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Frenzy$

Ian Cooper

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781911325369

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: February 2021

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781911325369.001.0001

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The Starter

The Starter

Chapter:
(p.11) The Starter
Source:
Frenzy
Author(s):

Ian Cooper

Publisher:
Liverpool University Press
DOI:10.3828/liverpool/9781911325369.003.0002

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents a synopsis and overview of Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972), which is perhaps his most nakedly autobiographical film. The director wanted to make a film told from the point of view of a psycho killer. Hitchcock's fascination with murder is well-documented but he had a distinct preference for a certain kind of English murder. He certainly seems to have had little time for the savagery of American murderers, possibly due to the fact that they lack that all-important veneer of respectability. Hitchcock's preferred killers were unassuming ‘little men’ whose carefully cultivated aura of normality masked a murderous dark side. Thus, he was particularly drawn to an unholy trinity of genteel, polite yet brutal killers, John Reginald Halliday Christie, John George Haigh, and Neville Heath. Hitchcock would go on to consider a number of writers for his cherished serial killer project. The chapter also looks at Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969). It also considers his interest in Arthur La Bern's novel about a sex killer, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, which was published in 1966 and forwarded to the director by his UK agent.

Keywords:   Alfred Hitchcock, Frenzy, autobiographical film, psycho killer, English murder, serial killers, John Reginald Halliday Christie, John George Haigh, Neville Heath, Arthur La Bern

Film Synopsis

Dick Blaney (Jon Finch) is an ex-RAF man turned self-loathing failed barman who drinks too much and has a violent temper. He is employed at the Globe pub in Covent Garden, London, but is sacked after being caught breakfasting on brandy which he hadn’t paid for. He visits his old friend Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), a popular greengrocer who works at the market and has a flat nearby. Blaney doesn’t know that Rusk is also the serial killer known as The Necktie Strangler. Rusk is a client of the marriage bureau run by Blaney’s ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), although Rusk is not looking for love but rather for masochistic women. He rapes and kills Brenda in her office. Blaney becomes a suspect in the murder and goes on the run with his ex-colleague and girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey). They take refuge with Johnny (Clive Swift), an old friend of Blaney, although Johnny’s wife, Hetty (Billie Whitelaw) has her suspicions about his guilt. Babs leaves and goes to work only to end up quitting her job before being lured to Bob’s flat where he kills her. After Rusk dumps her body in a potato truck, he discovers she had taken his monogrammed tie-pin, so he goes to retrieve it, only to end up being driven out of London by the unsuspecting truck driver. However, he manages to make a successful getaway. When Hetty and Johnny find out that Babs has been murdered, they suggest that Blaney leaves and he ends up going to Rusk for help. Rusk frames Blaney for the crimes and he is convicted. The detective in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) has doubts about Blaney’s guilt and starts to suspect Rusk. Blaney escapes from the prison hospital and goes to Rusk’s flat with the intention of killing him. When Oxford also arrives at the flat he finds Blaney there, along with the corpse of a woman with a necktie round her neck, Rusk’s latest victim. Rusk enters, carrying a large trunk which he plans to use to get rid of the corpse and is arrested.

Kaleidoscope

Frenzy is perhaps Hitchcock’s most nakedly autobiographical film and one which represented both a comeback and farewell to the city of his birth. But it started out as a very different kind of project. After Marnie, which was badly received critically (p.12) and commercially, the director wanted to make a film told from the point of view of a psycho killer. Raymond Foery suggests that the idea came about after Torn Curtain but the fact that Hitchcock registered a treatment with the Writers Guild in 1964 (two years before Torn Curtain was released) indicates it must have been earlier. After all, the last time he tried something different, following the glossy, starry North by Northwest with the monochrome black comic brutality of Psycho, it had paid off handsomely.

Hitchcock’s fascination with murder is well-documented (indeed, Spoto suggests the director would attend trials in his spare time) but he had a distinct preference for a certain kind of English murder which he compared to ‘blood on a daisy’ (in Goodman 1995). He certainly seems to have had little time for the savagery of American murderers like Charles Starkweather, Charles Manson and Richard Speck, possibly due to the fact that they lack that all-important veneer of respectability. Whereas Starkweather wanted to be James Dean, Manson assumed a counterculture outlaw persona and Speck was a drunken sailor with a ‘Born to Raise Hell’ tattoo, Hitchcock’s preferred killers were unassuming ‘little men’ whose carefully cultivated aura of normality masked a murderous dark side. Even if one disregards the oft-repeated – and equally oft-disputed – claims of Tippi Hedren that Hitch was a sexual predator (claims that formed the basis of the TV film, The Girl) it’s not hard to see why he found these murderers so fascinating, this very civilised, very English, happily married celibate fixated on murder and sexual obsession, a man who happily confessed to being ‘a great believer in making the audience suffer’ (in Gottlieb 1997: 272). Hitch was particularly drawn to an unholy trinity of genteel, polite yet brutal killers, Christie, Haigh and Heath.

