Color Me Crazy
Damon Smith on Frenzy

“The ox becomes furious if a red cloth is shown to him; but the philosopher, who speaks of color only in a general way, begins to rave.” —Goethe

“Red is the most joyful and dreadful thing in the physical universe; it is the fiercest note, it is the highest light, it is the place where the walls of this world of ours wear the thinnest and something beyond bursts through.” —G.K. Chesterton

Perhaps no 20th-century film director’s life and work have been as exhaustively examined and obsessed over as that of Alfred Hitchcock, who worked as hard to groom his arch public persona as he did to realize his suspenseful stories of clever criminals, wronged men, undercover agents, and psycho killers. Macabre thrills and piquant dialogue were Hitch’s specialty, and no one in Hollywood’s Golden Age pulled off that particular combination with greater wit and visual inventiveness—not to mention liberal doses of puckish humor and technical trickery—than the British-Catholic director, whose fluid camera movements and singular attention to detail are as legendary as his hippopotamus-like girth and unmistakable physiognomy. One of the few great film narrativists to begin his career as an art director, Hitchcock scrutinized and managed every detail of wardrobe and set design on his movies, from the fabric of a dress to the precise placement of seemingly peripheral objects in a scene. In the elaborate sign system of any one of his classic films, color plays a vital role, whether the virtuoso dynamism of light and shadow in a black-and-white film like The 39 Steps or the blonde-on-blonde revenant whose unattainable afterimage haunts Scottie in Vertigo. There are countless examples of symbolic color assignments in the Hitchcock oeuvre, beginning with 1948’s Rope, his first Technicolor film, where the palette gradually darkens as the tension mounts. As in all things Hitchcockian, certain compositional motifs drift into other films: the red flash at the end of Spellbound is echoed in Marnie, where Tippi Hedren’s inexplicable fear of red is accompanied by full-screen, lighthouse-beacon flashes of cochineal scarlet.

Hitchcock’s sense of how color could be deployed to achieve the effects he desired—shock and astonishment, for instance, identification or estrangement—was highly developed and integral to his vision, completing his fluency in the history of film language from Kuleshov to Antonioni. The color of a handbag, a tie, a wall, or a streetcar matter in a Hitchcock film. A legendary practical joker on his own sets, Hitchcock toyed incessantly with his audience, and wasn’t above poking fun at his own refined aesthetic sensibilities—think how often characters in Hitchcock films speak contemptuously of art, or are simply baffled by it, like the junior detective in Suspicion scrutinizing a Cubist painting in Cary Grant’s well-appointed home. Hostile to effete posturing of any kind, Hitchcock nevertheless had an intellectual bent, creating films through which he filtered his interests in surrealism, psychoanalysis, and erotic desire. One of the finest illustrations of how his heightened aesthetic sensitivity to color could work in tandem with such thematic concerns comes in his acidulous, late-career maniac-on-the-loose thriller Frenzy (1972), where the color of the killer’s hair (and complexion) becomes a pigment Hitchcock uses to mold our subconscious feelings about this character’s essential otherness.

Shot on location in Covent Garden, London—a bittersweet homecoming for the director, whose final years in Hollywood were not happy ones—Frenzy was a return to form for Hitchcock, telling the story of a misogynistic “necktie strangler” terrorizing the city. As the film opens, a helicopter shot sweeps us over the Thames, down underneath the London Bridge, and up to the Parliament building where a silver-haired politician is gamely delivering a speech on the city’s efforts to clean up its waterways. The river has been poisoned, he sententiously proclaims with the rolled “r” of the high-born, by the “waste products of our society.” At that moment, a woman’s nude body, the killer’s latest victim, is spotted face down along the riverbank, a morbid corrective to the government’s optimistic public relations effort, and the first of Hitchcock’s many dark jibes at social decorum. Circumstantial evidence leads Scotland Yard to hunt for an innocent man, Richard Blaney (Jon Finch, fresh from his dark turn in Polanski’s Macbeth), while the actual killer, fruit and vegetable dealer Bob Rusk (Barry Foster)—a friend of the fugitive—goes about his dastardly business, cleverly choosing subsequent victims (an ex-wife, a girlfriend) who are close to Blaney.

