Note: This is an analysis I had to write for a class of mine, and it discusses a very disturbing movie, Frenzy, which is rated R in the US. Just take this into consideration before you go reading my review, because that movie is messed up.
The Alfred Hitchcock film selected for review was Frenzy, released in 1972. This was the first Hitchcock-directed film to be given an R rating. It showcases very tense, uncomfortable scenes involving the rape and strangulation of women. Topics examined will include: the camera’s focal point, how the tightness of the frame correlated to intensity of action, and how the musical score contributed to the mood.
Frenzy begins with an opening shot of London from above; bold, sweeping music plays. This does not give away any of the horror that is to come, as the music is pleasant and bright. However, the camera zooms in to focus on a crowd by a polluted riverside: another murder in a series has happened, and a woman’s body is fished from the river. The movie goes on to tell the story of a man (Dick Blaney) who happens to have an incriminating past and who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, leaving him as the suspected murderer of several women. In reality, it is his friend (Bob Rusk) who is the “Necktie Murderer,” as it is called in the film. The audience sees, in gruesome detail, Dick’s ex-wife (Brenda Blaney) raped before being murdered, followed by Dick’s current girlfriend (Babs Milligan) receiving the same treatment. Dick ends up getting caught, sentenced to life in prison, then making a clever escape by drugging a guard. The police inspector has already at this point discerned that Dick is not the guilty one, but rather that Bob is. Both Dick and the inspector wind up at Bob’s apartment to find Bob gone but with another dead body in his bed, tell-tale necktie wound around the woman’s neck. The movie ends when Bob comes in and the three men stand around a bedroom staring at each other, each realizing what has occurred and what the others must know.
From the very beginning of the film, a deftness of hand was evident in the direction of the camera; many scenes were obviously thought out and cleverly arranged. For example, as previously stated, the movie begins with brassy music paired with a brilliant shot of London as if from a bird’s eye view. The city looks clean and bright; it is daytime and sunny. The camera is slowly descending over a river, music still playing triumphantly. When the camera reaches street level, one sees an official speaking to a crowd about clearing the water of “the waste products of [their] society.” This statement is incongruous with the setting because directly behind the crowd is a filthy riverbank with murky water. Minutes later, a naked woman is dragged ashore, facedown in the muck of the river. It seems intentional on Hitchcock’s part that the audience should observe these opposites–exultant music, pretty cityscape, and talk of urban progress, followed by filth and death–juxtaposed from the very start of the movie.
As in the first scenes of the movie, elsewhere Hitchcock seems to be blatantly directing the viewer’s attention so as to make a point or explain something. One example of this is right before Bob strangles Brenda, but after he has raped her. There is a close-up of Bob removing his tiepin and placing it into his lapel. There is no way for the viewer to avoid seeing Bob’s tie, since it is the entire focus of the shot. Brenda expresses what the audience must surely have realized by this point, after witnessing Bob commit rape, and that is that Bob is the murderer. She does this by exclaiming “My God, the tie!” right before Bob whips said tie around her neck and begins to choke her.
Another blatant direction of the audience’s focus occurs when Bob notices his tiepin is missing after having discarded Babs’s body. A scene shows him poking around in his drawer of women’s belongings, the camera all the while maintaining a frame that encloses Bob and a large portion of his apartment. Then the camera cuts to a tight frame including only Bob’s face, and the audience sees dawning realization sweep his features. Quick shots of what must have occurred earlier flash by, including a close shot of Babs’s face, Babs’s hand grabbing at Bob’s chest, Bob’s purple tie squeezing Babs’s neck, and an especially close shot of Babs squeezing around the tiepin.
Hitchcock gives little indications to the audience that Dick is the guilty party. One instance of this is when Dick leaves directly after a policeman shows up to discuss the latest necktie murder with Bob. Bob turns to introduce Dick to the policeman, but Dick has already left. This seems to indicate guilt on Dick’s part for having vacated the premises so soon after law enforcement arrived.
Another time that Hitchcock seems to be hinting at Dick’s guilt is at the beginning of the movie. One thing very clear in the scene of the murdered woman on the riverbank is the striped tie around her neck. The next scene the audience sees is one of Dick tying his striped tie in front of a mirror. It is as if Hitchcock wanted to imbue in the audience the same idea held by several characters in the film, that Dick is guilty. This is suggested by both his actions within the movie as well as the camera cut from one scene completely unrelated to the other, save by a near-identical murder weapon.
Often throughout the movie, the camera follows the movement of the key character in a scene. For example, when Dick meets Bob at the produce market, as Dick is walking and talking, the camera keeps up with him, maintaining a steady distance. In this way it emulates another person, and this is a technique repeatedly seen in the film. It is as if the camera represents a silent observer, one of whom not even the characters in the movie are aware, despite its close interaction with them. Another time this happens is in a bar when two older gentlemen are talking to one another, and they are seen from within the crowd in the pub, as if by some other patron nestled amongst the tables and chairs. This feeling is further suggested by the frame in this shot: the view is partially blocked by other people–closer to the camera and out of focus because of it–who are sitting between the camera and the gentlemen.