Reggie, John and Neville

John Reginald Halliday Christie is best remembered today as the subject of Richard Fleischer’s adaptation of Ludovic Kennedy’s 10 Rillington Place (1971), where he’s played by a very creepy Richard Attenborough (and by Tim Roth in the 2016 BBC drama serial). Christie was a softly-spoken petty criminal and cinema projectionist turned landlord and war-time special constable who committed at least eight murders in the then-very seedy Notting Hill between 1943–53 (although given that one of the clumps of pubic hair he had in his macabre collection couldn’t be matched to any of (p.13) the known victims, it’s likely he killed more). Sexually dysfunctional (so much so he was dubbed ‘Reggie No Dick’ as a teenager), he would gas his victims using a tube attached to a domestic tap before strangling and raping them, sometimes post-mortem. He killed prostitutes, women seeking his medical services – either as an abortionist or as someone who could cure bronchitis – and his own wife, as well as one of his tenants, Beryl Evans and her baby daughter. Beryl’s husband, Timothy was charged with the murder of his wife and daughter and hanged in 1950 (Christie was a witness for the prosecution). John Christie was convicted in 1953 and hanged that same year. On the gallows, he reportedly complained to hangman Albert Pierrepoint that his nose itched, only to be told, ‘It won’t bother you for long’ (in Lusher and Rimmer 2006). Timothy Evans was given a posthumous pardon in 1966.

In his biography of Hitchcock, Peter Ackroyd talks about the director’s fascination for the transcripts from sensational murder trials and he quotes from the Christie trial:

Judge:

  • And you killed her?
  • Christie:

  • Yes, Your Honour.
  • Judge:

  • And assaulted [raped] her, too?
  • Christie:

  • I believe so, Your Honour.
  • Judge:

  • Before, during or after death?
  • Christie:

  • During, Your Honour.
  • (in Ackroyd 2015: 11)

    This chilling blend of English understatement (‘I believe so’) and sexualised murder would be echoed in Hitchcock’s penultimate film. Ackroyd also notes – although he doesn’t give us the source – that the director would refer to ‘that adorable Christie’ (ibid.).

    John George Haigh, ‘The Acid Bath Vampire’, was brought up in a deeply religious household, his parents being members of the Plymouth Brethren. He was a talented pianist and won a scholarship to a grammar school where he became a choirboy. After school, he had various jobs – insurance, advertising – but was fired for stealing and inexorably drifted into crime. He was jailed a number of times for fraud and while doing time, had the idea for what he thought was the perfect murder, disposing of the victim’s corpse in acid in the erroneous belief that a murderer couldn’t be convicted without a body. He experimented by dissolving mice in sulphuric acid.

    (p.14) Haigh’s ‘foolproof’ plan proved to be nothing of the sort, and in 1949 he was arrested. He was convicted of killing six people, although he claimed to have killed three more, for what was more than likely financial gain. He would batter or shoot his victims, dissolve their remains to sludge and then dispose of it down a manhole before going on to sell their possessions. When he was arrested at his workshop, one such pile of sludge was investigated and found to contain gallstones, a foot bone and dentures.

    During his trial, Haigh claimed to have drunk the blood of his victims and told of lurid childhood dreams:

    I saw before me a forest of crucifixes which gradually turned into trees. At first, there appeared to be dew or rain, dripping from the branches, but as I approached I realized it was blood. The whole forest began to writhe and the trees, dark and erect, to ooze blood… A man went from each tree catching the blood… When the cup was full, he approached me. ‘Drink,’ he said, but I was unable to move.

    (in Hall 1976: 12)

    This was almost certainly a lie intended to bolster an insanity defence but it didn’t work. It took the jury 15 minutes to return a guilty verdict and the Acid Bath Vampire was hanged on 6 August 1949. Haigh played up his ghoulish image to the last, offering to participate in a trial run of his execution and writing how, when he was sentenced to death,

    I couldn’t stop laughing. I saw the judge don his black cap and he looked the entire world like a sheep with its head peering out from under a rhubarb leaf.

    (in Oates 2014: 168)

    With an eye on posterity, he happily provided a death mask for the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds and made sure to bequeath them his best suit.

