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now at the Sack 57

By Michael Sragow

ALFRED HITHCOCK'S Frenzy has arrived in Boston well-ballyhooed with the raves it garnered when shown out of competition at Cannes, having already received scads of free publicity as the director's first England-based film in twenty years.

That the rotund Briton's career should attract such widespread interest reveals our own starvation these days for good clean harmless thrills. (Murder is made actually disgusting in Frenzy in only one shot, that of a strangled rape victim, expired, with eyes bulging and her tongue hanging out). Ignore all those metaphysically-minded Frenchmen who treat even the man's stinkers with respect, and forget the cultists who enshrine his purely technical skills and elevate them to levels of high art. Hitchcock is a popular craftsman, and what matters to him are the tricks which make audiences respond with pleasure. Judged appropriately, by the box-office tallies, Frenzy may be the first film of any worth made by Hitchcock since Psycho.

HITCHCOCK doesn't work with the aspirations of an artist, and I think any of his real achievements may be racked up as happy accidents. There is a thin line in entertainment between sensual indulgence and out-and-out voyeurism; an artist transcends these categories by the necessities of his statement or his vision, but the showman has to rely on his taste, and when Hitchcock has consciously worked on the level of a thrill-show con-man--as in The Birds--he's been at his worst.

But in Hitchcock's best films, he sincerely sees the world as peopled with fearful venal masses and one or two innocent individuals who manage to rise above their values and are beaten down for it; because of the accuracy of troubled social backgrounds the audience is engaged sympathetically. The wronged heroes of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and now Frenzy are trapped by histories of international war and British impotence. The first two innocents were caught up in pre-World War II subterfuge; Dick Blainey of Frenzy is a ripe Jimmy Porter figure, an RAF squadron leader (when could he have flown--during Suez?) unable to rise successfully on the rungs of the Welfare State.

Hitchcock doesn't develop the character far enough to necessitate analysis, but it is the validity of his characters' concerns, and not some mysterious cinematic sense, that first arouses our attention. In Psycho, the treatment of such topics as transvestitism and necrophilia were at the same time so clinical in content and so horrific in presentation as to make voyeurs of us all. In Frenzy, the thrills aren't everything: they are part of a context which breeds frustration and then violence.

THOUGH HITCHCOCK'S abilities to manipulate plot coincidence and filmic shock properties are vaunted, the best moments of the film occur from ironies constructed by screen-writer Anthony Schaffer (missing from Arthur LaBern's original novel) and from Hitchcock's consequent need to define his characters for us. Though it's true that Frenzy isn't really "about" anything (except, as with most suspense films, man against the modern world), all the main characters illustrate the notion that violent streaks and clandestine desires are natural and sometimes even make sense. The Scotland Yard inspector who sneaks his meat and eggs (to relax from his wife's humorously perverse French cooking) understands the embittered flyman who can so rage while talking to an unapproving ex-wife that he breaks a wine glass in his hand and does not feel the pain.

In today's brutalized film world, where the line between violent emotion and pathological violence is rarely drawn, Hitchcock's care to make it clear is refreshing. The best (and most virtuosic) shot in the film deals with that distinction: the "necktie murderer" who rapes, then strangles his victims, brings the hero's mistress to his room after already killing the man's wife. We travel with the pair to the door, but don't enter with them; Hitchcock dollies down the outside corridor, down the stairs and out to the street. Outside the bustle of the Picadilly marketplace continues, but our attention focuses on the rose-lined corridors of the flat where the nice young fruit salesman who lives with Mom is probably murdering the latest of many young brides. (The shot is a copy of one in Psycho--but there the only purpose was to hide the killer's true identity).

The acting is generally good. Jon Finch is strong and appropriately frenzied as the hero (who was a limping, balding, middle-aged fellow in the book); in a character created almost entirely by Schaffer, Alec McCowen scores as the civilized inspector who can't restrain his appetite.

On the final count, Frenzy is intelligent entertainment, well-written, well served-up and more humane than most. And we've had precious little even of that lately.

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