What better place to watch a psychological Alfred Hitchcock thriller than outdoors in the park? Join us for the next installment of the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival presented by Bank of America. Grab a blanket, buy your picnic from the Hester Street Fair at the park, and prepare to be spooked.
Published: May 23, 1972
The very first scene of Alfred Hitchcock's new film immediately makes one feel at home. This is Hitchcock, and this is Hitchcock's London, where people say things like " 'Ere, that there necktie killer isn't half leading the police a dance" while they watch a body being dragged from the Thames as an untimely illustration to a ministerial discourse on the happy freedom of our river from pollution. It is not, you may gather, quite the London we live in today, but where is the harm in that? After all, the world of Sabotage and The Man Who Knew Too Much was a far nicer, more settled background to nasty happenings, and the lightning altemaition of mild and bitter has always been one of Hitchcock's trump cards.
He has rarely done anything nastier on the screen than the first murder which breaks into the idyllic London summer. (So nasty indeed, that apparently our censors have excised a few details.) Until we got to that point, Anthony Shaffer's script had been making heavy weather of some rather simple exposition, setting up the prime suspect "necktie killer" (Jon Finch) and the real culprit (Barry Foster), his best friend. But once on to the slow strangulation, the dilated eyes, the hand clutching in rain for the telephone, Hitch-cock is home and dry. The sequence is a model, shot silent and indeed very much like a silent film (nudity apart, it could come out of Blackmail, and it really gets the film going with a bang.
Particularly since it is immediately followed by a classic piece of Hitchcock effrontery when he holds the camera still on the entrance to the building where the murder has taken place as the suspect leaves, the victim's secretary arrives, and then -- long, long pause, just to see how long the audience can be held breathless waiting for that inevitable scream to rend the air. These are perhaps obvious Hitchcock tricks; but if they are so obvious, why has no one else ever managed to do them so well? and not for want of triers, either.
But the best of the film is still to come, it is possible to guess what exactly about the subject tempted Hitchcock to it. First, surely, the marvellous sequence, obligatory for any Hitchcock authology, in which the murderer, having put his latest victim in a sack of potatoes on a lorry in Covent Garden, realizes that she has about her the vital clue, an initial pin, and has to recover it while the lorry rumbles and sways along the Great North Road. The toes peeping delicately out from among the potatoes, the frantic scrabbles about the naked corpse, the ultimate crunching break of rigid fingers, one by one, and the splendid throwaway coda, with corpse and vegetables tumbled out casually under the wheels of a following police car, are the sort of things only a master can get away with, making us laugh and cringe at the the same time.
Second of the temptations, presumably, for Hitchcock the gourmet, were the scenes between the inspector in charge of the case (Alec McCowen) and his wife (Vivien Merchant) as she tries out her lessons in gourmet cookery on her unfortunate husband, who would rather have sausages and mash, and is instead confronted with dead, fishy eyes and bread-sticks that crunch just like dead fingers as they break... Here Shaffer's script is at its best; elsewhere it achieves a serious period quality which would be worrying if it did not fit in with the tone of the film as a whole -- it somehow seems right that these characters, even if they pretend to live in the 1970s, should talk like regulars of Patrick Hamilton's Midnight Bell.
I have not mentioned, though, one of the most astonishing moments in the film -- indeed, in any Hitchcock film -- and that, like the murder and the potato-sack sequence, achieved with no dialogue at all. Everything is set up for the murder of an innocent, good-hearted barmain (Anna Massey). We see her fall into the trap of the murderer's kindness, and go home with him. We are probably expecting another virtuoso killing. But instead the camera moves back from the entrance hall they have just left, and dollies very, very slowly away across the road, and across the market. As it does so the sounds of London, so far suppressed, come floating back, until finally sounds and picture fade. The effect is beautiful, poetic (yes, Hitchcock can be a poet when he wishes) and terrifying. A great director again making a film worthy of his great talents; the magic remains intact.