    Born in Ilford, Essex in 1917, Neville Heath was, like Christie and Haigh, a petty criminal – he’d been kicked out of the RAF and spent time in Borstal for housebreaking and forgery – but he had delusions of grandeur, frequently posing as an aristocrat (‘Lord Dudley’) or decorated airman (adding a Lieutenant-Colonel before his name). He was also a bit of an adventurer, escaping from the guards escorting him home from his WWII post in Palestine and ending up in Johannesburg where he joined the South African Air Force, married and had a son. But Heath had a very dark side indeed. A sexual sadist, (p.15) he committed his first murder only weeks after returning to the UK in 1946, mutilating and lashing a woman with a riding crop before suffocating her. Shortly afterwards he met another woman in Bournemouth, introducing himself as Group Captain Rupert Brook. He set out to escort her to her hotel, stopping on the way to torture and beat her before cutting her throat and mutilating her corpse. Heath was captured, convicted and sentenced to death that same year. Even then, his mask of sophistication didn’t slip, whether it was the thoughts expressed in a letter to a friend – ‘I don’t know what time they open where I’m going but I hope the beer is better than it is here’ (in Venning 2013) – or his announcement on the day of his execution, ‘I’ve got nothing to say except cheerio!’ (ibid.). Famously, when offered the customary pre-execution whisky, he accepted, adding ‘While you’re about it, sir, you might make that a double’. Heath’s peculiar persona, that of sophisticated, attractive gentleman sex murderer has inspired a number of studies including the Gorse Trilogy by Patrick Hamilton (the author of the play Rope which became a Hitchcock film), the TV adaptation of one of Hamilton’s novels The Charmer (1987), with Nigel Havers as the eponymous suave killer, and Sean O’Connor’s definitive biography Handsome Brute (2013). Indeed, there’s one moment in the latter book which leaps out at anyone familiar with Frenzy. Heath is telling his fiancé about a murder – which, unbeknownst to her, he himself had committed – when he says of the killer, ‘It can only have been done by a sexual maniac’, words which would be quoted almost verbatim by Billie Whitelaw’s Hetty (see O’Connor 2013: 38).

    Heath seems to have been a particular favourite of Hitch and a strong influence on the character of Bob Rusk. It’s a common observation that Hitchcock often used James Stewart as his alter-ego – weak, flawed, lost – while Cary Grant was his idealised self-projection. I’ve noted elsewhere that in much the same way, we can see Christie or Haigh as a James Stewart-esque sex murderer while Neville Heath, dashing, well-dressed and possessing a dry sense of humour, is more of a Cary Grant type (see Cooper 2016).

    Hitchcock would go on to consider a number of writers for his cherished serial killer project. Unsurprisingly, his first choice was Robert Bloch, the author of the source novel for Psycho as well as a host of excellent short stories. Bloch was reportedly interested but wanted more money. Before Hitchcock met with the writer, the director’s agent suggested he register the project with the Writers Guild. It’s often noted that the Frenzy of 1972 (p.16) references many of the director’s earlier films and it is tempting to see this, as many have done, as a consequence of the director returning triumphant to his home turf. But interestingly, in the document registered with the WGA in 1964, there is already a reference to an earlier Hitch film.

    The story idea which Mr. Hitchcock is interested in is one which would cover the events prior to the beginning of the story of SHADOW OF A DOUBT. That is to say, the events surrounding the killing and disposal of these various women.

    (in De Rosa 2010)

    The emphasis on corpse removal is notable, as this would play a significant part in Frenzy. Yet oddly enough this aspect of the film is lifted directly from Arthur La Bern’s novel, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell, Leicester Square, which hadn’t even been written in 1964.

    When the Bloch deal fell through, Hitchcock considered the duo who wrote the Vertigo screenplay, Samuel Taylor and Alec Koppel and even offered the job to novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who perhaps wisely turned it down.

    In the meantime, Hitch had to make a living and in 1966, he directed his fiftieth film, Torn Curtain, a contribution to the then-hot spy thriller genre. Universal wanted A-list stars and so a reluctant Hitch ended up with the underwhelming duo of Paul Newman (miscast as a rocket scientist!) and an insipid (and frequently soft-focus) Julie Andrews (the Master’s preferred choice of Anthony Perkins and Eva Marie Saint would’ve worked much better). In addition, the combined fees of the stars came to $1.5 million, which took a hefty bite out of the $5 million budget.