It’s easy to discount how physically odd Foster is in Hitchcock’s gallery of leading men and suave criminals, a ruddy-faced blondish redhead in contrast with the Ivor Novello, Joseph Cotten, Cary Grant, James Stewart contingent of handsome, dark-haired heroes and troubled souls. Perhaps a good actor made the right impression on a fastidious director known for bold counter-casting, and that was that. But reexamining Frenzy, it is striking how often Hitchcock exploits his actor’s natural coloring to mark Rusk’s radical difference from other characters and to underscore his true pathological nature. It’s a seemingly trivial detail that blossoms, petal by petal, scene to scene, into a brilliant conceit under Hitchcock’s art direction.

Early in Frenzy, Blaney is fired from his job at a pub, accused of stealing booze and being a drunk, but presumably for irritating his boss, who’s jealous of his romance with barmaid Babs (Anna Massey). Down on his luck, he drops by to see Rusk, who listens sympathetically and twice offers to loan him a few quid. The contrast between them is established immediately: Blaney is brooding and irritable, distracted by his bad fortune; Rusk is chipper and sociable, attempting to lift his mate’s spirits by giving him a hot tip on a racehorse. “Bob’s your uncle,” he avers, not without a hint of irony. Here, it hardly escapes notice that, though a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, Rusk has the sartorial sense of a gentleman tailor in a chicer part of town. He wears purple pinstripes, a wasabi-green tie embossed with a gold “R,” and a matching diamond tiepin tucked into his breast pocket, the entire ensemble accented by his carrot-colored curls. Munching on a green apple and easy with a smile, he seems more a well-heeled man of leisure than a grocer. But his basic oddity lingers, inextricable from the dandified duds, the relish with which he consumes fruit, and most importantly, the nest of red-blond hair that differentiates him from Blaney. The next time we see Rusk, Hitchcock punches up the curious effect with a clever visual gag, highlighting what was merely latent in his appearance before.

After stopping by a pub where two fellows, a doctor and a barrister, are discussing the behavior of psychopaths over a pint, Blaney walks through the market and is hailed by Rusk, out of frame. He stops and looks up. Cut to a shot of Rusk poking his head out of an apartment window, seen from Blaney’s point of view. The facade of the building is black and charcoal gray; a lighter green shade decorates a window box bursting with red gardenias that seem to be springing from Rusk’s torso. The sudden burst of vivid color against the neutral tones of the building re-emphasize his ruddy face and blond coif, as well as his exotic uniqueness. The odd angle at which we view him craning his neck out of the window completes the strange tableaux. Hitchcock, ever the merry prankster, then doubles down on the framing with a humorous flourish: before Blaney stalks off frustrated that he never placed his bet on the winning horse, Rusk reappears in the window with a chubby, smiling older woman at his side. “This is my ma!” he tells Blaney proudly. She, too, has brilliantly colored hair, dyed garnet red. It’s the bright, bold tones we associate with his presence—the flowers, the garish clothes, the fair hair, the colors—that convey suggestive hints of something unrulier and more sinister beneath the surface. But why should that be the case?

In Chromophobia, a terrific monograph published in 2000, the British artist David Batchelor mounts a cunning argument about how color has been the object of extreme prejudice in Western culture, citing piles of evidence culled from literature, art history, science, film, architecture, design, contemporary artistic practice, and commercial industry. Over centuries, he writes, color has been feared as alien and dangerous, linked with “the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological,” or dismissed as merely decorative and cosmetic, lacking seriousness. Either way, on this view, color assumes “a lowly place in the moral hierarchy of the universe.” Batchelor goes on to illustrate how for the ancients as well as the moderns, color came to define the realm of what’s “sensuous, intoxicating, unstable, impermanent; loss of control, loss of focus, loss of self,” and so needed to be ordered and controlled, in theory and practice. Consider Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who in his massive 1840 treatise Theory of Colours, the first attempt to create a psychological study of hues, wrote matter-of-factly that “savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colors,” while “people of refinement” are “inclined to banish them altogether from their presence.” While some unorthodox writers and artists—Baudelaire, Huxley, Warhol—embraced the disorienting, erotic, and “vulgar” aspects of color, the associations they generated in the Occidental mind remained intact. Even today, a brightly patterned kerchief tucked discreetly into the breast pocket of a man’s dark suit coat is considered classy by urban sophisticates; a Hawaiian shirt would be reviled as tacky and “loud.”

