Dredging the Thames for Primal Urges: the latter Hitchcock

I’ve been watching some of Alfred Hitchcock’s later films. Some of them play upon Cold War hysteria: Topaz (1969), about the entanglements of a French diplomat and a Cuban widow of the Revolution/ pro-Western spy leader in the months leading up to the Cuban missile crisis; and Torn Curtain (1966), about an American double-agent who defects to East Berlin to work on a project, cancelled by his own government, to build a defensive weapon so comprehensive that it would end the possibility of nuclear war.

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Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), professional matchmaker and ex-wife of the main suspect. Frenzy, 1972.

As someone who didn’t live through the Cold War, and with the benefit of perfect hindsight knowing that the wall would come down just a few product waves later, I found my horror somewhat impeded. Not to say anything against Hitchcock- he’s brilliant, and it is precisely because he is so good at pulling us in that I began to feel the ominous gravity of the situations portrayed.

I had to stop and take a moment to remind myself that, for the original audience, something was at stake here: Churchill’s words about an iron curtain still clanged in their ears, and they lived under what they were encouraged to believe was the imminent threat of nuclear destruction. Beyond the bulwark of NATO was a gaping abyss that was quickly swallowing up the rest of the world, filled with slack-jawed zombies who knew not the bliss of bombing down a highway in a boat of a car, hair blasted back, fast-food wrappers billowing across the embankment in one’s wake. Freedom like this could be blotted from the earth for good, and it would be gruel, barren streets, and concrete apartment blocks to the horizon for us all. And our fate hung, teetering, on the latest breakthrough by a physicist, or a few soft words exchanged by nameless figures in a smoke-filled room.

Louis CK talks about his trip to the Soviet Union just after the Wall fell:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRbeihB7c8w

 

Frenzy (1972) marks a return to Alfred Hitchcock’s home turf, both geographically and thematically: a psychopath is loose in London, and he has a penchant for delicate women. He’s called the Necktie Murderer. 1970s London, temporarily abandoned by luminous lucre like all major cities during an interval of suburbanization, looks appropriately sordid, a metro of close, malodorous exchange: grounded, smoky, sooty, embodied. Grocery clerks preside over heaps of vegetables in Covent Garden Market , cutpurses dodge bobbies, petty criminals brush by one another through alleys moist with the bated breath of the expiring British working class. An environment that Jack the Ripper would find most accommodating, I daresay.

We also get a glimpse of the New London, of brutalism, of the mobility of capital, of Le Corbusier’s soaring towers of steel and glass, sterile and functional, above the fray, when the main character and main suspect in the murders, roustabout bachelor Richard Blaney, goes on the lam in the company of his girlfriend barmaid Babs Milligan and pops off to the posh apartment of an old friend in the import-export business.

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Babs Milligan and her lover, Richard Blaney, on the run from the law. Frenzy, 1972.

Yes, it’s a tangled web or ball, rather a Gordian knot (or maybe a Windsor knot?) that Hitchcock has tied in this tale of necktie murders, that cuts across borders of class and conscience in the fractured mirror of a city between times and on the brink of massive transformation. But the more things change, the more they stay the same, some say. Perhaps we can chalk it all up to our endless human fascination with a few primal urges, and their power to upend our polite conventions.

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