Hitchcock returned to England to make his best movie since The Birds. Most of it takes place in London’s Covent Garden, where Eliza Doolittle hawked her flowers in My Fair Lady. They were still selling fruits and vegetables there in 1972, which made for a lot of colorful outdoor scenes. I understand the whole area has been redeveloped into a shopping and tourist attraction. This is a cracking good suspense thriller. Hitchcock reacted to the new freedom in cinema by including the only scene of nudity I can recall from his movies, though the glimpse of bare breasts is in a context that couldn’t possibly be less …er … titillating, unless you are a sadistic rapist. Much of the violence in his earlier films was hinted at with artful editing, and largely bloodless. Not here. There is a harrowing scene of a woman being strangled, and a darkly funny sequence in the back of a potato lorry, where one of the burlap sacks contains a woman’s body in addition to the spuds. The woman has managed to grab the killer’s trademark stickpin before dying, and the killer must get it back. Trouble is, rigor mortis has set in, and she just won’t give it up … until he starts breaking her fingers, one by one.
I think more than a few in the audience got up and left at that point. It was shocking, no question about it. And it hurt that we hadn’t expected this woman to die. She seemed set up to be the plucky heroine who helps the wrongly accused man find the real killer. Only the real killer finds her first, and takes her up to his apartment in another brilliant scene. We see the door close behind them, and the camera pulls slowly back, down the stairs, out into the hurly-burly of the street with people and vehicles zooming by, until we can see the whole building with the curtains drawn on the second floor, and we know a gruesome murder is happening up there, completely unknown to the passersby, and we can’t do anything about it. Sheer genius.
Another touch of genius is a few genuinely funny scenes, though even these have the touch of darkness. The policeman in change of finding the Necktie Killer goes home every night to a wife who has become obsessed with “gourmet” cooking. He struggles manfully to eat the horrible (to him; he longs for fish and chips, bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie) dishes she sets before him. And all the while the two of them are discussing the murders and what to do next to find the killer. The wife is played hilariously by Vivien Merchant.
About the only sour note, for me anyway, is that the innocent man is such a loser. He’s a whiner, and he blames anyone and anything else (except his own loserhood) for all his troubles. He lashes out, gets angry with his friends, and I just can’t see what his girlfriend sees in him. Other than that, though, I had a splendid time.