Friday, April 13, 2012

Analyzing the Efficacy of Graphic, Misogynistic Violence in Hitchcock’s Frenzy

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

Hitchcock’s 1972 film Frenzy—one of his last—is also one of the most graphically/misogynistically violent films composing his prolific filmography.  Thus, in watching the film, two related questions spring to mind: (1) why does Hitchcock display graphic violence in this film, when he refrained from doing so previously? and (2) what, if any, purpose does this type of violence serve in the film?  Within this essay, I’ll attempt a brief answer at (2).  It’s my contention that throughout the film, Hitchcock effectively uses graphic, misogynistic violence as a means to desensitize his audience, allowing it to view the film from a detached, objective standpoint, and thus freeing it to perceive the film’s omnipresent cynical, dark humor.  In arguing this overarching thesis, I’ll first argue why the film conveys an overall darkly humorous/ironic tone, before analyzing the function of some of the various graphically violent scenes in the context of this dark humor.

The most glaring evidence of the film’s overarching darkly humorous tone is the numerous overtly humorous moments in a film that’s about a deranged, serial, sex murderer.  The detective’s wife’s dinners function as the most obvious examples of these.  The repulsiveness of the dishes that are so elaborately prepared, that have such high-sounding French names in-itself is an example of irony.  The detective’s obvious displeasure upon seeing such meals—displeasure to which we’re privy, although his wife is not, due to his pretense of enjoyment—functions as a dramatic irony as the audience is compelled to wonder whether the wife will ever discover how displeasing her meals are.  And the cartoonish depiction of the detective’s wife is perhaps the scene’s most humorous aspect of all—floating airily, unaware of her disgusting meals and annoyingly shrill jabbering.  In fact, women are on the whole (with the exceptions of Brenda and Babs) represented cartoonishly .  They are too overdrawn to focus as sincere, identifiable characters in the film; rather, they are often objects of humor or pity.

The film may reasonably be seen as ultimately ironic.  Indeed, such irony presents itself in the film’s opening scene.  As the title credits appear onscreen, joyous music blares while the camera careens hither and thither over the sunlight-reflecting waters of Britain on a pleasant afternoon.  But this joyful opening is curiously muddied by the unexpected dark imagery of smoke billowing out of a passing ship.  The juxtaposition of the pleasant day and the joyful music against the black smoke conveys a curious, foreboding irony.  Moreover—and more obviously—the fact that a film centrally focusing around serial murder opens with grand, celebratory music is in-itself irony of the first order.  But even still, irony presents itself in the opening scene: as the public official discusses and declares his success in cleaning up the city’s waters, a naked, murdered girl floats to the shore.  Thus, in the first scene alone, the film is filled with irony.

In explaining Frenzy’s pervasive dark humor, I’ll finally turn to the conversation between the two older men at the bar in the early part of the film.  In this conversation, the men discuss this phenomenon of “the necktie murderer” and what it means for the city.  But contrary to a frightened hatred of the murderer—a ‘find him and get him’ mentality—they seem approving of his murderous deeds.  They say that all this frenzy about the murderer is good for the city, bringing tourists and money.  This disconnect between the audience’s likely expectation—that the citizens of London are frightened and hateful of the murderer—and the reality that these citizens are in fact thankful for the murderer creates heavily dark irony .  Thus having outlined the film’s pervasive darkly humorous tone, I’ll discuss below how Hitchcock effectively uses graphically misogynistic violence to further such.

Brenda’s rape and murder at the hands of Rusk is the most glaring instance of graphic/misogynistic violence in Frenzy, and indeed sets the tone for all following instances of graphic/misogynistic violence.  What’s most interesting about this scene, however, is that it ultimately compels the audience towards a feeling of detachment/desensitivity to the scene and its chief players, rather than identification with the victim and an ensuing personal hatred of the rapist/murderer .  Considering how this display of graphic violence contributes to the film’s tone of dark humor, it seems to me that in objectifying a situation of such intense emotion and victimization, Hitchcock therein creates another irony: such scenes, from a moralistic perspective, should be shown with the murderer obviously displayed despicably, so that the audience can properly identify with the subjective experience of the victim, condemning the murderer as an instance of evil that must be stopped; thus, there is an ironic disconnect between audience expectation and film reality.  The humorous effect of this scene might be seen from another angle: in order to laugh at something, one must be removed from it, able to view it as an object apart from oneself.  Thus, in showing such an emotionally fraught scene with such cold objectivity, Hitchcock objectifies it—thus allowing his audience to view it all as an object, including its murderer and victim.  And in displaying it and its parts as objects, Hitchcock thus allows his audience to find the humor/irony in it.

