The death of Babs Milligan (Anna Massey) at the hands of Neck Tie Murderer Bob Rusk (Barry Foster) in Hitchcock’s Frenzy is arguably the Master of Suspense’s last great sequence. And it’s all the more effectively chilling for its relative restraint.
About half an hour earlier in the film we had been witness to the murder of Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) in a scene so graphic it made Janet Leigh’s shower butchering in Psycho (1960) look like a Wash ‘n’ Go shampoo commercial. The Blaney murder is so explicit that Hitchcock quite rightly judged that there would be very little gained by showing subsequent deaths in anything like as much detail. So when Rusk offers Babs a bed for the night and takes her back to his room we already know what her fate will be.
Rusk lures her in but, rather than take the camera into the room with them, Hitchcock shows the door closing then slowly withdraws, steadily back down the stairwell, out of the front door, coming to a stop on the other side of the street to give us a view of the front of the premises. He leaves it to our imagination to picture just what is going on in the room upstairs. For all the extended gratuitousness of the earlier murder, this unseen second act, partly because we have invested more interest in Babs by this stage, is infinitely more affecting.
The sequence benefits further from a signature Hitchcock editing trick. The interior tracking shot was filmed on a studio set, enabling the director to position and move his camera with great freedom. At the point of emergence from the building we see a wipe cut disguised behind a man carrying a sack of potatoes (itself a grim foreshadowing of the later resting place of Babs’ body: a Lincolnshire-bound vehicle full of potato sacks) and the apparently continuous shot cuts to location footage and the eventual resting place across the road from where the implied horror begins to sink in. Completists may like to know that no. 3 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden is the premises that features.
Doors and doorways have a grand symbolic tradition in Hitchcock films. The lure of secrets beyond locked bedroom doors abound; think of the door to the first Mrs De Winter’s bedroom in Rebecca (1940) and Cathy’s attic bedroom in The Birds (1963). When John Ballantine (Gregory Peck) embraces Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) in Spellbound we see a corridor or doors opening in sequence. Typically then Hitchcock eventually sought to actually or metaphorically show us the secrets behind the doors, but just occasionally he would invert this process.
One example of this, other than the Frenzy withdrawal, appears at the very end of Notorious (1946); having been exposed as a threat to an unfolding Nazi plot, Sebastian (Claude Rains) fails to make good his ad hoc attempt at escape and must return to the house to face his fate at the whim of his erstwhile colleagues. Rather than follow Sebastian back into the house we simply see the front door close behind him and, based on what we already know the cabal of Nazis are capable of, we are left to consider what form his demise will take. There’s no need to show it, just as there’s no need to show Babs being violently strangled in Frenzy, in both cases Hitchcock granted us the chance instead to explore the dark recesses of our own imagination.