    Torn Curtain has some great set pieces – a tense bus ride from Leipzig to the outskirts of Berlin, the moment where a ballerina clocks Newman’s fugitive spy in a theatre audience – and an impressive score by John Addison (who replaced Hitch’s long-time collaborator Bernard Herrmann). Wolfgang Keiling steals the film as Gromek, a gum-chewing, leather-jacketed East German agent fond of using outdated US slang (it’s not hard to imagine Peter Lorre in the part if the film had been made 30 years earlier). It’s a shame Gromek is killed off, although Hitchcock did plan to bring him back, in a sense. He shot a scene where Newman ran into the dead man’s twin brother, also played by Keiling, but this ended up being cut from the final film (one assumes for length, as the (p.17) running time as it stands is an already drawn-out 126 minutes). It’s hard to argue with Robin Wood’s description of the film as ‘unsatisfactory, episodic and lacking the strong center we have come to expect’ (1989: 198) and there’s a vaguely soulless and formulaic quality to it, the sense that the director is serving up a rehash of his early work (and the latter charge is one which would also be levelled at Frenzy).

    The most celebrated scene is the killing of Gromek by Newman and a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell). This lengthy and brutal sequence, wherein the victim is strangled, stabbed, battered with a shovel and finally gassed in an oven can be seen as anticipating the prolonged graphic violence of Frenzy.

    The Starter

    The messy business of murder in Torn Curtain.

    The difficulties with Torn Curtain – and the relatively lukewarm box-office – led the director to go back to his long-gestating serial killer film. Hitch turned to Benn Levy, who had written dialogue for Blackmail (1929), the director’s first sound film. Levy was a Labour MP and a noted playwright, who had also written the screenplay for one of James Whale’s best films, The Old Dark House (1932). Levy seems to have understood the material, at one point writing to Hitch how the inspiration has ‘got to be Heath not Haigh… the Heath story is a gift from heaven’ (in De Rosa 2010). Levy also suggested to Hitchcock that the killer should ‘accost a policewoman’ (ibid.) and Hitch responded to this, floating the idea of a female cop who is sent out to lure a killer. Hitch and Levy went location scouting in New York City and while some of the settings were familiar – Central Park, for example – others were well off the beaten track and often extremely atmospheric, such as the abandoned shipyard on the Hudson River filled with rotting hulks.

    (p.18) Levy wrote a draft with Hitch contributing and the usual input from the director’s wife Alma Reville. She was a screenwriter whose credits included Suspicion (1941) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Hitchcock relied on her for ideas and inspiration. Indeed, there’s a strong case to be made for Alma as the director’s key collaborator, as the man himself suggested in the acceptance speech for his American Film Institute Life Achievement Award:

    I beg to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, encouragement and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter, Pat; and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen. And their names are Alma Reville.

    (in Diu 2013)

    In his obituary for Reville, who died in 1982, the critic Charles Champlin wrote that ‘the Hitchcock touch had four hands and two of them were Alma’s’ (in Botting 2014).

    The completed draft was passed on to novelist Howard Fast, the author of the source novel for the Kubrick film Spartacus (1951) and he added dialogue. The finished screenplay tells the story of Willie Cooper, a gay bodybuilder, a sensitive and disturbed young man who murders a woman in Central Park. (The fact that his victim works at the United Nations appears to be a nod to North by Northwest.) He takes his next would-be victim to an abandoned shipyard to kill her before meeting the aforementioned police woman who is out to trap him. The character of Willie is charming in a kind of Heath-meets-Norman Bates way, although Hitch seems to have been unsure of how far to go; at various stages of development, he is described as physically deformed and – quelle surprise! – mother-fixated (at one point Ma walks in on him masturbating). This latter quality is underlined in the script when Willie visits the shipyard with his intended victim, Caroline. Although he is in actual fact unmarried, he tells her he is, explaining in classic Oedipal fashion:

    WILLIE:

  • She’s older than I, quite a bit older. We came together because… I don’t know.
  • CAROLINE:

  • Because you thought you needed someone to look after you… and she needed someone to look after. (p.19)
  • WILLIE:

  • Smart, aren’t you? Well, I don’t need it now. At least I probably need it but don’t want it! I suppose nobody wants… a warden… I shouldn’t say that. She’s very nice really. I’m probably more to blame than she is. God knows I make her as unhappy as she makes me… a tough life, you know. She doesn’t get much work; not as much as she deserves. And it makes her nervous and unhappy… she’s rather fond of the bottle.
  • CAROLINE:

  • Is there another man?
  • WILLIE:

  • Could be.
  • CAROLINE:

  • Is he – around?
  • WILLIE:

  • Someone… she knew before me. I guess he’s still in her system.
  • (in Man 2009)

