Monday, December 14, 2015

Reconsidering Cinema Past (Part One)

I'm fascinated by the way in which the reputation of some films changes over time: there are those hailed as instant classics upon their release, which, with the passage of time lose their lustre and fall into disrepute, by contrast, there are those which were villified on release which are now held up as masterpieces.  Of course, these changes in a film's fortunes often have little to do with their actual quality and more with the changing whims of critics and developments in critical theory.  Often it is simply changes in public tastes and attitudes which put once popular films out of favour.  Over the weeken I watched a couple of movies which have suffered wildly oscillating reputations over the years.  The first of these was Hitchcock's penultimate film, 1972's Frenzy, a film which had a lukewarm critical reception on release and which, by the time I first saw it on TV in the early eighties, was being dismissed as 'an old man's suspenser', a tired rehashing of some of Hitchcock's favourite things.  More recently, it has enjoyed something of rehabilitation, currently being hailed as 'Hitchcock's last great movie'. 

Personally, I could never understand why Frenzy had such a poor reputation for so many years.  Sure, it isn't classic Hitchcock, but it is big improvement on jis previous two films, Topaz and Torn Curtain, far more obviously a Hitchcock movie than the flat and anonymous Topaz and far more suspenseful and coherent than Torn Curtain.  Frenzy has much to recommend it, not least the way in which it vividly captures the London of the early seventies, providing a fascinating view of covent Garden when it was still a functioning fruit and veg market for wholesalers.  It is the operations of the market which provide a background to the film's action and Hitchcock captures it in all of its colourful glory, bustling with life, its pubs full of colourful characters and snatched fragments of intriguing conversations.  But the film's greatest strength lies in its portrayal of its villain.  In Barry Foster's Bob Rusk, Hitchcock presents us with one of the most realistic cinematic serial killers up to that time.  Unlike Norman Bates, Bob doesn't have conversations with the embalmed corpse of his mother, or rwitch nervously when around women.  He has no esoteric hobbies like taxidermy.  Bob Rusk is entirely ordinary, a market trader, one of the lads, a regular in his local pub, known by everyone, viewed as a friend by most.  There is none of the quirkness or flamboyance which characterises most other cinematic psychopaths.  Bob only betrays his underlying psychopathy in his casual callousness - he reacts without displaying any empathy or grief when hearing of the murder of a woman he knows, for instance - and, of course, through the fact that he rapes and murders women, strangling them with his neck tie. 

It was perhaps this all too realistic a portrayal of a serial killer which put off critics in 1972, who were maybe expecting something more along the lines of Hitchcock's ostensibly similr, but quite stylised, Psycho from twelve years earlier.   But in Frenzy he adopted the more 'realistic' approach of his more recent movies.  Certainly, the murders we witness are realistic - being both protracted and ugly.  The utter callousness shown by Bob in his disposal of the body of a sympathetic barmaid that the audience has grown to know and like is still quite shocking - her naked body (other than the necktie still tied around her throat) is concealed in a sack of potatos and uncremoniously bundled into the back of a lorry heading for the North of England.  His coolness whilst disposing of the body (and, indeed, his general air bonohomie when interacting socially) contrasts disturbingly with the psycho-sexual frenzy he has earlier demonstrated whilst raping and murdering another victim.  All of this must have seemed very un-Hitchcock like to viewers back in 1972.  Another problem might well have been the lack of a truly sympathetic protagonist - Jon Finch's Blaney, who loses both his ex-wife and girlfriend to his supposed riend Bob, (who also frames him for the murders), is a maladjusted ex-serviceman, prone to violent outbursts and suffering from what we'd now call 'anger management' problems.  But that's the point: if he was a regular nice guy hero, the police would never believe him of being capable of raping and murdering numerous women, just as they don't suspect 'regular guy' Bob.

Arthur LeBern, author of the movie's source novel, reportedly hated the adaptation, disliking numerous changes which included updating the action from the 1950s to the the present day, making the main character less sympathetic and the 'comic relief' sequences involving Alec McCowan's Chief Inspector Oxford and his wife's attempts at French cooking.  But these alterations ultimately work well in the context of the film.  The scenes with Oxford and his wife work surprisingly well and provide a much needed contrast between Bob's murderous misogyny (and Blaney's angry outbursts at his ex-wife) and a 'normal' relationship, which doesn't involve rape or violence.  All-in-all, Frenzy isn't at all a bad film, arguably, its main 'problem' was to be ahead of its time for its more realistic portrayal (by the standards of mainstream cinema, at least) of psychopathy and sex crimes.   It's a pity that it took so long for mainstream critics to reappraise it.



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