Late Hitchcock – ‘Frenzy’ and ‘Family Plot’
There are some who opt for Alfred Hitchcock’s British years as his finest, taking into account his earliest silent features through Jamaica Inn in 1939. On the other hand, many regard the peak years in America as the Master of Suspense’s finest era, with films from Rebecca in 1940 to Marnie in 1964. Both have valid points to make and there are unquestionably several great works during each phase of the filmmaker’s career. Few, however, would rank Hitchcock’s final four films among his best. In a way, this is unfair, their lowly stature no doubt due to the masterworks that preceded them; with the films Hitchcock made before, the bar was set unassailably high. Taken apart from the imposing excellence of these earlier classics, these concluding films are solid movies. Of course, in auteurist fashion, one can also heap excessive praise on these concluding lesser features that is perhaps only based on Hitchcock as Hitchcock, director of Vertigo, The Lodger, Rear Window, Psycho, and more. In other words, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot are worthwhile because Hitchcock made them, and that’s enough.
Wherever one falls in this assessment of Hitchcock’s career, Universal has made the home viewing and subsequent evaluation of his final films better than ever, with each now in remastered Blu-ray editions. Previously only available on the format as part of the impressive Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, Topaz and Torn Curtain saw their individual Blu-ray releases in November and October, respectively, and now Frenzy and Family Plot join the increasing list of Hitchcock titles presented as best they can for non-theatrical consumption. In addition to the enhanced audio and visual quality, each disc comes with a fairly standard yet nonetheless informative making-of documentary, each about 50 minutes in length. The Family Plot disc also highlights the storyboards for the hilltop chase, a sequence it tries to sell as comparable to the famously structured and brilliantly executed crop-duster scene from North by Northwest, which it isn’t.
A notable contrast between the two is the use of setting. Perhaps because of Hitchcock’s keenness for being back in England, Frenzy is clearly a film shot in, and in many ways is about, a very specific location. While Pinewood Studios served as base for certain interiors, the exteriors express a palpable sense of a specific place. Hitchcock, and the film, thrives on this prominent use of background and local character. Conversely, Family Plot was intentionally presented as occurring in a nondescript location. Clearly northern California, the exteriors never call attention to their region as Frenzy does. Given Hitchcock’s reputation for interesting and elaborate international set pieces, this might be another reason Family Plot feels flat by comparison.
The documentary on Family Plot gives notable insight to its casting, fitting since its performers are a major highlight of the film. Dern relates that Al Pacino was the first choice for his character, but after a string of major successes, Pacino’s asking price was too high (given the poor green-screen projections, the budget on the film was clearly on the lower end of the Hitchcock scale). Devane also reveals the rather crass process whereby he was cast: he was the first choice but was unavailable; Roy Thinnes was given the role; Devane’s schedule opened up; 5 weeks into shooting, Thinnes was let go. Both documentaries also benefit from footage of Hitchcock directing. This type of behind-the-scenes on-set look is common with today’s films and filmmakers, but it’s relatively rare to see one of film history’s true masters in their creative process (even if, in the case of the aged Hitchcock here, he’s not doing a whole lot).
Frenzy and Family Plot, admittedly slight works in Hitchcock’s career, are nevertheless valuable entries in the filmmaker’s canon, with scenes, shots, and moments of unmistakably Hitchcockian bravura. For all of their faults, and make no mistake, there aren’t many, these are two quality films. Those acquainted with Hitchcock through only his certified masterpieces may be somewhat let down, but those who have seen beyond the essentials will certainly find something worthwhile. These latter movies are not on the level of his standards, so they’re not quite as good as one might expect, but they’re better than one might think.
REVIEW from: SOUND ON SIGHT