The recurring images of beaten, strangled women function along the lines of Brenda’s rape.  They are displayed unflatteringly and straightforwardly, devoid of horrifying affects.  One might say that they are displayed objectively, without any directorial tricks compelling the audience to identify with them.  Indeed, their attributes—all topless, bruised, wide-eyed, with the tongue protruding out from the mouth—only further this notion.  Their toplessness objectifies them as sex objects.  Their bruises and wide-eyes objectify them as objects of violence and lifelessness—a lifelessness that leaves them devoid of subjectively identifiable humanity.  And their wide-eyes and protruding tongues objectify them as objects of ridicule, as these looks are archetypal for stupidity/helplessness .  Thus, once again objectifying the victims of terrible crimes, Hitchcock allows his audience to view them with detachment, as objects of irony, pity, and/or humor.

Rusk’s potato scene is perhaps the best illustration of Hitchcock’s humorous use of graphic/misogynistic violence in Frenzy.  First, Rusk’s intense struggle with a corpse for a tiny pin is in-itself mildly humorous; one wouldn’t expect a dead person to put up such a fight.  Second, in filming this scene from Rusk’s perspective, the audience is compelled to seek out—as Rusk does—a resolution to his quandary.  In regaining his pin, Rusk is forced to break Babs’s dead fingers—each accompanied by a gruesome cracking noise.  The irony herein is that the audience identifies with a murderer—someone whom an ordinary person would be loath to identify with—and even wills that Babs’s dead fingers be so gruesomely broken so that Rusk may resolve his problem.

The last instance of graphic/misogynistic violence that I’ll analyze is Richard’s crowbar attack at the end of the film.  Although Richard (and the audience) is led to believe that he’s striking a sleeping Rusk, it turns out that he is beating an already-murdered woman in Rusk’s bed.  Again, here’s an example of irony in the disconnect between audience expectation and eventual film reality.  Moreover, the fact that Richard is soon caught by the detective beating a dead woman, when the very reason he escaped from prison was to avenge his wrongful conviction for murder, functions as an instance of irony, as well.  And despite the fact that Richard unknowingly beats this woman, his violence in the scene undermines his already thin credibility as the story’s hero; he’s shown to be violent and capable of murder just as Rusk is.  In thus undermining the sympathetic appeal of his film’s protagonist, Hitchcock further detaches his audience from any sort of subjective identification; once again, the audience is compelled to view the film through a coldly objective lens.  And only through such a lens may one perceive something as an object, or an object of humor.

Thus I have argued on behalf of Hitchcock’s effective use of graphic/misogynistic violence as a means to create irony and detach his audience, allowing it to view the film with a cold objectivity and thus perceive the film’s overarching cynical, darkly humorous tone.  But the question remains as to why Hitchcock wanted such dark humor in his film—what purpose does dark humor serve in this film, which has a plot centering around a serial sex murderer?  A possible answer might be gleaned from the above-mentioned conversation between the men at the bar.  As noted, they surprisingly claim that murder is good for the economic well-being of the city, because it appeals to people and attracts them as spectators.  Perhaps this conversation is meant to implicitly parallel how Hitchcock has made so much money off of films dealing with sex and murder.  Indeed, Frenzy followed a string of critical and commercial disappointments in Hitchcock’s career—films that dealt with topics other than murder.  Might Hitchcock have intended this film to function as an implicit critique of both the film industry and the public?  One can clearly see, when viewing the bar conversation from this lens, how the film would function as such.  Its dark humor and cold objectivity would undermine and parallel how the film industry has objectified murder in order to make money and satisfy its audience’s base drives.  Such is only one possible explanation.  A much deeper discussion on the topic must be untaken before solid conclusions can be reached.  But the central focus of my paper as expressed above is simply to provide a reasonable explanation of how the film’s graphic/misogynistic violence contributes to its overall tone of cynical, dark humor.

Works Cited

Allen, Jeanne T. "The Representation of Violence to Women: Hitchcock's ‘Frenzy’" University of California Press 38.3 (1985): 30-38. JSTOR. Web. 9 Mar. 2012.

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