    While the subject matter was – superficially at least – typical for a Hitchcock picture, the approach he planned to take would be radically different to anything else in his oeuvre. Irked by the critical attention garnered by European auteurs such as Antonioni and Godard (and doubtless envious of the creative freedom they enjoyed), Hitchcock intended this project, known variously as Frenzy, the much more 60s Kaleidoscope and even Kaleidoscope Frenzy, to be an unashamed art film. McGilligan even claims it was to have been in black and white but given the attention the director paid to details such as ‘oil drums painted in primary colors’ (in Brake 2014) this seems unlikely. Notes indicate one scene where the camera performs a 360 degree pan around a room and the film would be similarly unusual in its frankness (such as the aforementioned scene when Ma Cooper catches her son pleasuring himself). Perhaps the most un-Hitchcock thing about it was the setting, taking place as it does in a zeitgeisty hippyish milieu featuring a cast of shaggy-haired unknowns (the latter decision doubtless influenced by twin factors, his unhappy experiences with Newman and Andrews and his interest in Antonioni – the Italian had successfully worked with just such a backdrop with his Blow-Up [1966] and would do so again with Zabriskie Point [1970]).

    The limited amount of silent test footage and stills that survive are tantalising, a most un-Hitchcock blend of counterculture chic, industrial backdrops and naked hippy chicks. The men in the film have hair past the collar, sideburns and are fashionably skinny while there (p.20) is a great deal of female nudity (and it’s surely significant that, with one exception, all of the women are brunettes). One of the test scenes appears to be shot in hazy natural light in a very 60s bedroom and shows a groovy young woman in a barely-fastened blouse casually baring one breast as she drinks wine.

    In 1967 trade ads appeared for the film, which at that stage was called Kaleidoscope, illustrated with a noose and three oil drums. But the director and Hitchcock devotee François Truffaut had qualms about the project when he read the script, finding it not only too graphic in terms of sex and violence but also banal (see McGilligan 2003). And the idea proved a big turn-off to Universal, now owned by the one-time music company MCA who seemed to have found the whole project distasteful, especially the ‘impossibly ugly villain’ (Jeffries 1999).

    Like Orson Welles’ Heart of Darkness and Kubrick’s Napoleon, Kaleidoscope Frenzy is one of the legendary unmade films, an intriguing project shot down by the short-sighted squeamishness of a handful of executives. Hitchcock didn’t forgive the snub. During the making of his last film, Family Plot (1976), star Bruce Dern suggested a garage door would look better covered in graffiti but he didn’t know what it could say. Hitchcock suggested ‘Fuck MCA’ (ibid.).

    Instead he was encouraged to make Topaz (1969), a turgid adaptation of a Leon Uris novel which may not be the worst Hitch film but is certainly the most underwhelming. Another espionage story, it starts promisingly enough with a very tense silent scene in a china factory but it runs out of steam very quickly. There is a lot of globe-trotting going on (the action shifts from Copenhagen to Washington to New York City to Havana) and a multi-national cast. Lead Frederick Stafford is weak, John Vernon is miscast as a Cuban revolutionary (complete with military fatigues and big cigar) and a number of other fine actors including Roscoe Lee Browne and Michel Picoli are underused. The film can’t help but conjure up the director’s earlier and better spy films (such as Secret Agent or Foreign Correspondent [1940]) although there are a couple of topical pop-culture references to try and update the hoary plot (Browne ponders out loud whether he should go undercover as a journalist from Playboy or Ebony). To be fair, there are a couple of notable moments. The murder scene when Juanita is shot and falls to the floor, her dress spreading out around her like blood is very striking and there is a lengthy (p.21) scene set in Harlem where we watch Browne through a window from across the street accompanied by street sounds, loud traffic and honking car-horns. But the whole thing fizzles out into a series of static explanatory dialogue scenes and the existing ending is poor, although the same is true of the two alternate versions (which are included as extras on recent DVD releases). It’s easy to see how contemporary viewers may have felt the Master was losing his touch.

    But in a couple of ways, it too anticipates Frenzy. Firstly, doubtless as a result of the problems the director had with his previous film, Topaz featured no big stars. Secondly, Hitchcock wanted to include nudity for the first time with Karin Dor appearing topless, although the fact that she was scarred as a result of recent surgery put paid to that idea.

    Arthur La Bern

    It shouldn’t be any surprise that Hitchcock became interested in Arthur La Bern’s novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, which was published in 1966 and forwarded to the director by his UK agent. This story of a sex killer on the loose in a convincingly seedy, resolutely un-Swinging London seemed to be just what the director was looking for. After all, the globetrotting involved in the Topaz shoot seems to have added to the impersonal, vaguely anonymous feel of the film. Indeed, Donald Spoto suggests Hitchcock was initially reluctant to leave California but was eventually won over by the idea of a triumphant homecoming and – perhaps more importantly – the lower costs of shooting in England. Of course, adapting La Bern’s novel would entail radically transforming his long-gestating serial killer project yet again. The setting would allow the director the opportunity to revisit not only his home city but also his back catalogue in order to create something both old-fashioned and startlingly contemporary.

