Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Anthony Shaffer, based on a novel by Arthur La Bern
Stars: Jon Finch, Alec McCowen, Barry Foster, Billie Whitelaw, Barbara Leigh-Hunt
The Story: An antisocial bartender finds that a series of coincidences have conspired to make it look like he’s the “necktie strangler” stalking London. Soon the real killer, a friendly greengrocer, realizes that our hero is the perfect patsy and starts making his life even more hellish.
How it Came to be Underrated: Most of Hitchcock’s later output was dreadful. After you’ve sampled a few, the tendency is to just give up. What a delightful surprise it was when I finally gave this one a shot.
Why It’s Great:
- This is the sort of valedictory summation of themes that you always hope every director will pull out at the end of his career, but few do. From the ‘30s through the ‘50s, Hitchcock excelled at pushing the boundaries of public morals without going over, culminating with Psycho in 1960, where he finally pushed them over the edge. As the ‘60s progressed, however, the public’s boundaries disappeared entirely, and he was cut adrift. With this film, he finally abandoned tastefulness and accepted the new license he’d been granted, giving his most lurid and horrifying nightmares free reign onscreen for the first and only time.
- Hitchcock had made many films in which a “wrong man” had been fingered for a crime and forced to clear his name. He usually made it look like a surprising amount of fun. With this story, he shows a far more realistic version of the same story. Anyone who studies the stories of the exonerated discovers an unfortunate fact: the sort of people who get falsely convicted tend to be those who do themselves no favors. But Finch’s powerful performance makes this unpleasant character heartbreaking. He has more in common with Job than the ennobled heroes of movies like Saboteur.
- After abandoning England for America thirty years before, Hichcock returns to his lost youth in every possible way. His parents were greengrocers who obsessively followed all the latest sensational sex murder cases in the pubs, and once punished him by convincing the police to unjustly lock him up in prison overnight. This is a one big love letter to all the nightmares that they infested him with.
- One particular onscreen crime is brutal and shocking, especially for a classy guy like Hitchcock, but it deserves special credit for being totally non-exploitative. After a lifetime of stylized and glamorous violence, Hitch is coming clean about the horrific true nature of these crimes. Compare this to the erotic shower stabbing in Psycho. Hitchcock is finally ready to grapple with the substance of violence, rather than the style.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Anthony Shaffer had a good run in the early 70s, also writing Sleuth and The Wicker Man.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and available to watch instantly.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Mr. X!
Saw this on its initial release, then again on DVD more recently. Now it has the added attraction of being a record of Covent Garden in London in almost archaeological detail just before the fruit and vegetable markets were shifted away to Nine Elms. I had a studio in the area and remember the making of the film very well. The murders are shocking, and I remember a sort of queasy laughter in the cinema which petered out after the first killing, the tone of the film having been one of high comedy, Vivien Merchant's cooking for example.
Nice to hear from you, Ian-- the return of an early commenter! I can only imagine how shocking it was to see this when it first came out! Hitchcock was suddenly breaking a lot of long-held contracts he had with his audience.
I love this movie: chock-full of great actors. Barry Foster steals the show for me as Rusk.
I also love it for the time & place. London in the early '70s: the era of Led Zep, Deep Purple and other great bands.
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