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Frenzy, Psycho, Fun and "The Boo! Factor"


SPOILERS for Frenzy and Psycho:

I discovered this mini-review from Vincent Canby of the New York Times from a 1972 column called "From Must See to Must Miss"

His first "Must See" movie is "Frenzy", thus:

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“Frenzy” — Alfred Hitchcock's 10,000th movie, one of his—as well as one of this year's—best, has to do with a cheerful chap who goes about London raping women and then strangling them with neckties, which he always leaves at the scenes of the crimes. The mystery is not who is doing what but whether or not the chief suspect, a moody, hot‐tempered ex‐RAF ace (Jon Finch), will be able to prove his innocence. It's funny, unsentimental, beautifully acted (especially by Anna Massey, Alec McCowen and Vivien Merchant) and full of enough things technical and psychological to keep Hitchcock buffs busy for years sifting out the great themes from the minutiae. It's also immense fun.

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'It's also immense fun."

Hmmm. Frenzy? The protracted menacing, raping, and strangling of a woman is "immense fun"? By my count, this mini-review is the third rave that Canby wrote for Frenzy in 1972(it got a rave initial review, and then a rave retrospective follow up, and now this) , and he did take heat from a feminist columnist for using phrases in another review of Frenzy that "things that would be trite or meaningless, like rape are otherwise interesting with Hitchcock at the wheel."

It was splendiferous as a young Hitchcock fan to live through the "Hitchcock comeback" of Frenzy in the summer of 1972, and surely the New York Times was a great place to have that comeback heralded. But Vincent Canby sure did seem to be a bit off course about Frenzy. Or was he? I think in one of the other reviews he found it a movie that was like "riding a roller coaster in the dark, never sure what dip is coming next." I suppose the extent to which narrative dips arrive -- Rusk, not Blaney, is the killer(revealed early), Rusk suddenly behind Babs(Got a place to stay?), Babs the heroine killed to end the second act, Blaney seeking help from Rusk and Rusk framing him; the wrong body in Rusk's bed and the subsequent arrivals of Oxford and then Rusk... Frenzy DID have its share of dips and curves and surprises.

But ...fun? Well, I recall this remark in Richard Schickel's Life magazine rave: "It demonstrates how well a master entertainer can entertain." I suppose to find Frenzy "entertaining" is a bit closer to the mark than finding it "fun." The combination of narrative plot twists( referenced above) and all manner of cinematic style(how the sound goes down and the camera goes from blur to crystal on Rusk's "Got a place to stay?" line, for instance) IS entertaining. To the Hitchcock fan especially -- nifty how he did that.

The Newsweek "ultra rave" of Frenzy("His decline fooled us...Frenzy is one of his very best") returned to the rape murder scene to tell us how Hitchcock in the scene "tied us directly in to the excitement of his movie" and I suppose there is some truth there. We are IN that scene, it feels very real and very horrible, there is no sense of "action!" and "cut!" to it.

The truth of the matter is that the rape-murder scene in Frenzy is, actually , fairly non-graphic and very stylish. We have Brenda's recitation of a Bible prayer as Rusk moans "lovely, lovely"...we only get their faces, no real views of their bodies. Hitchcock gives us a glimpse of flesh to show us he can use his "R" rating but the emphasis is on humanity(in the playing) and art(in the prayer/lovely combination.) And as a matter of the Hitchcockian frisson, the moment with the ultra-close up of Rusk's hand moving his tiepin from his tie to his lapel -- complete with an exaggerated "plucking" sound on the soundtrack is the "psycho's announcement of his identity and his power": the moving of the tiepin is the cue to remove the tie and kill with it, and Brenda GETS that: "My God, the tie!"

Hey, maybe that IS fun. Or entertaining. At least, stylish. And very, very Hitchcock.

Brenda is strangled almost as long as Marion is stabbed in Psycho, but the big difference this time is: no music. It converts Brenda's strangling into something banal, realistic, TOO real. Marion's stabbing gets all that Herrmann screeching -- and thus all that audience screaming -- and thus, even though Marion's murder is no less horrific than Brenda's, it IS fun. Because screaming is fun.

I call it the "Boo!" factor, and Psycho has it five times: Mother pulls the shower curtain back(BOO!); Mother runs out of her room at Arbogast(the biggest BOO! in the movie), Norman appears behind Sam in the motel door("You looking for me?" BOO!) Lila sees her reflection in the mirror in Mother's bedroom(BOO!) and then Mother's skull face followed by Norman in MOther drag in the fruit cellar (BOO!....no, wait, BOO!!!)





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I expect at some time in the preparation of Frenzy, Hitchcock realized he would not have another "Psycho" on his hands; it wasn't going to be a movie that generated "Boo!" screams, and besides, moviegoers had seen a LOT of violence since Psycho -- Castle's Homicidal and Strait Jacket, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch. Hitchcock therefore elected, with Frenzy, to go for gripping suspense(both in the killings and in the "wrong man" plot), plenty of style(the killer isn't the Necktie Killer in the book), a fair amount of counterpoint comedy(the Oxford dinners, the potato truck scene).

What Psycho and Frenzy share most to me, though, is a psycho. Its always amazed me that it took Hitchcock 12 whole years to do another psycho movie(and then only this one), but if Frenzy is the best Hitchcock movie made chronologically after Psycho(and I think it is), then studying a psycho is a reason why. In fact, as a matter of style AND theme, having one major murder take place in a motel room shower at night in the middle of nowhere, is almost matched by having another major murder take place in broad daylight in an office near hundreds of people. Whether alone and isolated , or alone and surrounded...when a psycho decides to kill you(for no apparent reason)....you're through. And that fact that "outwardly normal" human beings can harbor within them insane murderous urges remains the chilling horror of human times (from the death camps of the Nazis to the mass killings of this week's school/church/bar shooter.)

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And both Psycho and Frenzy make the point that REAL psychos(unlike the silent stalking monsters that are Michael Myers and Jason) can be appealing, good-looking, conversational people(men, for the most part.) Part of what really bothers me about Psycho and Frenzy is the fact that, if they weren't psycho killers, I think I would really enjoy hanging out for a nice philosophical chat in his parlor with pleasant Norman Bates or a good pub beer with cheery Bob Rusk.

Why I suppose it would be...fun.

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