaney. A lot of the humor comes in the character of Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) and his gustatory battles with his wife.

I mentioned earlier that Bob Rusk has the benefit of uncanny luck or completely incompetent police. Here’s what I mean—the man leaves his neckties at the scene of the crime. I realize that Frenzy was made in a world before DNA evidence, but it certainly wasn’t made in a world before fingerprints, and Rusk never wears gloves. Okay, fingerprints are difficult on cloth, but he leaves his prints everywhere else, too. He’s a sloppy killer. He has a job that puts him in front of a lot of people, and he frequently shows up without a tie…after a murder has been committed?

The Book claims that Rusk is the more likable of the two men, and this is really pushing things. I found neither very interesting or worth pulling for. Blaney is more or less a jerk with a chip on his shoulder. He’s angry all the time, not very bright, and generally a loser. Rusk, on the other hand, seems to fall into the idea of later Hitchcock villains in being almost ridiculously Freudian, a flaw he only really pulled off well in Psycho. In fact, The Book says that we feel a particular dread for Rusk when he realizes that one of his victims has nabbed his stickpin and he is forced to dig through a load of potatoes to retrieve it. Considering that the body being talked about in this case is poor Babs, he gets no sympathy from me. If you kill Anna Massey, you deserve to get caught.

The jump to an R rating didn’t noticeably improve Hitchcock’s work or make it more interesting. It merely allowed him to display a pair of panties and a bared breast or two as well as a brief flash of Anna Massey’s posterior. The biggest issue with Frenzy is that it’s not only not as interesting as Hitchcock’s other mistaken identity pictures, it’s far less interesting, opting for prurience instead of plot. In fact, it might be most noteworthy in that it doesn’t include one of Hitchcock’s trademark young, attractive blondes.

I knew I wanted to end Hitchcock’s 18-movie run on this blog (for now) on a high note, which is why I saved Rear Window for last. This is Hitchcock at his best, Hitch in his prime. Like all of his best films, Rear Window is cheeky and fun with just the right amount of menace to make things interesting right up to the end. Unlike Frenzy, our main character, L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries is played by James Stewart, which makes him instantly likable.

Jeff is a photographer, the kind who likes nothing more than being in the heart of the worst sort of hellholes and in the thick of the most exciting sort of action. As the film starts, he has one week left in a cast that covers his left leg from toes to midsection, leaving him wheelchair-bound. With nothing else to do and it being the hottest part of the summer, Jeff spends his day looking out his, well, rear window, observing the lives of the neighbors who live across the alleyway. He nicknames a number of them. There’s Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), who creates romantic dinners for two with no one visiting. There’s Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), a ballet dancer who exercises in front of her window and has frequent gentleman callers. There’s the boozy songwriter (Ross Bagdasarian), the newlywed couple (Rand Harper and Havis Davenport), and then there are the Thorwalds.

Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) tends to his garden outside and his shrewish, mainly bedridden wife Emma (Irene Winston). One late evening, during a rainstorm, Jeff notices that Lars Thorwald leaves his apartment with a large case. Strangely, he never sees Emma Thorwald again, and Jeff begins to get suspicious. When another member of the small community’s dog turns up dead and only Thorwald seems uninterested, Jeff decides that Thorwald has done away with his wife, a theory he offers to his friend, police detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey).

Jeff also manages to involve his nurse from the insurance company, Stella (the great Thelma Ritter), as well as his girlfriend and society maven Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). Slowly but surely, Hitchcock ratchets up the tension. More and more fingers start pointing at Thorwald and Thorwald becomes more and more suspicious of his Peeping Tom neighbor in the wheelchair across the courtyard.

This is Hitchcock at his best or damn near his best. All of the suspense works here, and it works mainly because of the situation. Jeff, stuck in a wheelchair, has nothing but time to work out the theories of the crime and hit upon the truth. However, it also leaves him nearly defenseless, making him a perfect potential victim for a man desperate to keep his crimes hidden. Like all good Hitchcock films, there is wonderful use of sound and atmosphere to help ramp up the tension in all the right moments.

