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Movie Moment: Suspense In Frenzy

Film buffs love referring to Alfred Hitchcock. Invariably you’ll hear them rave about Psycho, Rear Window or Vertigo . Rarely do I hear anyone praise Hitchcock’s personal favorite A Shadow Of A Doubt, let alone his earlier English films.


by Karel Segers

BACK TO ENGLAND

After all, Hitchcock’s greatest successes were his American movies starring Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Yet, there’s something freshly unique and authentic about his British period that I found lacking in the American films. To me some of the English films had a greater sense of realism

In my view, Hitchcock delivered his last true master piece with the film that brought him back to England in 1972: Frenzy. I agree with Roger Ebert, when he writes

FRENZY is a return to old forms by the master of suspense, whose newer forms have pleased movie critics but not his public. This is the kind of thriller Hitchcock was making in the 1940s”

At the most exciting moment in this movie, Hitchcock does something highly illegal… He breaks the rule of not showing a key dramatic story moment.

At the most exciting moment in this movie,
Hitchcock does something highly illegal…

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN [spoiler alert]

When the Coen brothers allowed the tragic climax of No Country For Old Men to unfold offscreen, a large part of the audience hated them for it. I was among them. Not only did I feel robbed of a character we had come to love over the course of the movie, I also felt robbed of what could have been a powerful dramatic scene.

In Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock uses a similar technique – but it works a treat.

We see the killer and his next victim enter a house, climb the stairs to an apartment on the second floor. Once at the top, instead of staying with them, the camera retreats down the stairs and back onto the street. For a moment, nothing happens and we are left with the merchants and trades people outside. Only later in the film do we get to see the aftermath of the murder.

Why did it work?

ANTAGONIST POV

Some purists claim you can’t do this or that in movies: no voice over, no flashbacks, no out-of-POV-scenes. The truth is that you can do anything you like – provided you do it well… (even killing off your heroine halfway a movie).

In Frenzy, the offscreen tragedy is not the movie’s climax but the Mid Point. I tend to believe that some of the story’s key dramatic scenes belong on screen, such as the Inciting Incident, the Act One and the Act Three Climax. In any case, all the major events that involve the hero character should be on the screen.

The story’s key dramatic scenes belong on screen.

In the scene above however, it is not the protagonist but the antagonist who disappears off screen. Another good example that proves we need to be aware of who’s point of view the scene is told from, before making structural judgments. If the main character had been part of the offscreen action, the same trick would most likely not have worked as well as it does here.

By the way, Brian De Palma did something vaguely similar around the mid point of The Untouchables. I wonder who he might have learned it from…

– Karel Segers

 

(first published for ScripTips – with thanks to Brooke Trezise)

[box] Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+. Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia.

Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 7-year old son Baxter and anyone else who listens.
He is also the boss of this blog.[/box]

 


About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

Comments 5

  1. to be fair, the death scene in No Country For Old Men happens “off screen” in the book as well. Pretty much exactly the same way.

  2. Love Frenzy – very underrated with a wicked sense of humor.

    As for No Country For Old Men, here’s my take (it took me a while to come to this and when I did, I enjoyed the movie all the more because it’s ingenious).

    There’s no doubt Llewelyn is the protagonist of the story – he’s the one who’s driving it forward. But, much like Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, he’s not the main character.

    This is the point where most will choose to throw vegetables at me with the firm belief that the main character and the protagonist are one in the same – but the functions really don’t have to be, especially if they’re done with purpose and intent.

    No Country With Old Men begins with a voice over from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. This is the character who we’re experiencing the story through, even though we follow Llewelyn for a good portion and get what we suppose is a subjective view of the story through him. Or do we?

    When Llewelyn’s death happens off-screen, it’s jolting and, I admit, it gave me pause…. as did the ending which left a great many equally confused. But if we go back and look at the story and how it’s structured, it’s through Bell’s eyes that we learn of Llewelyn’s demise.

    Why did the author and filmmakers make this decision and what were their intentions?

    The answer rests within the confusing ending where a bewildered Bell is left contemplating and within the story’s title, No Country For Old Men.

    The brilliance in this is that we are left feeling EXACTLY the same way Bell does at the end of the movie – confused. We’re confused because he’s confused. He’s seeking closure, to make sense of what has transpired, just as we are because we EXPECT that from stories (for the most part).

    As the story seemingly abruptly ends, we’re genuinely experiencing exactly what the main character is, just as the author (and filmmakers) most likely intended. Time has moved on and the days of old are long gone. Where Bell lives now is in a violent land, one of which he can no longer make sense of. It truly is no country for old men.

    Had we experienced the demise of Llewelyn first-hand, subjectively, we would have been robbed Bell’s experiencing it – and, in a way, it is a big perspective switch since we’ve been invested in Llewelyn’s journey up until that point… but it’s the perspective shift to Bell that ultimately provides the story with its meaning (and title).

    Does it work? Some would argue not fair, nope, broke the rules, etc. But for myself, one day it just “clicked” and made all the more sense and I was suddenly able to find meaning in what was otherwise a confusing ending.

    1. Thank you Jim, for your considered reply.

      Here is where the Coen Brothers appeal to an audience that wants ‘different’.

      Confusion is not what the mainstream audience wants at the end of a movie. But the brothers don’t care about that. We’ve had a terrific journey up to this point and the ending offers an emotion we know very well from The Real World – exactly what most people try to escape in cinema.

      We do look at movies more than once. The masses don’t. This movie was made for the fans. True Grit’s story approach was more conventional and broke into mainstream territory.

      I wonder what “Inside Llewellyn” has to offer. Have you read it yet?

      1. Hi Karel, I can’t say I’m familiar with “Inside Llewelyn”.

        I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of NCFOM’s ending – it’s not typical of what audiences, particularly those of Hollywood movies, expect. Incidentally, I found the lack of non-diegetic sound save Bell’s discovery of Llewelyn’s death with one, long drawn note to be interesting and very un-Hollywood-like as well.

        True Grit was more convention, however, I actually found myself befuddled to find meaning by the outcome there. I’ve read John Truby’s take on it and can’t say I see it quite the same way (if I recall correctly, his interpretation was about paying debts – that each of the characters have a debt to pay and Mattie, having a strong moral code, is unable to pay hers to Rooster at the end which makes it somewhat tragic).

        Any particular take on that to enlighten with? I’m not sure if you already posted thoughts on it before or not.

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