    La Bern was fond of describing himself as a ‘Gallic Cockney’ (in Unsworth, undated) although in reality he was neither Gallic or Cockney. He was born in Islington to parents of Italian descent and left school in his early teens. He became a journalist and made a considerable effort to refashion his image, claiming to be of Huguenot descent, changing his name from Labern to La Bern and growing a Ronald Coleman-style pencil moustache. He worked as a crime reporter for The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror and (p.22) was the war correspondent for The Evening Standard. He wrote a string of hard-boiled novels with moody titles like Night Darkens the Streets (1947) and It Will be Warmer When It Snows (1968), tantalisingly described in a blurb as ‘The shattering novel of a bankrupt and his women’.

    La Bern’s stories were peopled with characters scratching out a living in bleak noiry settings – something he knew about all too well, not only from an impoverished childhood but also due to his reckless spending and wayward fortunes, going from well-heeled Chelsea living to bankruptcy, a stretch in prison sewing mailbags and sleeping rough on Brighton beach. He died in 1990, aged 81.

    La Bern’s fast-paced and tautly-plotted novels lent themselves to the cinema and adaptations of his work included Good-Time Girl (1947) and Written in the Dust (1955). He also wrote screenplays for low-budget thrillers such as Dead Man’s Evidence (1962) and the Edgar Wallace adaptation Incident at Midnight (1963). Before his involvement with Hitchcock, La Bern’s most impressive film credit was It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), adapted from his novel of the same name. Produced by Ealing Studios, it was directed by the gifted Robert Hamer who directed the ‘Haunted Mirror’ story in the celebrated anthology Dead of Night (1945) and who would go on to make Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Hamer had started as an editor and in that capacity he had worked on Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), while one of his co-writers on Sunday was Angus MacPhail, a prolific contributor to many an Ealing script who would write the screenplay for The Wrong Man, one of Hitch’s most emblematic titles and a powerful, uncharacteristically downbeat take on a familiar theme. MacPhail also worked without credit on the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and possibly Vertigo, as well as coining the term ‘McGuffin’, frequently used by Hitch to refer to something insignificant which is used to move a plot forward. While It Always Rains on Sunday is a thriller, the story of a bored married woman (Googie Withers) who has to shelter her escaped convict lover in the family home, it’s far more ambitious than similar genre outings of the 1940s. Hamer combines a number of stories – complete with flashbacks – set in one street in a convincingly tawdry post-war Bethnal Green and imbues the whole thing with a kind of poetic naturalism, where sociological detail collides with tension and brutal violence (the scene where a mugging victim’s false teeth are knocked out is particularly vivid). As well as taking place in the same kind of seedy metropolitan (p.23) milieu as Frenzy, there are further similarities – one of the central locations is a market (in this case, Petticoat Lane) and there are a couple of convincingly unglamorous world weary coppers (one of whom is played by Jack Warner who would go on to play a similar role in the Ealing film The Blue Lamp [1950] and the TV show Dixon of Dock Green from 1955–76).

    Hamer’s career was derailed by the crippling alcoholism which led to some truly terrifying hallucinations (such as the lobsters that chased him from Battersea Park lake to his Chelsea flat) and an early death aged only 52. For David Thomson, his all-too-brief career ‘looks like the most serious miscarriage of talent in the post-war British cinema’ (Thomson 2002: 367).

    Like Hitchcock, La Bern was interested in true crime, having written books on John George Haigh and the ‘Brides in the Bath’ murderer George Joseph Smith. Indeed, Goodbye Piccadilly… seems to have been inspired to a large degree by the crimes of Jack the Stripper, also known as the London ‘Nude Murders’. Between 1964–65, the bodies of six prostitutes were found in or around the Thames in some of the seedier parts of West London, although some writers have suggested there may have been a couple more victims. The killer was never caught which has led to all manner of suspects being put forward including various officers in the Metropolitan Police, the Welsh child killer Harold Jones and the boxer and Kray Twins associate Freddie Mills, who was found dead in his car not long after the last murder, shot through the eye in what was ruled a suicide (although this has been disputed). There has also been speculation that the murders were linked to the underworld porn scene and/or the Profumo scandal. The victims were strangled although there is a rumour, long dispelled but still in circulation, that the killer choked his victims during fellatio – a rumour which seems to have arisen due to widespread ignorance about such outré practices as oral sex. As well as La Bern’s novel, the killings were a clear influence on Robert Hartford-Davis’s stylish and sleazy The Fiend aka Beware the Brethren (1971) with Tony Beckley playing a Norman Bates-ish mother-fixated strangler who dumps his victims in the Thames, collects their underwear and – in a nod to the Moors Murders (1963–65) – listens to tape recordings of his crimes. One particularly nasty moment – where the killer shoves a flashlight in a woman’s mouth – is a clear nod to the aforementioned death-by-blow job rumour. La Bern also seems to have been influenced by the Heath case. Heath was a playboy and heavy drinker who (p.24) spent a lot of time in the pubs and clubs of London’s West End and his obsession with flying and RAF service seems to have been a particular influence on the character of Blamey. Heath is also name-checked in the novel more than once.

