Frenzy, a Hitchcock thriller set in Covent Garden
A return to family roots
Hitchcock's father was a fruit importer
In the trailer for his penultimate film, Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock stands in a marketplace loading a sack with potatoes. “This,” he intones, “is the scene of a horrible murder—it’s the famous wholesale fruit and vegetable market, Covent Garden. Here,” and he twinkles horribly “you may buy the fruits of evil and the horrors of vegetables.” At which point, a foot sticks up out of the sack. A violent but masterful film (the only Hitchcock movie ever to get an ‘X’ rating), Frenzy was wildly successful, re-establishing Hitchcock in the canon of great directors after a slightly fallow period. It was also a return to his Covent Garden family roots. Hitch’s father William was a fruit importer, and young Alfred was fascinated by the job, hanging around the market with his dad and amassing a collection of maps where he could chart the journeys of the ships that brought produce for their stores.
Film-making wizardry and chilling scenes
Most of the film was shot here on location. The Globe pub provides the setting for the opening scene. Down-on-his-luck barman Richard Blaney (a young Jon Finch) decides to start the day with a double brandy. After being caught drinking, he is unceremoniously sacked by the landlord. Blaney’s girlfriend, barmaid Babs (Anna Massey, terrible 1970s haircut) commiserates on the doorstep, to the landlord’s annoyance. “Look, this is Covent Garden,” he shouts, “not the Garden of Love.” The murderer Bob Rusk, played by Barry Foster, has a flat at 3 Henrietta Street, and it is here that Hitchcock pulls off one of his most famous pieces of film-making wizardry. A long tracking shot follows Rusk as he accompanies Babs through the busy market, into his apartment building and up the stairs, the pair of them chatting happily all the way. Then, as the door to the flat closes behind them, the camera slides slowly and silently back down the stairs and out into the bright light and noise of the market, leaving the poor woman to her inevitable death. It’s a fine example of the director’s ability to produce genuinely chilling scenes without recourse to big buckets of fake gore.
The central character in the film was always London: the crowded back alleys of Covent Garden, where market traders rubbed shoulders with prostitutes, gangsters, barmaids and bookies. The Piazza is central to the action, with boxes of fruit piled high along the pavement—it’s incredible pedestrians got around. With a peal of music, the camera pans right back to show Henrietta Street in all its glory, and it’s unrecognisable: criss-crossed with porters carrying fruit boxes on their heads, fruit stores, dark-green and brown-painted pubs, and lorries loading and unloading in the road.
Covent Garden in 1972
At this point an American citizen, Hitchcock hadn’t been to England for 20 years, but the visit proved to be a creative rebirth. What cheered him most was being in the place where he’d spent so much time with his father. Anna Massey later said, “It’s a brutal film, but full of things Hitchcock loved—like food, and London—and it’s a very loving portrayal of Covent Garden market.” Hitch knew the fruit market’s days were numbered; he wanted to record the area as he remembered it. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer told a story about the shoot. “An old chap made his way up to Hitchcock at the market—of course, security were on him right away, but he said, ‘I remember your father here, in all this mud.’ Hitchcock was delighted, took the man for an expensive lunch and had a long talk to him about his dad.”