Written by Ernest Lehman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
There are some who opt for Alfred Hitchcock’s British years as his finest, taking into account his earliest silent features through Jamaica Inn in 1939. On the other hand, many regard the peak years in America as the Master of Suspense’s finest era, with films from Rebecca in 1940 to Marnie in 1964. Both have valid points to make and there are unquestionably several great works during each phase of the filmmaker’s career. Few, however, would rank Hitchcock’s final four films among his best. In a way, this is unfair, their lowly stature no doubt due to the masterworks that preceded them; with the films Hitchcock made before, the bar was set unassailably high. Taken apart from the imposing excellence of these earlier classics, these concluding films are solid movies. Of course, in auteurist fashion, one can also heap excessive praise on these concluding lesser features that is perhaps only based on Hitchcock as Hitchcock, director of Vertigo, The Lodger, Rear Window, Psycho, and more. In other words, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot are worthwhile because Hitchcock made them, and that’s enough.
Wherever one falls in this assessment of Hitchcock’s career, Universal has made the home viewing and subsequent evaluation of his final films better than ever, with each now in remastered Blu-ray editions. Previously only available on the format as part of the impressive Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, Topaz and Torn Curtain saw their individual Blu-ray releases in November and October, respectively, and now Frenzy and Family Plot join the increasing list of Hitchcock titles presented as best they can for non-theatrical consumption. In addition to the enhanced audio and visual quality, each disc comes with a fairly standard yet nonetheless informative making-of documentary, each about 50 minutes in length. The Family Plot disc also highlights the storyboards for the hilltop chase, a sequence it tries to sell as comparable to the famously structured and brilliantly executed crop-duster scene from North by Northwest, which it isn’t.
Frenzy, which screenwriter Anthony Shaffer calls a “very London film,” was Hitchcock’s first time shooting in his native England since 1956, when he had directed portions of his The Man Who Know Too Much remake. It was also a return to the sort of murder-infused thriller he reveled in, getting away from the political intrigue sustaining the two films immediately prior. Made in 1972, for the first time Hitch was able to accentuate both the sex and violence that had indirectly — though significantly — marked many of his greatest films. Explicit nudity was prominent, as were more abhorrent scenes of brutality; it would be the only Hitchcock film to be rated R. With Jon Finch, Alec McCowen, Barry Foster, and Anna Massey among its stars, Frenzy is classic Hitchcock: serial killers and intricate murders, police investigations, a wrongly accused man, and pitch-black humor. Its location shooting is exceptional, particularly its depiction of the world revolving around the Covent Garden Market, a setting of personal relevance for Hitchcock, his father having been a greengrocer.
Back in America, Hitchcock’s final film, his 53rd, was a lighter affair. Family Plot kept the thrills, but added more self-conscious humor (capped by its delightful final shot), not necessarily the droll, dark comedy of Frenzy. Despite the presence of 1970s icons Karen Black and Barbara Harris, as well as Bruce Dern and William Devane, the film looks and feels old-fashioned. When you think that Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, Network, and Carrie were also released in 1976, Family Plot comes across as anachronistic. It works as an archetypal Hitchcock film, though, reminiscent of Hollywood classics in the past (Devane notes that Hitch gave him William Powell as a model for his character and there’s some enjoyable screwball comedy banter between Dern and Harris), but it seems out of its time, especially when compared to the modern audacity of Frenzy.
A notable contrast between the two is the use of setting. Perhaps because of Hitchcock’s keenness for being back in England, Frenzy is clearly a film shot in, and in many ways is about, a very specific location. While Pinewood Studios served as base for certain interiors, the exteriors express a palpable sense of a specific place. Hitchcock, and the film, thrives on this prominent use of background and local character. Conversely, Family Plot was intentionally presented as occurring in a nondescript location. Clearly northern California, the exteriors never call attention to their region as Frenzy does. Given Hitchcock’s reputation for interesting and elaborate international set pieces, this might be another reason Family Plot feels flat by comparison.
The documentary on Family Plot gives notable insight to its casting, fitting since its performers are a major highlight of the film. Dern relates that Al Pacino was the first choice for his character, but after a string of major successes, Pacino’s asking price was too high (given the poor green-screen projections, the budget on the film was clearly on the lower end of the Hitchcock scale). Devane also reveals the rather crass process whereby he was cast: he was the first choice but was unavailable; Roy Thinnes was given the role; Devane’s schedule opened up; 5 weeks into shooting, Thinnes was let go. Both documentaries also benefit from footage of Hitchcock directing. This type of behind-the-scenes on-set look is common with today’s films and filmmakers, but it’s relatively rare to see one of film history’s true masters in their creative process (even if, in the case of the aged Hitchcock here, he’s not doing a whole lot).
Frenzy and Family Plot, admittedly slight works in Hitchcock’s career, are nevertheless valuable entries in the filmmaker’s canon, with scenes, shots, and moments of unmistakably Hitchcockian bravura. For all of their faults, and make no mistake, there aren’t many, these are two quality films. Those acquainted with Hitchcock through only his certified masterpieces may be somewhat let down, but those who have seen beyond the essentials will certainly find something worthwhile. These latter movies are not on the level of his standards, so they’re not quite as good as one might expect, but they’re better than one might think.
— Jeremy Carr