    The plot of La Bern’s novel is stripped-down and unapologetically pulpy. Dick Blamey (changed to ‘Blaney’ for the film) is an embittered drunk, a former war hero who took part in the bombing of Dresden now working as a barman in a West End pub. His ex-wife is murdered by a sex killer who is revealed to be Bob Rusk aka The Biscuit, a flashy wide-boy friend of Blamey. Fearing he’ll be accused of the murder, Blamey leaves for Paris, where his new girlfriend Babs plans to join him. But Babs is murdered by Rusk, Blamey comes back to London and is framed for her murder by his former friend. Blamey is tried and convicted for murder but escapes and returns to Covent Garden to kill Rusk…

    La Bern’s novel employs a couple of Hitchcockian themes – a superficially charming serial killer, a wrong man (indeed, the name Blamey and the accompanying nickname ‘Blameworthy’ emphasise this fall guy quality a bit too much) – while there are references to the Ripper and Christie. The prose is sometimes painfully bad: ‘He had three pounds ten shillings left from last week’s wages. If he ventured three pounds, he’d have ten shillings left’ (1966: 13–14); and ‘the swans gliding silently past in midstream, arrogant as ornithological Rolls-Royces sweeping past gaggles of minicars’ (1966: 75). It’s tempting to see Blamey’s misanthropy as La Bern’s and the unrelenting sourness can be wearing – there are numerous references to ugly sun-burnt tourists and the tack and tat of the West End with Piccadilly Circus seeming to be a particular bugbear:

    That shoddy acre which only the English would have the temerity to regard as the centre of the universe. Despite the sunshine, visibility was obscured by a choking mist of diesel fumes, thick as a sea fret and more poisonous than a million cigarettes. (1966: 14)

    At one point, we are told that the West End ‘is not the heart of London. It’s the anus’ (1966: 22). Perhaps predictably, given Blamey’s WWII service, he hates Germans, although his part in the bombing of Dresden also seems to plague him. When he’s questioned over the murders – after he’s consumed most of a bottle of whisky – the police are understandably confused about his professions of guilt:

    (p.25) ‘He asked if I was in on that dreadful Dresden business.’ The questioner gave a swift glance. “What dreadful Dresden business?”

    ‘What do you want to know about it?’

    ‘Did you knock off anybody in Dresden?”

    ‘Knock off?’

    ‘Did you kill anybody in Dresden?’

    ‘Of course, of course. What do you think? That was the whole idea?’

    ‘What was her name?’

    ‘What was her name? Don’t be silly. How should I know their names?’

    Their names?’ The questioner gave another swift glance at his colleagues, then looked back at Blamey. ‘You killed more than one in Dresden?’

    ‘More than one? My dear chap, hundreds of thousands.’

    (La Bern 1966: 132)

    A page later and he gives his occupation as ‘head candle dropper’ (1966: 133). Young people are not spared Blamey’s wrath either. At one point, he walks past a group of teenage pop fans and asks himself,

    Was it to make England safe for children like that mob outside Television House that young men like Guy Gibson had died? Was there the like of him in the land today? (1966: 35)

    Blamey/La Bern seems to harbour a particular distaste for the hoi polloi, perhaps a consequence of the author’s own desire to move up the social scale, sneering at those who share his own humble origins. There are numerous descriptions of bovine couples clogging up the pavements of the West End and some of them even have the audacity to come from the provinces. There are sneering asides about ‘Middle-aged couples from the Midlands’, the men wearing ‘Bri-Nylon shirts and braces’, the women with ‘thickly knotted varicose veins prominent on their plump, bare legs under the pleated skirts’ (1966: 14). Only two pages later, Blamey observes how:

