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:
“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.
'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!!!)