Yet another instance where the camera acts as a silent observer is when Babs and her boss, the barkeep, go behind the bar and the camera follows them, moving through the room smoothly to keep them in view. This type of camera movement occurs again when Bob and Babs go into Bob’s apartment. Initially the camera keeps pace with them as they go up the stairs, but then it halts on the stairs and rotates to keep Bob and Babs in view. This rotation is not unlike the turning of a person’s head as he or she watches something moving.
Sometimes the position of people in a series of shots seems to indicate their status in the movie. In one case, Dick is walking along the sidewalk, therefore at street level, when Bob calls to him from his second floor apartment. Bob, the real murderer, is placed above Dick, which correlates to how Bob is believed innocent by the law while Dick, stuck on the ground, is presumed guilty. Dick must look up to Bob in these shots, which goes along with how, later, Dick comes to Bob for help in hiding from the police, putting Bob in a position of more power than Dick.
The score is a big indicator of a scene’s mood. In one scene, Dick is upset about having not bet on a horse that won a race and, in frustration, he throws a clump of grapes to the ground and stomps on it. He curses and tense, angry music starts to play. Just when the music starts up, the camera cuts to a busy, traffic-clogged intersection. Another time the music indicates the mood is when Dick stays the night at a Salvation Army. He is in the middle of being robbed by the man in the next cot when he wakes up to catch the thief. Fast-paced, frenzied music plays and gets louder as the thief’s excuses fade to become inaudible.
However, a lack of music can be just as indicative of mood in this film, for when the most unsettling scenes of the movie are happening, there is no music whatsoever. When Brenda is attacked by Bob, the only sounds heard are the noises of Bob ripping Brenda’s clothing. When Brenda does speak, saying “Please, don’t tear my dress, I’ll take it off if you like,” it is in a very quiet, calm voice, as if she has removed herself from the situation. The main sound the audience hears then is Bob growling the word “lovely” over and over again. When Bob finally strangles Brenda, the only sounds audible are Brenda struggling and choking while Bob pants. With no music to distract the audience’s attention here, one focuses on the nauseating sounds of a person being strangled. It is made clear that it is not easy to strangle a person to death by the length of time it takes for Bob to do so, as well as his panting, which indicates the effort he put into it. This is a very uncomfortable scene because the audience is forced to endure seeing a strangulation for several long seconds, as well as endure the disgusting spectacle of Bob grunting and straining to kill Brenda.
In addition to the musical score or lack thereof, Hitchcock makes use of pregnant silences in at least two areas. The first is when Monica, Brenda’s secretary, enters the office directly after Brenda has been murdered and Dick has been seen leaving the building. The camera remains focused on the door after showing Monica go through it, then it simply waits. There is a long pause filled with no music, only street sounds. It is very clear what is going to happen shortly, and the audience does not get to skip the waiting but instead must sit in tense quiet, knowing what is to come but not when. Eventually, the audience’s patience is rewarded by Monica’s scream from inside the building, where she has just discovered Brenda’s corpse.
The second tense silence occurs when Bob leads Babs into his apartment and the camera remains outside on the stairs. Having already seen Bob murder Brenda earlier in the film, the audience knows just what to expect from this rendezvous. The hallway is dead silent; the camera pans slowly along the wall separating Bob’s apartment from the stairwell before it begins its backward descent down the stairs. It rotates to catch the window at the turn in the stairs, then continues going backward into the entryway of the building. The quiet is decreasing as the sounds of the street outside increase. The camera backs all the way out of the building and onto the sidewalk; a man carrying a sack of potatoes passes between the camera and the doorway. The camera does not stop backing up until it has the whole building in the frame.
At one point Hitchcock seemed to want the audience in the same position as Bob: when he is in the back of the potato truck, trying to retrieve his tiepin. The camera is also in the truck bed underneath the tarp, just like Bob, and the audience cannot discern what is happening in those scenes. There are glimpses of the tarp, of Bob’s face, and of the sacks of potatoes. Every frame is cluttered and at one point there is a shot of potatoes rolling everywhere, loose in the truck bed.
It seems one constant within Frenzy is that the level of intensity is indicated by the closeness of a shot. In scenes where the camera stays zoomed out to enclose a section of a room, or when it encloses as much of a person as that enclosed by one’s eye when in conversation with another, the action is mild or bearable. However, in scenes where the camera is zoomed in so much that the edges of the focal point (e.g. a person’s face) are cut off, the action is usually very uncomfortable to watch and the mood is tense. To accompany these tight shots is either jarring, sharp music or no music at all. Through these tight frames and contrasting audio, Hitchcock made a film with an already disturbing plot even more uncomfortable to watch. He did this in a clever way, however, lending an artistic merit to the film that might not otherwise have existed from plot alone.
Hitchcock, Alfred, dir. Frenzy. With Jon Finch, Barry Foster, and Alec McCowen. Universal, 1972.
Spoto, Donald. The Dark Side of Genius. Centennial Edition. New York: Da Capo, 1983, 1999.