    (p.26) Behind the guard rails all round the Circus pedestrians waited as patient as cattle in fete-day pens. Scores of exhausted women squatted around the base of Eros, revealing an astonishing variety of thighs and underwear, plucking at their shoulder straps and belts, easing their feet out of the dusty white sandals, some revealing toenails painted like bunches of radishes. (1966: 16)

    This distaste for the proletariat also manifests itself in the strange scene when Rusk kills Brenda and he turns on the radio to cover any noise. The show being transmitted is ‘a noisy programme of the Worker’s Playtime type’ (1966: 43) and the attack is accompanied by ‘factory workers… screaming with laughter at a North Country comedian’s jokes’ (1966: 44). The identity of the killer has not yet been revealed – we only find out it’s Rusk after Babs has been killed, a trick which would’ve been hard to pull off in the film – but La Bern seems to see the crime in class terms, debased working class wide-boy raping and killing a genteel middle class businesswoman.

    Aside from the explicitness of some of the scenes, La Bern’s novel appears very dated for a book written in the 1960s. This may well be the reason Peter Ackroyd describes it as being set ‘during the Second World War’ (2015: 242) – it isn’t but it does feel like it. For Donald Spoto, the book is both ‘ill-conceived’ (1983: 505) and – a mere four pages later – ‘inelegant’ (1983: 308).

    As we shall see, La Bern disliked Hitchcock’s film for a number of reasons but the author’s claim that it’s ‘distasteful’ is a bit rich, given that the novel’s Rusk actually has sex with the corpse in the back of the potato truck. Anyone coming to the novel after seeing the film will be struck by just how close the two are. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer often uses whole scenes – Blamey’s meal with his ex-wife followed by his night in a Salvation Army hostel, her murder in her office – with only a slight tweak here and there. What differences there are, however, are telling. La Bern’s Blamey is no Jon Finch but ‘nearer fifty than forty’ (La Bern 1966: 7) with thinning, greying red hair, a paunch and a limp. His wildly fluctuating fortunes – from war hero to homeless alcoholic – reflect and even prefigure La Bern’s journey from poverty to fame then bankruptcy. Blamey hides out in Paris at the suggestion of his old friend Johnny, who is planning to open an English pub over there (an idea merely proposed in the film). Blamey’s trial is dealt with at length, an interlude which slows the pace of the novel considerably and Shaffer was (p.27) wise to do away with it, replacing it with the proceedings observed through the glass in a pair of – very well soundproofed – double doors.

    The character of Inspector Oxford is in the novel, although his wife isn’t. Indeed, his marital status isn’t even mentioned, although we do find out he lives in Winchmore Hill. The ending of the book is close to that of the film, although there is no real resolution. Oxford does work out that Rusk is the real killer, although his superiors are not convinced. Blamey escapes from the prison hospital and goes after Rusk but the killer has vanished, leaving the naked body of Monica Barling, the secretary at the Blamey Marriage Bureau behind, a stocking around her neck. Blamey and the police fail to get their man and Rusk escapes, presumably to kill again.

    There are a number of interesting elements in the novel which Shaffer and Hitchcock would elaborate on, particularly the theme of appetite. Covent Garden market is only one of the many locations in La Bern and the novel lacks the film’s near-obsessive references to food. However, the murder of Brenda Blamey does take place at lunchtime, Rusk does suggest taking her to dinner and when he leaves the office after killing her, he walks past people eating ice cream and – in a nicely mordant touch – a man tucking into a slice of wedding cake. Similarly, the body of Babs is dumped in a potato truck, with the resulting grim hi-jinks as Rusk tries to regain his flat key (as opposed to the film’s tie-pin). La Bern goes a step further by having the killer insert a potato in the corpse’s vagina and it’s a fingerprint on that spud that finally convinces Oxford that Rusk is the killer. So, while the fixation on the connections between food, sex and murder is underplayed – at least in comparison to the film – it’s nonetheless there.

    The title change to Frenzy – connecting the film to Hitchcock’s aborted experimental project – led to a lawsuit, which Universal lost. The French playwright M. Charles de Peyret-Chappuis won 150, 000 Francs (£12,500) over his claims that the film’s title was too close to that of his 1938 play Frénésie. Oddly enough a letter from La Bern to Hitchcock dated 11 January 1971 (which can be seen in The Story of Frenzy DVD featurette) draws the director’s attention to a Swedish film with the same title – Hets (1944) directed by Alf Sjöberg from an Ingmar Bergman screenplay, better-known as Torment but retitled Frenzy in the UK. Neither Sjöberg or Bergman took legal action, however.

    (p.28) This notion of a director ‘cannibalising’ himself by adapting a book which so strongly echoes his earlier work is a fitting one. Frenzy is concerned, above all else, with appetite. Which brings us nicely round to…