Considered the last Hitchcock masterpiece and the director’s penultimate film, Frenzy is often described as being one of Hitchcock’s most visceral, disturbing films. However, this paper argues that the violent nature of the film is not the only aspect of the film that makes it so notable, but rather that it contains a message concerning the relation of power, ignorance, and the rise of moral destitution. By analyzing the differing relationships between several of the characters based on Michel Foucault’s theories of sexuality and power, this paper will reveal several key instances of ignorance that ultimately led to the demise of a character and the continued increase in power of the primary antagonist. This paper also argues for Hitchcock’s complete control over the audience and his own characters through the use of techniques such as dramatic irony and instances of choosing when to show violence and when to avoid confrontation. This paper argues that the theories applied to this film are the most appropriate when discussing this sexually charged and virulent film in a manner fitting with that of scholarly literature.
Created by Laurent Fiévet in 2007, the most prominent aspect of this piece is a large mound of potatoes stacked so that they partially obscure a television set. This television plays montage in which parts of the film Frenzy is played. These extracts are of Brenda Blaney being unable to escape an armchair from which she cannot escape.
Also in the exhibit is a swing that is positioned facing the screen. Visitors are invited to sit on it and even swing. However, should a visitor swing high enough – enough to be over the television set – the set switches scenes to a different montage. Extracts of pivotal and violent scenes from the film are presented and then introduced with a voice from the set with the word “lovely.” This is repeated multiple times, each time with different voice inflections to fit the scene. However, since these scenes are often visceral in nature, the voice tends to become increasingly aggressive.
By having the exhibit be interactive, Fiévet is essentially putting visitors into the role of Robert Rusk, the necktie killer. The potatoes are a reference to Babs and how her body ended up in the bed of a potato truck. By having them partially obscure the screen, the piece reminds the visitor of the way Babs was hidden by something so mundane as a potato and that Rusk (or rather, the visitor) is so detached so as to liken a human to nothing but a vegetable.
Indeed, the visitor is sure to be unnerved, but when one activates the second montage, the identification with Rusk is pushed further. The swing takes effort to get over the screen, simulating the effort required to rape and murder Brenda. In addition, when the visitor has reached the peak of the swing, he or she is now over Brenda, highly symbolic of the relationship that Rusk feels he has with women as a whole. This furthers the identification with Rusk and is designed to make the visitor feel uncomfortable and unsettled.
Similarly, Hitchcock loved to unnerve his viewers and play with the concept of voyeurism. In this piece, Fiévet has taken the opposite approach and does not allow the audience to be merely a spectator, but rather, a participant in the act.
Hitchcock has a bizarre fascination with the family dynamic that he presents. Rarely is the family the traditional happy, nuclear family that one might expect to see, but these families are also not so overtly dysfunctional. During the middle of his career, Hitchcock began to base his families on Freudian theory, something in which he was interested in exploring.
One film in which this bizarre dynamic is relatively overt is Strangers on a Train. The relationship between the primary antagonist, Bruno Anthony, and his mother is heavily implied to what Freud would describe as being Oedipal.
An Oedipal complex, as described by Freud, can be summarized as thus: When a boy is in development, he begins to have strong romantic feelings for his mother and sees his father as a competitor for his mother’s affections. This is supposed to fade as the child matures, However, those with Oedipal complexes do not grow out of this, causing them to desire their mothers for their whole lives.
In addition, this eventual removal of the Oedipal complex is supposed to enable the more masculine traits in young boys; the failure to remove the complex was thought to be the reason behind effeminate men and homosexuality, two concepts with which Hitchcock subtly characterizes Bruno,
While audiences at the time would have found this characterization shocking – perhaps perfectly fitting for a villain in their eyes – Hitchcock is well aware of these Freudian ideas and can, presumably, see the parallels to his own life (if one is to believe that Hitchcock is auteur movie-maker).
I feel it necessary to make a note here: The following interpretation is based on pure conjecture and is under the assumption that Freudian theory is correct in some way despite being largely discredited.
Hitchcock continued to have a strong, almost subservient relationship with his mother until her death and stated repeatedly that he held disdain for his father, two symptoms of continuous Oedipal complex. However, he was not effeminate or gay. Rather, and this only applies when taking Freud’s theories as truth, Hitchcock repressed any feelings of effeminacy.
As Robin Wood states, “It [patriarchy] requires ‘real men’ and ‘real women’ […]” The patriarchal structure of the times during Hitchcock’s life could have been a huge factor in his possible repression of any effeminate urges.
To combat this, Hitchcock portrays Bruno himself as the embodiment of feminine mama’s-boy. This can be seen as Hitchcock’s acting out, in a sense. Bruno quickly steals this show upon his entrance to the film and remains the most fascinating character. This could be conceived as commentary by Hitchcock on the nature of effeminate men and how truly interesting they are.
While some may interpret the making of the probably gay man the villain, it only reinforces the idea that Hitchcock, in some way, may be repressing feminine urges, as he instinctively would not want people to associate him with portraying a gay man as a hero, at least in the 1950s.
Contrasting light and dark is a heavily used technique across all forms of media, but Hitchcock had a special way of playing with the concepts in order to utilize them to their fullest potential while still creating vivifying scenes. Hitchcock played with shadows, his favorite being those splayed across the face of his characters.
More often than not, the shadows are designed to help the audience determine who is “good” or “bad,” to over-simplify. Characters deemed “good” are drenched in light and darkness does not touch them. However, those who have ill intention are often covered in shadows that cover most of their being.
Furthermore, Hitchcock will also use shadows, once more, especially those across faces to tell more about a character’s personality and intentions. For example, in the film The Lodger, the titular character, Lodger, is often portrayed in dark, uncertain conditions. By nature, one would characterize him as a shifty character, unable to be trusted and most likely the murderer.
Despite this initial characterization, Hitchcock completely subverts the audience’s expectations and shocks the audience with the fact that The Lodger is not the killer. That being said, is it really so surprising? An earlier scene tells all that one needs to know about The Lodger’s guilt.
By putting the symbol of a cross directly onto The Lodger’s face (with the aid of a conveniently placed window), Hitchcock reveals to his audience the innocence of the poor man long before the police ever catch up with the real killer.
This motif does not just apply to silent films. Hitchcock explored greater usage of this motif to express more complex ideas in his film Blackmail.
Infamous for his disdain for the police Hitchcock often portrayed them as bumbling and foolish. In Blackmail one of the primary characters is a love-struck cop torn between his sense of duty and his desire to protect the woman he loves. What ensues is a crisis of conscience as he internally conflicts with himself. This moral ambiguity is presented externally as well, in fact, it is in the introductory sequence.
The audience is immediately notified that the character presented, Frank, is not going to be your friendly neighborhood police officer. His internal struggle is foreshadowed and underscored by this type of motif constantly appearing in this fashion, with Frank almost never in direct light unless the setting demands it to be so.
Finally, Hitchcock can uses this motif to add a bit of humor to his films. Not everything has to be doom and gloom, so why not take such a serious, thought-provoking motif and let it do its job in a silly way?
Hitchcock utilized the symbolism of light and dark interplay ad nauseum, but he does it in such unique ways that reveal so much about the characters, yet are subtle in their own rights so that they cannot be immediately perceived by a casual viewing audience. It is this type of oxymoronic overt subtlety that I think helps define a Hitchcock motif. He is so obvious with the way he presents the scenes, that it becomes lost unless on is paying careful attention.