In Defense of the Representation of Sexual Violence in Frenzy

by Qi Wu

When Hitchcock’s Frenzy was released in June 1972, the film about a serial killer lurking in London raping and strangling women stirred up waves of controversy for its bold visual representation of sexual violence, especially in the scene where the killer Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) rapes and strangles Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) in her office. Not long after the movie came out, Victoria Sullivan, a professor at New York City College, published an article named “Does ‘Frenzy’ Degrade Women?” in The New York Times, answering the question affirmatively by arguing that the movie portrays all women as victims and the psychopathic killer a nice guy, who is merely “screwed up by their mums”. Following the strident article, the National Organization for Women announced that Frenzy would be one of the winners of the award “Keep Her in Her Place”, sarcastically scolding Hitchcock for exposing women’s vulnerability in his movie. Later Jeanne Thomas Allen joined the group and accused Hitchcock of objectifying women and using the movie as a tool to demonstrate “the dread of vulnerability which men project upon women, sharing their fear and confirming men’s need for control and dominance” while negating women’s “perceptions, feelings and desires”. It is understandable that the bold visual expressions in Frenzy were hard to take for the audience in the 70s, especially feminists in that period when women rights movements were increasingly visible. Nevertheless, the audience today could adopt a more objective view towards the movie. Indeed, the rape/murder scene is extremely disturbing and realistic, yet this graphic description of the crime is more of an exposure of women’s vulnerability and sufferings, intended to make the audiences identify and sympathize with the victims, so as to arouse the public’s awareness of the problems in patriarchy.

A first look at the rape/murder scene would convince the audience that the tone is certainly not entertaining although there is a brief moment of nudity—Hitchcock wants the audience to be repelled by the realistic representation of the crime. Tania Modleski, a feminist and author of The Women Who Knew Too Much, points out that the scene is not as erotic as the shower murder scene in Psycho, since Frenzy does not titillate the audience with the hope of seeing the naked female body in promotions or scenes before the rape/murder. It starts with the intrusion of Bob Rusk of Brenda’s office—the innocent victim owns a small matchmaking business. Then from the conversation between Bob and Brenda, the audiences get to know that Bob, the seemingly friendly fruit merchant, has used the alias Mr. Robinson on his previous visits and has “certain peculiarities” about women. When Brenda firmly refuses to work for Bob, he becomes increasingly upset, turns to seduce Brenda, then rapes and strangles her when she tries to run away. However, the audiences do not anticipate seeing Brenda raped (and naked) at first, since the previous scenes suggest her grumpy ex-husband to be the psychopathic murderer. When the audiences gradually realize that Rusk is the killer, they would be surprised and concerned for Brenda, instead of looking for nudity. Therefore, the eroticism in the sequence is stripped away and a sense of disturbance settles in as the truth unfolds. During the rape sequence, the camera captures only parts of the woman’s body, including her ankles, legs and breasts, without intentions to objectify the female body like Allen says, but to create a sense of dizziness and chaos that imitates rape in reality. Hitchcock himself also said that he does not believe in “just showing nudity for the sake of it”. Here the revealing of the naked breasts makes the scene more realistic and disturbing.

The haunting image of Brenda being raped and strangled. The haunting image of Brenda being raped and strangled.

The audiences also share the agony and despair of Brenda, who is a kind, independent and smart woman. The successful businesswoman shows her intelligence by being composed when Bob Rusk barges in, while reacting quickly in order to escape. Knowing that she could not outweigh Bob physically, she calmly tries to call the police without alerting the man by saying that she has to make a business call; she says yes to lunch with Bob, to create an opportunity to “wash her hands first”; and when Bob thrusts her to the couch, she takes the chance to kick the man and tries to run away. Although these attempts all fail in the end, they indicate that the woman never gives up and passively submits to Rusk’s power. Although Brenda’s image is unsatisfactory to Sullivan who wants to see women “bigger, stronger and far more brutal than” men, this sequence undoubtedly builds a favorable image of a mentally strong woman in contrast to Bob’s grotesque image as a hypocrite/psychopath/killer, which is the very opposite of a “degradation of woman”. Apart from that, the director has deployed most shots from Brenda’s point of view in the sequence: through Brenda’s eyes, the audiences see Rusk enter the office, then rudely go over her things in the drawers and ramp about in the office, becoming more and more threatening, which puts them in her place and experience her emotions, from aversion to fear of the intruder. When the perpetrator becomes out of control and forces himself on Brenda, the camera takes a step back and use objective shots from their side to show her painful facial expressions as well as the sweaty and hideous face of Rusk. Later when the struggle is taken to the couch, we see the two from overhead viewpoints, as if we see it happen from God’s position, when the ugliness of the man and the vulnerability of the woman are juxtaposed in a more crystal clear way. The audiences’ sympathy with Brenda reaches the maximum when she quietly covers her breasts while murmuring psalms briefly after Rusk violently tears her dress, which is probably “one of the most humane and sympathy-inducing gestures in cinematic history”.

The desperate Brenda on the brink of death. The desperate Brenda on the brink of death.

In the meantime, the audiences are also compelled to identify with the killer as some POV shots are from his perspective, especially during the murder, making them feel guilty of the virtual participation of the murder. The segment where Bob strangles Brenda lasts about 90 seconds with “45 shots averaging two seconds each”, focusing on the tightening necktie, her struggling hands and head that turns “violently from side to side”. By bringing them “very close to the action”, Hitchcock forces the audiences to be involved in the strangling. A more shocking footage is the extreme close-up of Brenda’s eyes in her final moments. The audiences could nearly see life slipping away from her body through the darts and the freeze of her eyes. It is as though the eyes were not only looking at Bob, but also at the audiences, begging for their mercy, and condemning them at the same time. The image is so powerful that it lingers on in people’s mind for the rest of the movie. This identification serves to put the audiences in a questionable moral position and subject them to guilt and remorse about Brenda’s death. In a way, this thought-provoking sequence insinuates that the audiences are more or less accountable for the sexual violence in the real society: by exerting or ignoring the sexual violence existing in the community, everyone was a perpetrator responsible for the deterioration of the problem and the pains women suffer.

In a word, like Vertigo, Frenzy is an expression of Hitchcock’s gloomy attitudes about the chaos world, a dark society that is without order. The feminists then were misreading Hitchcock’s intentions by saying it is anti-female. On the contrary, by presenting how men have abused their physical power and subjugated women in a realistic way, Frenzy made the problem visible to the public. In 1973, Rape Crisis, an organization aimed to raise public awareness of sexual violence was established in the UK. The foundation of the organization itself is a revealing statement about the society then: rape was a large-scale crisis and a crisis the public ignored until then. This is not to say that Frenzy was directly responsible for the remarkable progress, yet the movie certainly contributed to the cause as it enunciates “issues and problems relevant to women in patriarchy”.

Qi Wu is a graduate student majoring in Media, Culture and Communication at NYU, with a concentration on visual culture and cultural studies. Movies and travelling are Qi’s major passions. Contact Qi via victoriamoyu@gmail.com.**

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