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Feeding Frenzy

Frenzy was Alfred Hitchcock’s last watchable film. Before it there was Topaz, which may be Mr Hitchcock’s only truly unwatchable film. Going backwards, I love Torn Curtain but Julie Andrews is horribly miscast and I’m in a fan club of, maybe, three. Some people like Marnie, and The Birds is his last unopposed masterpiece. Before that there was Psycho, North by Northwest and over thirty years of masterful cinema. After Frenzy there was only Family Plot.

Frenzy was made in a time when people still smoked like it was a good thing and men wore ties like they were, too. We learn ties were good for strangling women. There’s a brilliant sequence where the murderer is trying to recover some evidence, his diamond encrusted tie pin, from the stiff fingers of a victim in the back of a moving lorry carrying sacks of potatoes (top). Other than potato haulage, what has Frenzy got to do with food? It’s set in a Covent Garden that still has its fruit and vegetable market.  It’s fascinating to see it in the middle of the city. Paris had Les Halles, and they moved that, too. Cities have more life when they’re places of business rather than places for tourists. I have the faintest memory of Covent Garden before the market had been moved to Nine Elms. It was mysterious and part of an adult world that I knew nothing of. I studied Pygmalion at O level and could picture the first scene in front of the Opera House, the flower seller and the fruit merchants. Fifteen years after taking O Levels I worked in Henrietta Street. The market was a distant memory, replaced with soap shops and approved street entertainers.

There are many scenes set in pubs and pub culture is unrecognisable between then and now. Now, pubs are more restaurant than pub. Every table has a menu. Every pub has a chef. People don’t drink as much as they once did. If you wanted to eat in a pub in 1970 you would have had a choice between a sausage roll, a bag of crisps or a pickled egg. In 2015 you would choose none of them and find another pub. Barmaids aren’t chirpy in the way they used to be portrayed, if, indeed, anyone could ever call Anna Massey ‘chirpy’. No actress has ever been less of a ‘Babs’, as her character is called, than Ms Massey.

There’s a nice chief inspector in Frenzy who is given awful meals by his nice wife every evening in their nice house. The nice wife has kitchen ambition. She serves food that’s foreign, therefore pretentious, inedible and also highly comic. She serves him soupe aux poisons, fish soup, in, of course, a large, silver tureen. The nice husband, looking a bit green, asks what’s in it. Ling, coley, smelts, conger eel, john dory, pilchards and frogfish. It looks revolting, dishwater grey, with tentacles and fish heads floating in it. I can’t tell you what frogfish are. It is followed by caille aux raisins, quail with grapes. He carves it like it’s a tiny human head.

The nice wife solves the murder a long time before her nice husband. They should teach women’s intuition in police college, she says. What does your intuition tell you I want for dinner? he asks. Steak and a baked potato, is her answer, but you’re getting pied de porc. She lifts the lid of the silver salver. It looks like a pig’s foot, he blanches.That’s right, she says, I put it in the same sauce the French use for tripe. His colleague arrives and the nice wife offers him a margarita. He visibly pales at the thought of this funny, foreign drink with salt around the rim of the glass. But he leaves before taking any more than a sip, so she finishes it and doesn’t enjoy the experience at all. Most amusing.

We see the nice chief inspector eating a full English at his desk more than once. This, of course, is the food he wants to eat. But who wouldn’t prefer a fry up, the way the foreign food is shown in the film. Fast forward to 2015 and so much of it, differently presented, of course, is high food fashion, as likely to be found on pub menus as in front of John and Greg on Masterchef. We love foreign food now, although we’re still a bit suspicious of French food. Supermarket fridges are full of prepared paella and tex mex. Food from the middle East is considered mainstream. Every sandwich shop sells sushi. And more traditional British food has been given the same attention. Cottage pie is now an ultimate deli counter handcrafted cottage pie. Pig’s head is seen even more often than pig’s feet in restaurants. It’s boned and picked over and rolled into a very un-head like shape, but it’s still a pig’s head. And Fergus Henderson at St John has been serving every part of a pig except the squeak since it opened. It is often named as the favourite restaurant of chefs worldwide. Quail are everywhere. I had some at La Tupiña in Bordeaux a couple of years ago, but they’re on every fashionable menu, too: teriyaki quail is on the snack menu at Portland. I find them a bit pointless, but they’re no longer threatening. (Almost) everyone eats tentacles and shellfish nowadays. And after all that, it may be time for me to make a margarita.

Frenzy was released in 1972, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, screenplay by Anthony Schaffer. It’s stars were Alec McCowen, Barry Foster and Jon Finch. It featured Billie Whitelaw, Anna Massey, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Bernard Cribbins and Vivien Merchant. You can find the whole film, easily, on YouTube, although that version looks dark and the sound is grubby. I first saw it on tv in the late 70s and regarded it poorly until I saw it again last year. Young people know next to nothing. I wouldn’t put it in the first tier of Hitchcock, but it is well worth watching, the scene in the potato truck, especially. You can find a cleaner copy on iTunes. Even second tier Hitchcock is better than first tier of most other directors. I couldn’t possibly rank his films but I love all these to distraction: The Birds, North by Northwest, Rear Window, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Torn Curtain, Strangers on a Train, Rope and Notorious. Oh, why am I telling you this? They’re all terrific and I’m sure you know them all. And the only reason I don’t include Psycho is because it still terrifies me.

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