‘Are you deaf? I distinctly said a large brandy, there’s scarcely enough in that to cover the bottom. Actually, you can make it a triple.’ (Jon Finch gives a barman a hard time in Frenzy.)
August 2020. The tedium of London on a Sunday has a sort of time-warped quality, as if we are transported back to Tony Hancock’s room in East Cheam circa 1958. Many of us are bored to distraction, resorting to the Netflix menu, unwatched DVD boxed sets, VHS tapes, wax cylinders, etc.. This weekend your correspondent watched a double bill of London-set thrillers: Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, wherein Woody tries and fails to essay a working-class melodrama with a Mike Leigh cast, and Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film: Frenzy. This last is a solid fifty years old now and is interesting as Hitchcock’s homage to the London of his youth; Hitch was the son of a wholesale greengrocer and the action of the film centres on Covent Garden’s fruit and veg market, then in its final years of operation. Frenzy also offers a very troubling insight into the great director’s id.
The film opens with a nostalgic helicopter shot of London from the river, the camera passing under Tower Bridge to the sounds of Ron Goodwin’s travelogue-style theme music. (Ron Goodwin was chosen after Henry Mancini’s score had been scrapped by Hitch, Goodwin supposedly getting the nod because Hitch liked his music for the Peter Sellers sketch Balham: Gateway to the South). Frenzy was based on the novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern, which was inspired by the ‘Jack the Stripper’ murders of the 1960s. Hitchcock’s treatment of the subject is a queasy admixture of anachronistic Britishness and up-to- date sexual violence, the permissive climate of early ’70s cinema allowing him to indulge his obsessions to an upsetting degree. The film’s anti-hero is Blaney, a surly ex-RAF officer down on his luck, played by Jon Finch. Finch had just played Macbeth for Polanski and he is very good at projecting the uncontrolled resentment of Blaney: divorced, homeless, jobless, he reeks of booze and rage, at one point crushing a brandy balloon in his hand. But Blaney isn’t the killer: he has the misfortune of being another of Hitchcock’s ‘wrong men’, as the real murderer is a greengrocer in a double-breasted suit, played with jaunty menace by Barry Foster. (Hitch’s first choice was Michael Caine, but he thought the project was revolting.)
A fair bit of the action takes place in well-known Covent Garden pubs, although the interiors are Pinewood sets. There is The Globe on Bow Street, where Blaney and his girlfriend Anna Massey work behind the bar; but the start of the film sees Blaney sacked by landlord Bernard Cribbins for drinking the pub’s stock. Later on, Blaney drinks in Nell of Old Drury on Catherine St.. Blaney is in the Nell when a lawyer and a doctor from the courts discuss the latest killing with the barmaid: ‘We were just talking about the ‘tie murderer’ Maisie, you’d better watch out!’ and cheerfully note that the killings are good for the tourist trade. This kind of banter could have come out of one of Hitch’s pre-War British films (the screenplay is by Anthony Shaffer and is not one of his best); but if the dialogue is dated, the film’s sadism is very ‘70s. It is hard to stomach the repugnant scene that graphically depicts the rape and murder of Barbara Leigh Hunt’s character. It took three gruelling days to shoot and although both principals are brilliant the result is indefensible. Ms Hunt joined the select band of tortured Hitchcock women, but none of her illustrious predecessors (not even Janet Leigh) were ever shown in such a disgusting ‘post-mortem’ close-up. For his part, Barry Foster was forever after plagued by drunks accosting him with shouts of ‘Lovely! Lovely!’
However, the film does contain a first-rate slice of Hitchcock ‘cake’: this is the masterly sequence that foreshadows the fate of Anna Massey at the hands of Barry Foster. We’ve already seen what happened to Barbara Leigh Hunt, so we know that Anna shouldn’t be hanging out with the natty grocer, but there she is going back to his place. (The address is no. 3 Henrietta St., above the premises of Duckworth’s the publisher: I wonder what the firm thought about that?) This time Hitchcock doesn’t show the murder; instead, the scene ends with a famous bit of cinematic invention, as Hitch’s camera retreats downstairs after following Foster and Massey into the upstairs flat, finally moving into the bustling street, where life carries on regardless. An assistant in a bookshop in Stoke Newington recently told me that he was the extra carrying the sack of potatoes who walks past the doorway, his entrance covering the cut between the interior – studio – take and the exterior sequence. He was quite proud of this fact, although the sack he carries completely hides his face.
That one scene aside, I’m not sure that Frenzy really does much for Hitchcock’s reputation, beyond offering irrefutable proof of his own pathology. But it is fascinating as a kind of lament for a way of life that was disappearing: its Covent Garden seems almost as remote as that of Hogarth’s time. It’s also a reminder of how good Barry Foster and Jon Finch could be. The latter, in particular, now seems like one of British cinema’s lost talents. What happened? He appeared in some of the most important films of the era but he seems to have turned down a lot of promising offers. Ill-health forced him to withdraw from Alien, replaced at 24-hours’ notice by John Hurt, cinema history made without him. If he hadn’t been invalided out of that illustrious project his star would surely have risen again. Instead, he drifted into obscure European productions, was sighted here and there in unusual places (e.g. playing the titular role in Ken Hill’s entertaining version of The Invisible Man at Stratford East), before dying in a flat in Hastings at the age of 70.
NB: Miles Richardson has offered some of his own memories of Jon Finch in the comments section.