It’s all very well to talk about “lesser Hitchcock” but, once again, even “lesser Hitchcock” is still pretty damn good, and the kids ended up really liking this, the penultimate and most graphic of Hitch’s movies. One can (and to some degree I did) end up remembering the graphic aspects of the film to the exclusion of others which is a shame, since the graphic aspects are both the tamest things in it 45 years later, and the least remarkable (though one strangling is particularly bravura). The kids didn’t even comment on these aspects which struck me as somewhat needlessly vulgar when I was their age (I was about The Boy’s age when I first saw it).
What’s left, however, is confident, polished film making with enough pizzazz to put it in the upper half of Hitch’s films on a lot of people’s lists. (Though it’s intriguing to note that there is wild disagreement over how to rank said films, and both this and and Saboteur can end up in the top 10 depending on who’s compiling the list.) The premise is classic Hitch: In a script by relative newcomer Anthony Schaffer (who would go on to write The Wicker Man, Evil Under The Sun and Death on the Nile) our hero is ne’er-do-well Richard Blaney (John Finch, Death on the Nile, Ridley Scott’s 2005 muddle Kingdom of Heaven) who finds himself out of work unfairly (but us with the sense that he’s got a lot of self-inflicted wounds).
He goes to his wife to complain, and possibly for help, but rather than wound his pride she slips a few bucks in his pocket, which he then blows on a barmaid named Babs—which in itself might be considered a bit tacky, but becomes more problematic when the ex-Mrs. Blaney turns up dead. Strangled at the hands of the Shropshire Slasher…wait, wrong story…at the hands of the…uh…Nectktie Strangler. (I can’t remember if that’s his actual appellation, but he’s a strangler and he uses a necktie so good enough.) This makes Richard the #1 suspect for the police because, well, as we established in Saboteur, authorities are just not very bright.
Because of course serial killers don’t just up and kill their wives like that. Or, as the Inspector’s wife (the delightful Vivien Merchant, who didn’t do a lot of movies but got an Oscar nom for Alfie) puts it, couples who have been married for a long time don’t commit crimes of passion. She helpfully uses her marriage to him as a harmlessly pointed example of a lack of passion. The Inspector (Alec McCowen) and his wife have a relationship which provides endless humor in this film, with her perfectly and complacently aware of his dietary needs as she feeds him exotic gourmet grotesqueries from all over the world. (At one point she gives a margarita to one of his officers, which is amusing at this late date for being so mainstream. Needless to say, the salt-ringed glass does not especially appeal to the English gent.)
We have a wrongly accused man, and he’s going down for the crime, as he must in a Hitch film. We have multiple betrayals, including one where a couple who knows for a fact that our hero is innocent because he was with them during the murder, yet doesn’t come forward because it will put them in an awkward position vis a vis a property in France they’re setting up. (The late Billy Whitelaw, whose last film was Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz has a very bitchy role here.) This probably happened in some of Hitch’s American films but none are leaping to mind.
The story and dialogue are entertaining enough. You get the suspense you’d expect. There are also, even at this late date, some extraordinary bits of camerawork. There’s also, despite the concession/exploitation of “modern” lax standards, an underlying morality. The murderer is a source of suspense and humor, but he’s never given a cool veneer (like, say, a Hannibal Lecter). He’s a kind of loser, though he gets along well enough in a superficial world.
Anyway, the kids liked it. And I liked it more than I remember, which (if I remember correctly) is true every time I see it. I’m probably hearing my dad clucking about Hitch’s exploitative nature (which I think he felt about Psycho) at its worst. Intriguingly, they both would debate the quality of both this and Saboteur over North by Northwest and Vertigo!