Hitchcock relies on these cultural biases to help dramatize his wrong-man reversal and establish a surface/depth dichotomy for his principal leads, at first by toying with our suspicions. To the outside world, Blaney exhibits the traits of an unstable personality: he smashes a box of muscat grapes in frustration, insults a prim secretary at his ex-wife Brenda’s relationship counseling office (crudely suggesting that marrying the uptight gal off to a 500-lb Japanese wrestler might “iron out her creases”), and flies into a rage at a fancy restaurant, demolishing a wine glass in full view of the offended patrons. His irrational fits and argumentative nature are part of the evidence investigators rely on to finger him after Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), the object of his bitter public outbursts, is found strangled to death in her office. Blaney’s appearance, however—brown hair and eyes, mustache, a tweed jacket with leather patches (declared “unfashionable” by London standards in the secretary’s pointed interview with police)—is neutral and rudimentary, suggesting more reserve. At the very least, he is ordinary, if slightly disheveled, in appearance. Confirming the barrister’s thesis that sociopaths present as normal, and belying his monstrous appetites, Rusk is buoyant and well-mannered. He chats easily with a bobby who drops by the market to grouse about the serial killer, and offers help to those, like Babs and Blaney, he intends to do harm to. His extravagant attire and mien, though it distinguishes him from everyone in the society of the film, never draws comment. Color is a secret code.

Rusk’s violent sexual proclivities are revealed in a key scene—Hitchcock’s most brutal, and one of the few moments of pure horror in his work—when he drops by Brenda’s office, ostensibly looking for help in meeting women. Addressing him as “Mr. Robinson,” using the alias he’s given upon prior visits, Brenda reminds Rusk that she can’t offer him any further professional advice. “How shall I put it?” she says, with undisguised contempt. “Certain peculiarities appeal to you and you need women to submit to them.” Their banter turns menacing when Rusk tells her, “I like you. You’re my . . . type.” He pins her to the couch when she resists his advances, and rips open her blouse as he begins to rape her. During the infamous murder sequence, Hitchcock cuts rapidly between shots of Brenda’s bugged eyes, the tie twisted around her neck, and tight close-ups of Rusk’s sweaty, grimacing face—a mini Eisensteinian exercise—as he bears down on his victim. With every glimpse of Rusk, the frame fills with his reddened face and golden curls, a cauldron of out-of-control rage and explosive malefaction heightened by the actor’s natural coloring and physicality. Afterwards, recovering himself, Rusk munches on an apple, his trade in fruit now affiliated with radical decadence and criminal transgression. It is not insignificant that in the moments when we see his fury, misogyny, and mania burst forth, his wardrobe is muted and conservative. The color rises, as it were, in his face alone.

Hitchcock’s boldest move to align Rusk with all that is decadent, depraved, un-English, irrational—to thrust him into a sumptuous world of exotic hues, in other words—comes after he has murdered Babs, a death not seen but implied in Frenzy’s most celebrated sequence: a reverse tracking shot down a staircase and out into the street, ending on a chilling establishing shot of Rusk’s flat, where we know exactly what’s taking place inside. (“I don’t know if you know this, but you’re my type of girl,” he says to Babs as he closes the door on the camera moments before.) Rusk is at home afterwards, reclining on a couch eating fruit and quaffing sherry, when he realizes, to his alarm, that his tiepin is missing. Quick flashbacks to the murder—a montage similar to Brenda’s—reveal that the dead girl must have grabbed the pin while struggling with Rusk, so he goes out to retrieve it from a potato-filled lorry where’s he dumped the body. Two important details surface with this glimpse into his flat, an embodiment of his interior world: Rusk’s predilection for Oriental curtains and exotically floral wallpaper, and his ritual of sating himself like Nero after a conquest killing, the pinnacle of immoral decadence. Later in the film, following Rusk’s darkly humorous escapade barreling along in the back of a moving truck, surrounded by bushels of potatoes, and snapping each of the dead girl’s finger bones that are clenched around his incriminating tie pin, he offers safe harbor to Blaney, who’s thus far eluded police. But Blaney is unaware that Rusk, feigning good will, has arranged for his arrest.