Better still, Hitchcock doesn’t spend the entire running time solely concentrating on this mystery. We’re a good half hour in before anything remotely suspicious happens, and a good deal of that first hour is spent setting up both Jeff’s relationship to his neighbors and his relationships with Stella and Lisa. Stella thinks the two of them are perfect for marriage, and it’s evident soon in that Lisa thinks so, too, and that she plans on bringing her family’s considerable fortune to bear in making that happen. For his part, Jeff is convinced that Lisa wouldn’t survive in his lifestyle and that forcing her to travel to the same world hotspots that he frequents would be unfair to her, a conclusion that is almost certainly correct.

This is good Hitchcock, the sort where we root for the main character because we like him and we desperately hope that it’s one of his films that has a happy ending. We want that for Jeff, who seems like such a nice guy. Even his reasons for wanting to stay single are nice guy reasons. We’d like to see him marry Lisa because, well, she’s gorgeous and sweet and obviously loves him desperately.

It’s also a film loaded with style. The set—the apartments facing Jeff’s apartment are a magnificent showpiece. We learn the tenants of that building almost naturally, as if we lived in the building, too. We learn the rhythms of the place—the couple who sleep on the fire escape, the older woman who suntans in a bikini top. And most impressively, it all feels real. When the camera pans past an apartment, the people don’t start doing something—they’re doing something already and they keep doing it when we pan away.

Rear Window is the first of Alfred Hitchcock’s truly great films. He made plenty of good ones and a lot of very good ones, but Rear Window belongs in that class alongside Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho that truly show the hand of a master craftsman. There’s nothing here that doesn’t work.

Why to watch Frenzy: Hitchcock shoots for an R rating.
Why not to watch: It’s nowhere near top quality Hitchcock.

Why to watch Rear Window: Hitch’s first truly great film.
Why not to watch: There’s no good reason not to watch it.

6 comments:

  1. I agree on both of these. Frenzy seems to be in the book for no other reason than that Hitchcock got to show nudity, just like his first entry Blackmail is in the book for no other reason than that he got to use sound.

    With all apologies to North by Northwest, which I think is terrific and I know you love, Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock movie. Everything in it works for me and you touched on many of them. I'd also say that I've never seen Grace Kelly looking better than she does in this film, and that's saying something.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I understand why Blackmail is in the book--Hitchcock didn't just get to use sound, he was actually playing with the sound in his first film. As for Frenzy, if it were from any other director, no one would care that much about it.

      I have no problem with Rear Window being your favorite Hitckcock film--it's probably my second favorite, and it's not far behind. My love of North by Northwest comes in part from how much I love Cary Grant and the fact that I saw it first--it was either the first or second Hitchcock film I ever saw.

      As a side note, my brother-in-law doesn't love Rear Window because he's not a Grace Kelly fan--the same reason he doesn't like High Noon. Then again, he also doesn't like Spencer Tracy, so I don't pay that much attention to his views on film.

      Delete
  2. I barely remember Frenzy. What I do remember of it was a distinct sensation of "nothing special" and "oh okay, it's Hitchcock, therefore it's 'important.'"

    Rear Window on the other hand... perfect. I consider few films 'perfect,' but Rear Window? Perfect. Everything. Just. Works. Like Chip, this is my favorite Hitchcock (although depending on my mood, I might be tempted to pick Notorious) (and again, with all due reverence to NxNW). The set is phenomenal. I will add I've now seen Rear Window twice on the big screen, and it is a must. The level of detail that you can see when peering into the other tenants' apartments only amplifies the feeling of uneasy voyeurism.

    Miss Lonely Hearts breaks MY heart every time.

    Guh.

    No wonder you chose to save this for after Frenzy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had to. It just wouldn't be right to finish out the guy's career on such a mediocre note.

      I fully agree that Rear Window is perfect, or so close to perfect that it makes no difference. Like I replied to Chip, my love of North by Northwest comes in no small part because I saw it first.

      I didn't hit the voyeurism angle that hard, but it's definitely a huge part of the film. There's a level of guilt inflicted in the watcher that just adds to how everything else works.

      Delete
  3. There is nothing to disagree with concerning Rear Window. For me it does not come better than this. The style, the characters, the set and the suspense. But it was the cleverness that really struck me. How Hitch is playing with us. Are Jefferies on to a murderer or is he actually innocent and a victim of his crazy neighbours? I like that we see more than Jefferies, but we are actually just as limited and our idea of the truth might also be wrong. Awesome movie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. The story is a good one, but the entire reason that Rear Window works is because of our inability to leave the location and the limitations of what we're shown. Hitchcock uses a single location to his advantage instead of to his detriment.

      Delete