Sunday, May 6, 2007

"FRENZY" & THE MULTIVALENT PROTAGONIST

In his late masterpiece Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock constantly asks us to shift our sympathies and identify with a different character, and to re-evaluate our feelings about the characters we have already been sympathizing with. The true protagonist of this film is the phenomena of the Neck-Tie Murders themselves, not any one character.

It begins, in fact, with a monologue from a character never to be seen again, a politician talking about his bold new plan to clean up London’s waterways. When the dead body of a nude woman with a tie around her neck washes up in the middle of it, his speech is revealed to be a dark joke. We are next introduced to Dick Blaney (tying his tie rather stiffly in a mirror) who is shown to be a drunk, a possible thief, and a definite asshole. In contrast, his buddy Robert Rusk is shown to be a real nice guy, everybody’s “Uncle Bob.” Rusk tells the down-on-his-luck Blaney that he’d do anything he could to help him out; a policeman even asks Rusk for his help on the Neck-Tie case, to keep his ears to the ground, since he’s so “good with the birds.” It’s a rather obvious red herring set-up— but Hitch isn’t too worried about it. He sets up suspense in a completely different way: instead of the audience agonizing over what is going to happen, we agonize that it is going to happen.

We watch Blaney’s tribulations but don’t much care about him one way or the other as he screams at his ex-wife Brenda and is generally cruel to everyone around him. We may even at one point think he might be the murderer. The interesting thing is that Hitch so overplays his hand in making Blaney a heel and Rusk a real babyface that the opposite effect is achieved almost immediately. Rusk is nice to the point of smarmy, and when he yells down to Blaney on the street to say hello to his mother, then pulls her into the window to smile and wave, we can’t help but be a little creeped out. The mystery element is dropped just a few scenes later anyway, when Rusk walks into Brenda’s office using a fake name and clearly intending to cause some trouble.

In this truly brutal rape and murder scene—and the other one depicting the Neck-Tie Murderer in action—we are, of course, sympathizing with the victim, rooting against Rusk, the murderer. But soon Hitch places us in a position rather close to the ostensible villain of the piece. We watch him dispose of a body, then realize he has left a crucial piece of evidence in its grip, literally. This sets up a bravura sequence that takes place in the flatbed of a moving truck full of potato sacks. As Rusk digs through the particular sack he has dumped the body in, searching for that crucial piece of evidence, we may find ourselves hoping he finds it, tension mounting as the possibility he will be caught in the act grows.

Into this stew of Real McCoy and Red Herring, our sympathies darting back and forth between them, is thrown Chief Inspector Oxford. A neat trick is pulled here: for the first half of his arc, we are annoyed with Oxford. He smugly believes he has his case wrapped up in a neat bow, from his point of view Blaney is obviously the killer. But we know that for all of the evidence—which mounts up quickly and impressively—he is after the wrong man. It is only after Oxford catches Blaney (giving him a just cause for all of his righteous indignation), and he begins to suspect that he imprisoned the wrong man, that our sympathies begin to align with Oxford. We root for him as he races to right the wrong. Hitch crosscuts this sequence with Blaney breaking out of prison, us hoping he doesn’t succeed, since if Oxford has his way he’ll be out the next morning anyway.

As the viewer is dragged along through the case of the Neck-Tie Murders, her sympathies are not split, but wandering. A wrongly accused man who is really quite a jerk. A serial rape-and-murderer who would bend over backwards for you even as he kills your loved ones and sets you up for it. A police detective who serves justice only as often as its inverse. In the world of Frenzy, there are no good guys, only the cold logic of plot and suspense.

2 comments:

Gautam said...

Re-wactched this great film very recently and it is definitely one of my all-time Hitchcock favorites. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of this film (as with any other Hitchcock film, according to me) is the absence of big actors.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Any Hitchcock film that is, that doesn't star Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. FRENZY is perhaps my favorite Hitchcock movie, although VERTIGO is the one that blew me away as a kid and THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY is the most fun to watch.