At the moment Rusk is welcoming Blaney to make himself at home in the bedsit, Hitchcock frames the killer squarely between two paintings of seductively posed Asian women by the self-taught artist Vladimir Tretchikoff, the “King of Kitsch.” One is a print of his world-famous “Chinese Girl,” depicting a model with fulsome, bright red lips and blue-green skin, wearing a patterned yellow frock her hands are tucked into; the other is “Miss Wong,” an equally lurid example of chinoisierie popular in middle-class Western homes in the sixties and seventies. Hitchcock is alluding to the kitsch and artifice of Rusk’s own self-presentation, and the scene works so well because of Foster’s rubescent complexion and reddish-blonde hair. With an auburn- or raven-haired actor with “whiter” skin, the effect would have been greatly diminished.

If gaudy color is affiliated with madness and primitivism, a foreign element that contaminates the order and discipline of the western rational tradition, where white is prized as orderly, quiet, restrained, self-reflective, and spiritual, Rusk’s color profile is telling. Hitchcock has coded his fair-haired villain as a figure of pure artifice whose decorous superficiality masks darker, corrupt desires. Order and normalcy in Frenzy are upended in other ways, too, often linked to the foreign and exotic. In an ongoing gag, the inspector’s diletanttish wife (Vivien Merchant) cooks Continental cuisine for her husband (Alec McCowen)—unappetizing offal, crustacean soup, and poached quail with grapes—which he pretends to enjoy, while his deputy is forced to sample a margarita she patiently explains has been made with Mexican “ta-quee-la.” Such unappetizing culinary experiments are juxtaposed with Rusk’s self-indulgent pleasure in succulent foods metaphorically connected to his “disgusting gratifications.” At the hotel where Blaney checks into “the Cupid suite” with Babs, using the cheeky alias Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Wilde (referencing yet another colorful decadent known for his unorthodox sexual tastes), the disapproving porter says to an older female clerk, “You know, Glad, sometimes just thinking about the lusts of men makes me want to heave.” Hitchcock and screenwriter Anthony Schaffer (of Sleuth fame, later to pen The Wicker Man) fill the film with comic quips and jet-black, sexually barbed one-liners to create an air of depravity lurking beneath the surface of everyday London.

Rusk’s ostentatious tones and physical coloring have a special potency to augment such thematic concerns, especially when these qualities are put in high relief. In a famous 1923 poem, William Carlos Williams wrote, with Orphic concision, “So much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens.” (That is the entire poem.) If a tiny detail can determine the world we live in, or structure the reality of an image representing such a world, then the same is true of Hitchcock’s universe. Colors in particular have a humor, and are often indicators of dramatic and psychological truths in his oeuvre, even when they don’t register as pure symbols or look-at-me enigmas, leaving traces of meaning to be deciphered. In the context of Williams’s poem, it is hardly insignificant that the wheelbarrow is red. Its redness is its essence, and arguably what determines its importance to the overall image, as well as the ontological significance the poet has imparted to it. In Frenzy, it is the ginger flair of Rusk’s coiffure upon which so much depends, since it is the key pigment and associative value in Hitchcock’s artful creation of his villain. Without it, and everything his hair tone is used to suggest about the wildly psychotic and rageful nature of its bearer, Frenzy’s necktie strangler would be as colorless and ordinary as a white chicken.