In 1971 Alfred Hitchcock came home to London to make his penultimate film – the murder story Frenzy, about a serial killer in London.
Some critics thought Frenzy a return to form. But over the years, others have seen proof of the misogyny of which Hitchcock is sometimes accused.
Actress Barbara Leigh-Hunt played the victim in the film’s murder scene. It still shocks, she says – but it was totally justified.
Recalling her early years as an actress, she says that 46 years ago she was busy on stage, radio and TV. She’d played major Shakespearean roles at the Old Vic and was, with her husband, the actor Richard Pasco, much in demand for poetry readings.
None of which, she admits, made her an obvious choice for a big role in an Alfred Hitchcock film.
“I was invited out to Pinewood Studios to speak with Hitch for about half an hour,” she explains. “To me he was a cinematic god, but I was convinced it was a complete waste of time as I’d never even made a film.
“On my way home I called my agent from the station. I was astonished to hear they’d already been on the phone to say I had the part.”
Hitchcock, the son of a greengrocer, was born in Leytonstone in east London in 1899.
A film-maker from the mid-1920s, at the beginning of World War II he went to Hollywood and became perhaps the greatest director of thrillers ever. He could manipulate an audience’s sense of dread with an intelligence no one has matched since.
American academic Raymond Foery has made a study of Frenzy. “Universal was Hitchcock’s home in Hollywood but his recent films for them – Torn Curtain and Topaz – had been disappointments,” he said.
“So the studio was happy to see Hitchcock make a relatively cheap film in London. In fact Hitchcock had hoped to cast Richard Burton, but instead he settled on respected stage actors who wouldn’t get huge Hollywood salaries.
“It’s about a serial killer who works at Covent Garden vegetable market, which was soon to close. It’s based on a novel which was neither a classic nor total trash, but Hitch’s method was to buy a story which offered him a strong structure which he could then work up into something cinematic.
“There’s less consensus on Frenzy than on any other Hitchcock film. I won’t claim the movie rivals Psycho or Vertigo, but I do think it has a lot going for it. But after his death [in 1980], journalists and biographers started to dig into Hitch’s attitudes to sex and women, with Frenzy often used as an example.”
Barbara Leigh-Hunt recalled Hitchcock’s team flagging up the violence in the screenplay. Her character, who owns a marriage bureau, is assaulted and strangled to death in her own office.
“They wanted to know if I was going to be upset. But I’d just played Lady Macbeth on stage so I didn’t see how I could honestly object,” she said.
“With me Hitch was remarkably kind and considerate. He knew it was my first film and that I was terrified. He had my chair placed beside his on the studio floor and he let me sit through rehearsals so I could get a feel for film.
“He loved corny jokes and wordplay. Once when we’d sat through a terribly slow rehearsal he said: ‘Too many dog’s feet! What do I mean?’
“And I said ‘Pawses’… and he was thrilled that I understood his sense of humour. He was a courteous man: he was very angry when he discovered I hadn’t been given a studio car to get me to and from Pinewood.”
The plot, as in several Hitchcock films, centres on a man wrongly accused of a crime. In the film, Leigh-Hunt’s former husband, played by the late Jon Finch, is found guilty of her murder and it seems the real killer will get away.
Long scene of sexual violence
Leigh-Hunt recalled that Hitchcock grew discontented with Finch’s performance.
“He told me he worked hard to keep up with new screen talent and that Jon had come to him with glowing recommendations. But he said he didn’t find in Jon’s performance the sympathetic qualities he had hoped for and which would make the audience care about the character’s fate.”
Discussion of Frenzy usually comes back to the long scene of sexual violence 40 minutes in.
Because of it Frenzy is the only Hitchcock film the British Board of Film Classification still gives an 18 certificate. Earlier Hitchcock classics such as The Birds and Psycho – both originally X-rated – have been reclassified over the years.
The actress recalls the murder scene took three days in the studio to shoot.
‘Utterly necessary scene’
“It’s pretty horrendous. About a week before Hitch said ‘You’ve no objection to baring your breasts, have you?’ I told him I certainly did, and in the end that scene and Anna Massey’s nude scene were with body doubles.
“Barry Foster was playing the attacker and he and I discussed what we wanted to do. The assault as written was physically implausible, so Hitch told us what he wanted on screen and he was happy to leave to us some of the detail.
“But it was his idea that at the end I should be seen with my tongue lolling out – which in fact I couldn’t do so it’s a freeze frame.
“It’s still a controversial scene even today, but I believe it was utterly necessary to show how hideous a man the murderer was and what he was prepared to do to women.”
Professor Foery, who lectures at a university in Connecticut in the US, says Frenzy put Hitchcock back on the map as a film-maker.
Did Hitchcock dislike women?
“But it’s true the murder is cruder than previous deaths in his films. The obvious comparison is with Janet Leigh being stabbed in the famous Psycho shower scene.
“Hitchcock pointed out that the knife, the blood and the nudity are largely what the audience pieces together in its mind. Psycho relies on suggestion in a way Frenzy does not.
“When I show my students certain films from the 1970s, I warn them they’re about to see levels of violence and nudity they probably wouldn’t encounter today.
“Possibly a major director now wouldn’t allow a scene of sexual violence to go on so long as Hitchcock did in Frenzy – but I just don’t accept that Hitchcock disliked women. There are strong female roles throughout his films and in his own career he relied on women.”
‘I found him charming’
Barbara Leigh-Hunt retains a huge affection for her time with Hitch.
After Frenzy the director told her he was planning to shoot a film in Scotland and that there would be a role in it for her. In fact his next film, Family Plot, proved to be Hitchcock’s swansong and he retired immediately afterwards.
“So many people now try to psychoanalyse Hitch and people talk about his dark side,” the actress says.
“I can only judge by what I saw and experienced but I found him a charming man. He was like everybody else – he wanted to be liked, he wanted to be loved.”